How To Write

This is how you write:

Read. Read a lot. Read poetry. Read short stories. Read the first chapters of novels. Read memoirs and biographies and histories. Read entire novels. Think about what you’re reading. Go on long walks when you need to take a break from reading. Keep a piece of paper and pen on you in case you think of something you don’t want to forget.

“Eduard Swoboda Bücherwurm” by Eduard Swoboda (1814–1902)

Write about things, like your day or what you’ve been reading or your dream last night or that nightmare when you were ten. Write about the weird lunchroom food trading system in elementary school. Write about your worries over the mold in your shower. Whatever gets your mind moving across the page. Don’t think of writing stories, don’t think of writing for an end. Just write stuff–this is how you oil the cogs and gears. Oh, and keep reading.

John Rae, 1912

Have an inkling of an idea, yet? Don’t look at it directly but keep it in the corner of your eye. Keep reading. Sit down, start writing. Track the idea in your peripheral vision. Don’t look at it too hard, don’t think much about it.

Now: begin.

If you surprise the story you may be able to catch end of it. Start tugging. Coax it with treats. Speak softly. Do not pull too hard, do not yell, do not force it. Do not scare it off. Write.

“Enfant écrivant-Henriette Browne” by Henriette Browne

If you start to worry the story’s crap, stop. Get up. Go for another walk. Remember the paper and pen. Read more. If you start telling yourself the story sucks or isn’t good enough it will hear you and you will hurt its feelings. As much as you might want to tell yourself the story is terrible, please, please don’t let it hear you. An infant story needs care and love or it will die. Keep writing.

“Albert Anker Schreibender Knabe c1908” by Albert Anker – Koller Auktionen.

Now you have drawn the story out completely. Let it alone. You both need some space to breathe and grow. Celebrate with your beverage and meal of choice. Get a massage. Go to a party. Take yourself to the movies. You’ve earned a break and so has your story. Read. Read a lot. Read something new. Read something by a writer you’ve never heard of. Write about your day, the massage, the party, the movie, what you’re reading.

Has enough time passed that you’ve forgotten the close-up details of your story? If you cannot distance yourself from the work, stop. Go for a walk. Write about other things. Read.

If you can read your story as separate from yourself then start revising. Read it once over. If you cannot see the value of the story, put it away again. It has grown a thicker skin but if you don’t value it, the story will become hostile and resist you.

“Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 055” by Eugène Delacroix

If you can see the story honestly, take a pen or a pencil and make notes. What do different scenes mean? Who are the characters? What is happening in each scene or section? What details are showing up and what were left out? What are the themes and motifs? What is the story about? Get to know the story from the outside in. Make a map of the story.

from the HBO series True Detectives

Now, see where the holes are. You might begin to understand what the story was actually supposed to be about. Write that story. Add to the story, subtract from the word count, rewrite. Be sure to stay hydrated. Be sure to back up your files. Be sure not to get down on yourself or your story because constructive criticism and revision are not meant to be bullying. Do not bully yourself or your story because then the story will become aggressive and injure itself.

“Sandner Bär wird von Bienen attackiert” by Georg Ernst Sandner (1736–1811)

How does the story seem, now? You’ve written it from the inside out and revised it from the outside in. It might be hard to tell by this point. It’s time to get a second opinion.

Find a reputable source to give your story a checkup, do not hand it over to just any old quack. Although, occasionally or often a story requires not medicine but magic. Choose the right readers. Listen to what they think of the story. Ask questions. Trust their judgment. Trust your intuition above their judgment. Do not trust your sense of wounded pride.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of workshop. “Ryckaert, David III – La ronde des Farfadets de Les Farfadets – 17th c” by David Rijckaert (III)

If you have to make major changes to the story, do so. Do it like ripping off a bandage, like ripping off an at-home bikini wax.

Fluff the story up, give it a nice bath and blow dry, brush it one hundred times, add a bow. It will not be perfect. Nobody is perfect. But is it breathing? Does it shine when the light hits it just right? Has it learned a few tricks? Does it vibrate with some wild energy? Good. You can begin to send it out into the world. Let it go.

Do not worry if it cannot find another home. Now you know you’ve brought a story into our world, that you are capable. Read. Read a lot. Go for walks. It will be more difficult the second time. That’s okay. Like working out a muscle or learning the steps to complicated dances, you’ll improve over time. You have already gotten stronger by the sheer act of pulling that first story out. Start a fancy tea collection in a cookie tin. Learn how to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Keep writing. Read more.

This is how you write.