How to Become a Writer Who Writes
TIPS FOR WRITERS AND
by Judy Reeves
Gertrude Stein wrote, “To write is
to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” Who
can say what she meant (she also wrote, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a
rose”), except perhaps exactly what she wrote: that writing is all and
everything of it, the beginning and the end. That to write is to write.
We just do it. How to get started writing? Write. How to keep going?
Sadly, for many of us it just isn’t
that simple. We have trouble getting started, we have trouble keeping the
pace and, too often, we simply give up or our enthusiasm and determination
trickle away, like a stream petering out.
But because writing is in our hearts
and souls and DNA, after a few weeks or months or even years, we’re back
at it again. More determined than ever that, this time, we’ll stay with
Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. In
my experience as a teacher, more often than not people don’t stay with it.
For some, the cycle repeats and repeats. Because we can’t keep the thing
going, we begin to judge ourselves failures at writing, our self-esteem
goes the way of our tossed out pages, and after a while, it becomes more
and more difficult to begin again. This is heartbreaking. Because we are
writers and when we aren’t being fully and wholly ourselves — when a piece
of ourselves is missing — we can never feel at home in the world or at
peace within ourselves. Writing is who we are. Not all of who we are, but
enough of who we are that when we’re not writing, we’re not whole.
Claim Yourself As Writer
Until you name yourself Writer, you
will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).
Most writers I know, especially
those who have not published, say, “I want to be a writer.” Or “I’m a
[fill in the blank] and I like to write.” Or “I’ve always dreamed of being
a writer.” But they don’t actually call themselves a writer. Think of all
the other names you give yourself: man/woman, mother/father, wife/husband,
friend, teacher, technician, masseuse, lawyer, gardener, chef. We take
each of these names as a way of identifying ourselves, both to others and
to ourselves. We are what we say we are. In some cultures, new names are
assumed when character-evolving events take place. These names indicate
the person has been transformed. If you announce you are a writer, rather
than simply mouthing that you want to be or you’d like to be, you may be
transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, “I’m
a writer.” Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound
out the words. “But I haven’t been published yet,” you might say, as if
this were the thing that would give you the right to call yourself writer.
After all, when you tell people you’re a writer, don’t they always ask,
“Oh, and what have you published?”
Listen to this: Being published
doesn’t have anything to do with being a writer! It has to do with earning
money as a writer. Maybe. Getting some kind of validation and recognition,
perhaps notoriety and fame. Though truth be told, the majority of
published writers don’t earn all that much money or notoriety or fame. We
might say, to be published is to be published is to be published. To be
sure, getting published is the aim of many of us. After all, we write to
communicate, and having an audience is the flip side of the communication
coin. But it is not the reason we write. We write because it is what we
must do. Anne Sexton said, “When I am writing I am doing the thing I was
meant to do.”
Besides, once we are published, this
doesn’t mean we will stop writing. We will continue to write. This is what
writers do. I have this vision of me at my writing table, a fat roll of
butcher’s paper at one end and a take-up reel with a crank at the other
end. The paper just keeps passing beneath my pen and I just keep writing.
As the old joke goes, “Old writers never die, they just keep revising the
How do you claim yourself as writer?
First, say it. “I’m a writer.” Say
it out loud. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it to your friends and
family. Say it to the next person you meet at a party who asks, “What do
you do?” Say it to a stranger in line at the grocery store. Say it to your
mother. Mostly, say it to yourself. “I’m a writer.”
Make a place for your writing, a
sacred place where you go with joy as your companion, not dread or guilt
or “shoulds” riding your shoulders like weights of sand. If you don’t
already have a room or specific place, make one. Take up a whole room or a
section of a room. Before she created her own studio, my friend Wendy used
a screen to separate her writing place from the rest of the living room.
If the only space you can free up for your writing is part of a table,
sometimes, when you’re not eating on it, then make it a special place.
When you go there for your writing, bring along a candle or lamp or some
flowers, anything that transforms the space from the quotidian to the
unique. Make it important and make it yours however you can. Claim the
Get the tools you need. Honor your
writing with the kind of paper or notebook you like; buy your favorite
pens by the box or spend a bundle on that Waterman or Mont Blanc you’ve
always wanted. Have a computer that belongs to you — not one you have to
share — and a good printer. It’s amazing what just printing out your
writing using a laser jet printer will do to make it look — and you feel —
professional. Get a good dictionary, thesaurus, and stylebook. Find books
on the craft and subscribe to writing journals.
Hang out with other writers. Go to
readings and book signings, open mikes. Communicate with other writers.
Drop a note to someone whose book you admire and tell them (not in a
gushy, fan magazine kind of way, but as one writer to another). Sign up
for workshops and conferences. Get in a group.
Read as a writer. Learn from the best.
Study your favorite authors, and copy passages into your notebook to get
the feel of their rhythm and style. Deconstruct their sentences,
paragraphs, scenes, and chapters to discover their techniques and their
secrets. Read the work aloud and discuss the books with your writer
friends. Next to the act of writing itself, reading good writing will be
your best teacher.
Make Time to Write
The second thing you must do to be a
writer who writes is make the time to write. This is where many would-be
writers fall short. Unless you make the time to write, you’ll never write.
Extra time won’t just show up, and if you promise to do your writing “as
soon as...” you’ll never get to it. Take it from one who knows. For the
better part of twenty-five years, I was a writer who would write “as soon
as...”; I had more stops and starts in my writing career than a local
train. It wasn’t until I actually set aside writing time on a regular
basis that I became a writer who writes.
Make an appointment with your
writing self, write it down in your calendar: 2:00 p.m. Monday: Write;
3:30 p.m. Tuesday: Write; 9:15 a.m. Wednesday: Write; and so forth.
Find a time that fits you. Don’t set
aside two hours if you can only do thirty minutes. Don’t set your alarm
for 5:30 in the morning if you always resist getting up and hate the
mornings. You may come to resent your writing as much as you resent the
alarm clock. By the same token, don’t say you’ll do it at night after
everything else is done if, by 8:30, you’re supine on the couch and can’t
keep your eyes open. Find a time that works for you. Take half your lunch
hour. Do it right after work. Get up half an hour earlier. If you have the
flexibility to make your own schedule, set aside time during the workday.
In my classes I listen to the
complaints of students who say they just don’t have time to write, then I
ask for a show of hands of those who watch television on a regular basis
or those who surf the Web. When the rows of hands waving in the air look
like an Iowa cornfield in August, I ask again, “Who can’t find the time to
write?” Sheepish grins and embarrassed giggles. Write instead of watching
TV, instead of surfing the Web, instead of spending an hour or more
reading the newspaper, instead of going out with friends. You have to give
up something. Even if it’s only leisure time in front of the tube.
don’t give up taking walks or witnessing sunsets.
You may have always heard that if
you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. This is not an
absolute rule. Few rules are. To be successful (i.e., a writer who
writes), you do have to write several times a week — at least four or five
sessions, and every day is best. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael
Chabon swears by his 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Sunday-Thursday routine. Part of it
is the daily habit of it and part of it is the continuity. The writing
will come easier with regular practice, too. You get better at something
you do often. Mick Jagger said, “You have to sing every day so you can
build up to being, you know, Amazingly Brilliant.”
In a New Yorker (January 28,
2002) article titled “The Learning Curve — How Do You Become a Good
Surgeon? Practice,” Atul Gawande related the importance of practice. In
writing about elite performers, he said, “[T]he most important talent may
be the talent for practice itself.” He referred to K. Anders Ericsson, a
psychologist, who noted that “the most important role that innate factors
play may be in a person’s willingness to engage in sustained
Like exercise or losing weight or
taking a class, sometimes it’s a whole lot easier to do it with a
supportive companion. Make a date with a friend for writing. If you can’t
get together in person, make a phone call or e-mail one another to say, “I
wrote today” or “I’m going to write at 6:30 this evening,” or “How’d the
writing go today?”
Waiting for inspiration to descend
before you write is like waiting for Godot. Interminable. It’s been said
that if you show up at your page at the agreed upon time, inspiration will
know where to find you. Someone else said, “Writing is 20 percent
inspiration and 80 percent perspiration.” Besides, if writing is your
daily practice, you won’t need inspiration to get to it. Imagine waiting
for inspiration to rest her shining arms around you before you take the
dog for a walk or drive to work.
Finally, the third leg in the
triangle of being a writer who writes is, of course, doing the thing.
Talking about writing isn’t writing. Thinking about writing isn’t writing.
Dreaming or fantasizing isn’t writing. Neither are outlining, researching,
or making notes. All these may be a part of the whole milieu of the
writing life and necessary to getting a project completed, but only
writing is writing.
“You can’t sit around thinking,”
said fiction writer David Long. “You must sit around writing.”
So every day, at the appointed time
(or at some spontaneous gift of time), you sit at your desk (or your table
in the café or on the grass in the park), you open your notebook or you
boot up your computer, and you write.
Do this every day and I will
guarantee you, you will fill notebook after notebook, you will begin and
complete stories, essays, narrative nonfiction — whatever you want to
write. You will have bits and pieces and wild, imaginative ramblings. You
will be a Writer Who Writes.
From Writing Alone, Writing
Together by Judy Reeves. Copyright © 2002 by Judy Reeves. Excerpted by
arrangement by New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or
call 800-972-6657 Ext 52 or click here.