The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 1: The Big Questions

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In addition to teaching writing to college students, I also teach private classes, one-on-one tutorials in which the entire course is tailor-made to the needs of that individual student.

I always imagine, before I meet with students for the first time, that their big questions will concern technique. How can I make my characters more compelling? Is there a better way to handle the structure of this piece?

Such questions are usually the basis of our first meeting or two.

But inevitably, by the third or fourth meeting, those questions melt away, and in their place I hear different questions. These new queries lurk beneath all the others, poking up from time to time to jolt the writer into self-examination or self-doubt or, sometimes, inertia.

Why should I — or anyone — write?

Do I have talent, and how can I tell?

How big a commitment can (or should) I make?

These questions are almost invariably in the minds of every writer. I have gotten them from people so new to writing they never kept a journal before our classes, and from people who had published in prestigious magazines and won major literary awards.

When these questions first emerge in class, it is subtly, almost imperceptibly, like a mumbled Gesundheit or a comment about the weather. Seldom does the student break eye contact; these questions are so trivial, they are not even speed bumps in our class. Or so the student would like me to believe.

But I know better. We (and I say "we" because of course I have been needled by the same issues) ask these questions when we fear we aren't good enough. We think that there must be "right" answers to these questions and, since we don't know them, we shouldn't really continue writing. We must be deluding ourselves. We are impostors.

I've come to suspect that many writers were born into families where they were rarely praised. Perhaps their needs were ignored or minimized while the parents battered their way through their own lives. Or perhaps the parents were excessively demanding, holding out some delicious reward, telling the future writer, "Jump! Higher!" while always raising or hiding the reward, ensuring that success could never be achieved. I have even met writers who spent their childhoods being blatantly ridiculed by the people they most respected.

Consequently, many people begin writing with a profound lack of faith in themselves. They might even be struggling with depression. They know they want to write — maybe they even like writing. But deep down, they don't feel worthy of writing. It seems so venerable, so important. How could they — measly little they, surely not as resolute and articulate and gifted as any writer they could buy in the airport, much less a Faulkner or Fitzgerald — grant themselves the permission to go for it?

So they come to me with their souls open. They have been hurting for so long with their secret feelings of inadequacies that they are now aching for reassurance.

I address this by going through each of the big questions, and usually, by the time I'm finished, they feel a little better.

Why Should I — Or Anyone — Write?

There are no correct reasons to write. We just think there are. We read so many interviews with writers that we get the sense that those who have "made it" must know the way to do it — and that there is indeed one way. This is because we forget that writing is not a formula; we think, "Since he succeeded by writing on a laptop computer from four to six in the morning before work, I will succeed by doing the same." So when writers tell interviewers that they write because they have something to say about "the human condition," or because they escaped a prison in a third world country and want to expose political cruelty, or because they have a young daughter and like to make her laugh with their stories, we think these should be our answers, too. And woe be unto us if we realize that that is not so.

In all my years of writing and teaching writing, I have heard hundreds of reasons for why people write, but the most compelling one, the one that seems at the core of the most persistent (and usually, successful) writers, is that they write because they like to write. Like eating a pizza or splashing in the ocean or savoring a four-minute kiss with a new lover, these writers write because it feels good.

This does not remotely mean that they don't grapple with characters or language. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have fun every time they sit down to write. It certainly doesn't mean that they exist in an aura of unrelenting inspiration.

Rather, when writing feels good it means that something, at some point in the process, lights up inside them. This feeling might come through the Zen-like serenity found in hard work, or the simple satisfaction of gliding a ballpoint pen along a white page, or the wonder of seeing something blossom where previously there had been nothing, or the worldly revelations encountered during exploration of thematic material, or the psychic ping! that echoes after two disparate elements connect into a shockingly perfect metaphor, or the delight that permeates as some latent humor snake-charms up from the page, or the tender gratification that carries us through the day after we wring our own heart into tears. It can come in a million ways. But as long as it comes, the writer almost always keeps writing.

What about those other reasons — the ones we hear about but which may not seem to apply to us? I write because I:

have something to say

like to read

want to stick it to my dictator/boss/ex-husband/mother

lived a fascinating life I want to document

want to make a lot of money

want to see my name in print


All of these — and many other reasons — might well be valid incentives to start us on the path to being a writer. Anything could serve that role — being bored on a Saturday afternoon, taking a writing class because our unrequited love is taking it too, proving ourselves to all those who have ever kicked sand in our faces. But the reasons why we start and the reasons why we continue are seldom the same.

Years ago, I read a book on meditation which said there are two obstacles to enlightenment: beginning, and continuing. It takes a certain confluence of enthusiasm and motivation to embark on the long journey of meditation. Then, after the novice mediator has acquired technique, it takes a whole new shade of enthusiasm, and whole new set of motivations, to stay the course.

This is equally true of marriage, or studying for a Ph.D., or playing the violin, or learning classical Latin. We start for one reason; we keep going for others.

All reasons are valid for starting to write. But the one reason which will keep you going is that somehow — in ways you may or may not be able to identify — it makes you feel good.

Occasionally, this answer seems too simple for some students. Yes, they admit, writing makes them feel good, but . . . but . . . there must be more to it. How can feeling good be enough of a reason to do anything?

This is where I always realize that the student is not asking me for the correct Why at all. The student is asking me for permission to do something just to do it.

From the day we were born, we were taught that all activities that feel good come with a price. Roses smell lovely but pick one and you'll get thorns in your fingers. Chocolate chip cookies taste like a sugar Eden but eat all you want and you'll get cavities. Champagne brings hangovers; fireplaces bring pollution; sunbathing brings cancer; love-making brings STDs or heartbreak.

Or, as water cooler wisdom would have it, if it feels good, it's got to be bad for you.

We do admit that there are a few exceptions. Sleeping, for instance. Stepping into a hot shower. Hugging our children. Laughing with friends. Drinking an icy glass of water on a hot day.

With such exceptions, we tell ourselves, "This will feel good. For that reason alone, I will do it." We give ourselves permission.

The same is required of writing. If it makes you feel good, that is enough reason to keep going.

You might have been taught that every silver lining comes with a cloud, but that doesn't mean you have to live in fear of clouds. Let other people be martyrs and submit to lives devoid of fun. Writing won't prick your fingers, pad your dentist's retirement fund, cause cottonmouth, provoke the ire of the EPA, invite melanoma, or make you need penicillin or Prozac. Writing will only get you more connected to yourself and to the world. It feels good because it is one of the best ways, short of dreaming or having a shamanistic experience, to explore your soul.

That is, writing doesn't only feel good. Writing is also good for you.

And when we have that kind of opportunity — which so few people have — we would be remiss to avoid it. It is a gift of pleasure. Other people envy us because they don't have it; theirs are lives of interminable drudgery. We may struggle with our own drudgeries, but we know there is more. We know we can be voyagers into our own minds and discover something vast and wonderful. We know that inside ourselves are whole Olympic games of fun.

So whenever the Why question begins to creep back in, tell yourself that it's just you doubting that you are worthy of pleasure. And then tell yourself that a life without pleasure is merely a life. A life with pleasure is a glory.

Do I Have Talent, And How Can I Tell?

We worry, and compare ourselves. We sit in our writing classes or libraries and gaze out at others while a little virus of doubt ululates in our heads: she has talent because she writes so easily; he has talent because he produces a story a week; they have talent because they have achieved the nirvana of publication. Look at them all — born with TALENT. But alas, that seems not to be our fate. We bemoan how writing is hard work for us; we're lucky to turn out about a story a year; we'll never get into The New Yorker. Like height and hair color, talent must be in the genes, and how can we fight biology? We may be able to strap on high heels and Clairol our hair, but when it comes to writing, we will simply never give ourselves what our DNA did not.

I have heard this lament from almost every writer I have ever known — or else I hear the opposite: I have talent, and therefore I will succeed, whether or not I ever sit down to write.

The concept of "talent" acts almost as a military checkpoint inside us. Those who think they might have it allow themselves to pass through and continue. Those who don't turn back, dejected.

I am fully aware of the power of this word. Although I wrote throughout my childhood, I entered a major writer's block at eighteen and did not recover until I was twenty-four. I re-began with sentences, worked my way up to paragraphs, and finally graduated to stories. Soon thereafter, I took my first writing class. Right after the first session, I intensified my pace, trying to produce a story a week so I'd have something new to read each time we met. Often my work elicited excited comments from my classmates, but I wanted something more, though I wasn't sure what. After my third or fourth story, I found out. My teacher let my fellow students share their assessments of the piece and then, when it was her turn, she announced to me, the class — the whole goddamn world! — "Rachel has talent."

This was ambrosia. An acceptance to Harvard and a gold star from the Pulitzer committee. I levitated for days.

And wrote harder. Now I knew something. Now my fire burned higher.

Only years later did I realize how influential that teacher's words had been — and how silly I was to have put such stock in them. I was already writing diligently and daily. I was already writing not because I "had talent," but because I wanted to write. Hearing my teacher's declaration of my talent kicked me a little harder, and ratcheted up my confidence a notch or two, but I think that it also made me believe in the concept of talent — a concept of which I have become increasingly dubious.

What is talent? I have seen writers who couldn't cobble together a coherent sentence, whose work was so bad it set classes into symphonies of eeks and groans — and who, five years later, were publishing their first book. I have also seen writers who created masterpieces of creative vision in writing class, who seemed destined for some pantheon of Great 20th Century Authors — and who, when class ended, never typed anything but space breaks again. The former writers gave the appearance of having no talent, yet they succeeded. The latter writers seemed to have prodigious talent, yet they failed.

Does that mean both kinds of writers defied biology? Or that talent has nothing to do with genes?

My dictionary provides a reassuring answer. Talent, it says, is a "natural readiness in learning and doing in a particular field; an inborn resource that may or may not be developed."

I like this definition, because it suggests that talent is more like a nest in which we can choose to grow — or choose to wither — than like a falcon hatched immediately into flight. In other words, this definition refers to potential, not actuality.

Talent is not You Are Here. Talent is You Can Get Here If You Try.

I tend to think that when we ask ourselves if we have talent, we are asking the wrong question. Success is not predetermined. Some people may write more easily than others, or more prolifically, or with greater acknowledgment by the outside world, but if they don't really yearn to keep going, and achieve greater and greater levels of improvement with their work, they will never achieve their potential.

If you're working harder than you can, and want to keep getting better, and you can admit your imperfections so you can keep learning, and you are willing to go the long haul — then you have talent. Whether that means you are cultivating some mysterious, biological force that was already within you, or you are planting a force that wasn't there, does not matter.

In other words, the issue is not talent. The issue is passion. If you have it, you'll keep moving onward and upward, regardless of whether any teacher has told you that you have talent. If you don't have passion, you'll fizzle out, regardless of whether any teacher once proclaimed you a prodigy.

The designation doesn't matter. Only the desire does.

How Big A Commitment Can (or Should) I Make?

In some ways, writing is not unlike marriage. The more assiduously you work at it, the better the results will be. Sometimes it's hard to keep up the optimism and energy, and you forget why you wanted this in the first place. But usually in the long run it's worth it, and then you can continue more avidly than before, richer in faith and conviction, directed by new wisdom.

Unlike marriage, though, we have no socially prescribed rules of behavior for writing commitments. We see no billboard displays of authors embracing their beloved keyboards. Television broadcasts no implied messages about the most revered or reviled degrees of commitment. Rock songs refuse to address the consistency with which we must maintain our writing fidelity. We are on our own to figure out the rules.

Or to realize there are no rules, except for the ones we make for ourselves.

So how big a commitment can and should we make?

First of all, we need to recognize that commitment is directly related to the permission and passion I discussed above. Inevitably, people who cannot give themselves permission to do what feels good, and people who sustain no passion for writing, are unable to make a writing commitment at all. Both kinds of people include students who withdraw from class, or apprentice writers who abandon their newly devised writing regimen, after the first month. That quickly, they realize that writing means sitting down and doing it — and, as a result, not sewing on a button, or going fishing, or taking a second job, or attending the theater. They believe they can't spend their time on something that does not give immediate payback in terms of chores completed or money in the bank, or else they realize they love other aspects of life more than they love writing. Either way, the seesaw of writing versus real life has clearly thudded down on the side of real life. Their options are not in doubt: they can't or don't want to do it, and they quit.

Then there are the people who can allow themselves permission some of the time, and who feel not passion, but a fondness for writing. These people make a moderate commitment. They are writers who occasionally produce complete pieces of fiction — but only when they aren't interrupting their writing to help out their boss, or volunteer for a neighborhood organization. The seesaw rocks in a balanced position but since their options seem so broad, they sometimes dip into doubt and not-writing. If they are students, they stay in classes to feel they are writing. If they are not students, they tend to get into a cycle of falling off of and climbing back onto the horse. Often they do make substantial progress over time, but since they break up their writing routine so regularly, they sometimes grow frustrated that they are not improving more quickly.

Finally, there are people who so love to do what feels good, and so love writing, that they want to hop into bed with writing and spend the rest of their existence caressing it. These are the writers who write every day for hours, whose imagination, even when they leave the desk, orbits them like a long-lasting cologne, who use every twig on the ground and clank on the street as a trigger for their memories and ideas, who constantly ponder the connections between what they are living and what they are writing. Their seesaw slammed down toward writing, and they never wanted to kick it back up.

We make the commitment our hearts tell us to make, and that is all we should do. If you grant yourself permission to write, and you revel in the process of writing, and you long to become a great writer, and you want to get published, then give it your all. (For tips on time management, see "The Big Logistics.") If you give yourself more permission to play in your rock band, or to go shopping, or to engage in other non-writing activities than to write, and if your feelings toward writing fall more into the category of "Eh, it's okay" than into the category of love, and if you wouldn't beg, bargain, or steal from any number of supernatural powers to learn the secrets of honing your unique voice, and if you truly, honestly are unmoved about the thought of getting published, then it's fine to write more erratically — as long as you can accept that that may mean your dreams of being an author will switch onto a slower track.

There are no rules. All that matters is that you can live with yourself, however intensively or lightly you make your commitment.

But what about straying from the commitment? Students ask me this all the time. They're cooking along for several weeks, maybe even months, and then — boom! — butt up against the arrival of a new baby, or their church choir's trip to Vienna, or a friend's severe illness. And while their commitment to writing doesn't alter, the amount of writing they can actually do wanes.

Sometimes they fret. They come to me as if I am their confessor and, head down, eyes brimming with contrition, admit that they didn't put in much time this week. They expect me to pronounce some judgment on them. They tell me they must not really be a writer, that they were just lucky to do what they'd done before, that they've used it all up.

I tell them that commitment is an overall decision which we can't always express actively. In marriage, we're expected to be fully present every day. But in writing, we can occasionally step out. Circumstances keep us from getting to our literary bed. Moods seduce us. We must — or want to — do other things.

When I was creating my first novel, I wrote eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours a day. To avoid leaving the library where I was scribbling my first draft, I snuck some doughy, soundless lunch into the building every morning and ate it surreptitiously in the stacks in the afternoon. To avoid breaking my writing trance when I was typing up the draft at home, I napped at my computer and learned to talk to myself. I took off no days or even half-days. I didn't answer phone calls, sending postcards to friends asking for their understanding. I was so committed that near the end, I didn't even wash my clothes.

I've also had times in my life where other aspects of living were far more important than writing. The first few months of a new romance, when all I wanted to do was float in the heat and mind of a new person. The few months on either side of my books' publications, when all I wanted to do was give readings and signings. And the occasional few months of blues, when all I wanted to do was brood, sleep, read the paper, and wait it out.

During all of those periods, I stepped away from most of my writing, except for journal writing.

But whether I'm writing fiction with vigor or not writing it at all, I am clear on my commitment. Sometimes it is realized; sometimes it is inactive. I don't worry about the latter, because I know I will return to my usual high level of commitment — and because I know that periodically, we need to toggle ourselves over from output to input mode, just so we have more thematic and narrative inspiration to boost our work to a new level.

Make no apologies if you take a break. Breaks can be helpful, and they don't mean you aren't committed.

Worry only if you find you take more breaks than not, if you use real life as an excuse to vacillate on your commitment. If that happens, ask yourself if you really are committed. That is, ask if you give yourself permission to write, if you feel a passion for writing, how much you want to master the craft, and how earnestly you long to be published. If your answers have changed from what they originally were, then reassess your commitment. If they are the same answers but your efforts have disappeared, then examine the possibility that your true feelings may have changed, and you need to admit that to yourself.

As with talent, the question to ask about commitment is not about commitment per se, but how much writing means to us, and how much do we truly, once we know what that means, want to have writing in our lives.

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