Like many people, I’ve been calling myself a writer on and off for practically all my life.
It’s one of those dreams one develops that seems almost more an identity than an action or profession. You meander through the years with this vague notion that one day all of your deep thoughts and engaging story ideas will end up on paper and that will be that – book written, literary fame achieved. Now you can fill your pockets with stones and wander into the pond with a clear conscience. Or not, whatever – the point is that you’ll have written the thing.
In the meantime nothing is getting written, but that seems incidental – in your head you are a writer, and it is only a matter of time before you find the inspiration and opportunity to actualize this hidden superpower of yours.
Nothing Ever Goes According to Plan
I certainly understand how that goes. As I mentioned, I’ve spent my entire life knowing in my finger bones that I was destined to write. And I had it all planned out – after college I would go into journalism or publishing where I would make a living while finding time to write my novel on the side. A story as old as time.
Here’s the thing about those old-as-time stories and supposedly well-laid plans – the former are lies, and the latter are bullshit. Nothing ever goes according to plan.
I graduated in 2007, just in time to see the print industry and, well, pretty much every industry fall through the floor. There were no jobs, let alone jobs in my field. So like many a future writer, I started my career behind three feet of wood.
Bartending seemed like the perfect gig for a writer, as it left plenty of time for creative pursuits. But here’s the rub – if I wasn’t working, I tended to be hungover, a condition common to bartenders. This made writing well-nigh impossible. Still, I knew that someday the writing would happen, and to prove this to myself (and girls) I would occasionally trot out that one story from freshman year, which was growing further and further away.
The Freelance Tease
Then, several years into the restaurant biz, life took a dramatic change and I found myself working as a freelance writer.
“A-ha!”, I thought. As Steve Martin’s fool of a character Navin said in the Jerk upon his name being added to the phone book, “Things are going to start happening to me now!”
As it turned out, freelancing was about as useful to writing fiction as having your name appear in the phone book. Freelancing is a hyper-fulltime job, especially when starting out. To make ends meet you find yourself typing 6,000 words and staring at a screen for ten hours a day – how are you supposed to have anything left in you for fiction after that?
Once again the years went by, and once again I continued to tell myself that the opportunity was coming, that I was making valuable contacts. That at least I was writing!
It turned out that yes, I was making some pretty good contacts, and yes, all of that constant wordsmithing was serving as good practice, but no – the opportunity was not coming.
Then one day roughly a year ago, I lost my patience. All at once a glaringly obvious realization struck me – that I could wait to work on my fiction forever, but it wasn’t going to happen until I made it.
Here is the idea that every aspiring writer must get into their head if they’re to make the dream into reality:
You are not a writer unless you are writing. Period. All caps with a bunch of exclamation points. I’m even going to go ahead and bold that sentence.
If someone told you they were a mechanic, and you asked which kind of vehicles they work on only to receive as a reply, “Well, I don’t actually work on cars but some day when I get the chance I will,” what would your thoughts on the matter be?
Writing works the same way – until you’re under the hood and covered with oil, you’re not a writer. This might seem a little bit discouraging, but it’s the truth.
So what’s the solution? Start writing.
But how, you ask? Your schedule is so busy and you need to be in the right mood and so on and so forth?
I shared all of these same concerns and procrastinations, but in the past year I have made a few adjustments to my life and I am happy – ecstatic really – to report that it’s worked. I’m churning out a minimum of a thousand words a day of quality fiction.
Here’s how you do it:
- Make the decision that you are now going to prioritize your writing.
We each spend hours a day wasting time – watching TV, fiddling around on the internet, or whatever. If you’re going to fit writing into your busy schedule, you have to decide that it takes priority over all of these things and mean it, then follow through.
If catching up on the latest season of “who the hell cares” is more important to you than writing, you will never be a writer. Sorry to break it to you.
- Be willing to live with less and make dramatic life changes.
For me, creating the opportunity to write fiction meant whittling down much of my other more lucrative freelancing work so that I had more word-count bandwidth left in the day for my own stuff. When I made that decision I was living in Seattle – an expensive place to live on a freelancer’s salary. I knew that if I was going to reduce my freelance work, I would have to go someplace where my money would stretch further.
So I went to Mexico, where the cost of living is significantly less.
I’m not saying that you need to move to Mexico. I’m saying that if you’re serious about writing, you have to decide how important money, material goods, and living in the cool, expensive part of town all are to you. If writing truly is your priority, scale down your lifestyle, tighten your belt, and cut back on your money-work hours.
- Learn that inspiration is meaningless, action is everything.
Henry Miller once advised, “Work according to Program and not according to mood,” and he was one-hundred percent goddamn right.
We put all sorts of things off because we’re not in the “mood” to do them, but the simple truth is that nothing ever gets done if we don’t take action. This is as true for writing as it is for weeding the garden or calling up that person you have a crush on.
If you’re lucky enough to have a solid stretch of time available in your day that you can dedicate to writing, sit down at the same time every single day and do it. Even if you don’t have any ideas, just start putting word down. Trust me, your body will learn to do it the same way it will learn to swim when the alternative is to drown.
If you don’t have a couple of dependable hours at your disposal, get in the habit of sitting down and writing whenever you have a spare minute. I don’t care if you’re tired from working out or if you have a meeting in five minutes or if you only have a sec before you have to be out the door for whatever reason. Train yourself to sit down and punch out two sentences whenever you have the chance. Again, your body will learn.
- Set daily word or page goals – stick to it.
Stephen King writes at least 1,500 words every day including weekends and holidays. I do at least 1,000 a day and allow myself one day of rest per week – on that day of rest I only have to do 500.
Make a daily word count and stick to it. Hit it every single day. Make your program. Train your body to do it the same way you would train it to exercise.
And while you’re more than welcome to go beyond your daily goal if you’re feeling so inspired, I – along with many writers like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway – actually advise you to stop once you’ve hit your goal.
As Hemingway put it, “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Or as he put it another, more direct manner: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
- Stop drinking.
I know what you’re going to say – “But I drink when I write!”
It used to be the same for me, but the truth is that people almost always produce bad work when they’re drinking, and they can’t work at all when they’re hungover.
You just think you need to drink to write because it loosens you up and “inspires” you. But set your program as mentioned above, and your body will learn to find inspiration on its own.
I do, however, advise doing a bit of editing with drink in hand. Editing is about making difficult decisions about what stays and what goes, and sometimes you need to make cuts that you don’t want to but that are essential to the story. A bit of liquid courage can go a long way when Old Yellering your favorite lines.
And keep in mind that the money you save on drinking will keep you eating when the time comes to cut down your work hours and tighten your belt.
- Become a hermit.
It’s easy to hear about something fun that’s going on, and to think “well if I go out tonight I can get right back on the program tomorrow”. But remember – you are prioritizing your writing in order to fit it into your busy schedule. You have to be willing to make sacrifices.
That’s really the bottom line: If you’re going to make writing a meaningful part of your life, you’re going to have to make sacrifices.
So stop calling yourself a writer and be one. Make the necessary changes, commit yourself to the craft, and quit waiting for inspiration and train yourself to make it happen.
As Stephen King put it in his excellent book On Writing, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.”