18 December 2023

Writing, writing, writing.

            You really don’t have to write every day.  You can avoid writing for a week, and then spend two days developing carpal tunnel by writing non-stop.  It’s up to you.  The point is to write a lot, because not writing is not writing.  Writing a lot is like playing the guitar a lot.  The more you do, the better you’ll get.  That’s the only advice I feel confident giving. 

            No one has the exact formula.  For you.  Read everything all the writing coaches have to say, then set your own course.  

            In the same way, listen to all the advice from other writers (including this blog post), take it seriously, then do what you think you should.  You’re the goddess, or god, or you own work.  Only you know what will make it work.  And where you’ll do it.  You can have a quiet, private place somewhere in your apartment or house.  Or you can go to a loud bar.  It can be your back porch or your Uncle Bennie’s basement.  It’s yours to discover.  What other writers do is irrelevant.  Their proper place is probably not yours.

             You can try to game the market by writing what you think will sell.  You might hit it, you might not.  Some have done this, and they are now wealthy.  Most have not.  By most, I mean 99.999%.  Some of us win the lottery, some get fricasseed by lightning.  Ignore the press on these matters.  They only focus on the unicorns. 

            Expect to fail.  It’s a lot easier on your mental health than you think it is, because every failure is a lesson.  When you do make it, and you will if you try and have the talent, and don’t give up, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.  But don’t sit there thinking about how your work will succeed in a material way.  Or any way.  Don’t think at all about the idea of writing.  Just do it. 

When Glenn Frey was an aspiring rock musician he was befriended by Bob Seger.  Seger told him. “You know, if you want to make it, you’re gonna have to write your own songs."  And Frey said, "Well, what it they’re bad?”  And Seger replied, “Well, they’re gonna be bad.  You just keep writing and writing and eventually, you’ll write a good song.”           

Do the work you want to do.  What moves you, what makes you feel good to compose.  This is way more fun than trying to write about something you don’t care very much about.  And much more productive.  “Write what you know”, then, is good advice, but it’s not the whole story.  Sometimes writing what you simply imagine can be just as fruitful.  Science fiction is often the result.  But not always.  You can be interested in something you know nothing about, say high school curling competitions in Northern Minnesota.  All it takes is a little effort doing research (Googling, reading, watching a lot of curling matches, interviewing the Minnesota State Junior Curling Champion).  This can also be a lot of fun, and chances are good you’ll learn things that you never imagined, things about the subject that launch you in a totally  unexpected direction. 

           Writing begets writing.  It’s one of the magical things about it.  The very act of composition tends to generate ideas and plot moves, fresh characters, and voices and insights you didn’t know you had.  These are all unavailable to people who think about writing, but rarely actually write. 

When it comes to flexing the muscle, it doesn’t matter what you write, because everything is exercise.  So if you don‘t feel like advancing the novel, there’s nothing wrong with starting a short story.  Or finally writing to your Cousin Francine in Duluth (where they do a lot of curling.)  Essays are good practice.  And letters to the editor.  And outdoing your siblings for Funniest Birthday Card to Mom. 

Charlie Parker played the sax every day, all day and into the night.  His roommates report removing the instrument from his lips when he fell asleep.  Jimi Hendrix, from all accounts, was rarely seen without a guitar hanging from his shoulder.  Stephen King has written about 8 million words worth of novels alone.

It worked out for them.


  1. Good advice. In Dave Van Ronk's autobiography he talks about being a passenger in the car driving Reverend Gary Davis from Boston to New York. Gary was sitting in the back seat playing a tune on his guitar. After they passed several state borders Dave begged him to play a different tune. The Reverend was asleep.

    1. Maybe Van Ronk had my own neurological disorder, musical hallucinations (MH), which is not as rare as the medical establishment thinks it is. If I walk into a store where they're playing music (at this time of year, inevitably godawful Xmas music) I hear it in my ears (not in my head) for half an hour or more after I leave the store.

    2. Liz, according to DVR, the Reverend was playing in his sleep.

    3. Wow. Sounds like the difference between disorder and genius.

    4. Science tells that ear worms are located in the same place in the brain as musical expression itself. I'm often tormented by them. One palliative is to see the stanza running on the feedback loop to the next interval, then complete the tune. Doesn't really work for me. Substituting another tune can help, though then I'm stuck with another ear worm.

  2. Chris, that's absolutely true. Just write. Something. Anything.

  3. I think you boiled it down to the basics. Plus, just have fun with it.

  4. That's the final lesson I give my students, after 14 weeks, when they finally 'get it'. Writers write.

  5. Yes, what works for other writers works for other writers. Period. You have to do a lot of writing and experimenting to find your own way, and it may change over time. My process is nothing like what it was ten years ago.

    One of the great jazz musicians (Maybe Charlie Parker, but I'm not sure) said you shouldn't take lessons on your instrument because teachers stress what you CAN'T do, and it's discouraging. I wouldn't go that far, but if there were only one way to do it, we would all write the same book.

  6. Even emails to e-lists and comments on blog posts count, as long as you always write the very best you can. When my husband breezes through the room and asks, "Why are you smiling at the computer?" I may be working on a new short story or a post to DorothyL. Either way, I'm exercising my writing chops.

  7. Fail your way to success, I've heard it said.

    From time to time, I look in on a writing thread. While some attempt to gather and disseminate tips, quite a few members are hostile to advice, believing 'trad' writing stifles the mind and true creativity. It's truly sad.

  8. I treat writing advice the way Boston drivers treat traffic lights. Merely advisory. I'll take a good idea from anyone any time, though if it doesn't help, it doesn't help. YOu all have probably seen the effects of an aspiring writer chasing every new bit of instruction, and how it can tie them into knots. I remember one plaintive comment: "I know you say to do ___, but that other writer said to do just the opposite. What do I do?" I told them to stop taking advice. It's not doing any good.


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