But how do I start writing? – part one

by Jennifer Stevenson

You’re a writer if you write.

This post is for about twelve hundred friends and acquaintances who have said to me over the past thirty years, “I’d like to write, but how do I start?”  Three new ones this week.  One enterprising and hard-working woman has even gone so far as to take grammar and rhetoric classes.  (Heck!  She’s learning craft, not just taking a memoir class!  This is impressive.)

What I started to say to her, and then stopped myself, was that when one reaches a certain age it may not be possible to train your brain to write with good grammar.  But with the power of positive thinking (and maybe a glass of wine) you can train your brain to let your true voice come out.

I’m not talking here about “how to get published” or “how to get an agent” or “how to write a good book as opposed to a sucky or lame or merely adequate story.”

I simply want to address crossing that line in the sand, a line that so many people perceive as a huge brick wall, between seeing yourself as “not a writer” and seeing yourself as “a writer.”

The simplest answer is, You’re a writer if you write.

When my mother was a cub reporter, she once asked “How do I become a writer?” of a copyboy at the Chicago City News Bureau.  He told her, “Put the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair.”  The copyboy’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

I know a hell of a lot of writers, already published in book form, who talk, talk, talk, but who do not write very much.

By contrast, the amateur who has never submitted so much as a joke to Reader’s Digest may write hundreds of pages a year.  That gal is a writer.

So rule number one is, Write.

The second rule is, Stop worrying about your grammar, your market, your story structure, what your mother/your kids will say if they find out, and “whether you have anything valuable to say.”  Especially the last one.  Good gravy, if we all worried about the worthiness of our message, we’d have ulcers but no royalties.  And you’d have nothing to read but Chicken Soup.

This is where arrogance becomes your friend.  All professional writers have some, though they’re smart if they mask it.  It’s hard to survive a life of rejection and worse, waiting for rejection, without arrogance.  If you think arrogance is too much to ask of yourself, call it something else.  Faith.  Self-confidence.  “I can do better than that.”  Many a first novel has sprung from the sound of a paperback hitting the wall, followed by, “I can do better than that!”

It really doesn’t matter why you choose to write.  Raging to set the record straight?  Bored?  Dying to become famous?  Fed up with the last bad book you read?  Want to get rich?

Put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

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But how do I start writing? – part one — 8 Comments

  1. Another requisite: you really do have to want to write. This is different from really wanting to HAVE WRITTEN, which is what a great many people actually do want. Also not the same: having a yen for the vast fame and fortune that your writing will surely win for you.
    You have to actually enjoy the act of writing — the way Tiger Woods enjoys hefting a golf club, or the way Bill Clinton loves a microphone. If you don’t have a passion for words and sentences, if you don’t love shuffling adjectives, if you don’t have a weakness for neologisms and a passion for old terminology — it is not well.

    • I don’t know about this. I frequently want to have written! For example, right now I want to have written the piece I have to do for my day job and the essay that’s half-finished and overdue, not to mention the novel revisions that are plaguing me.

      But seriously, if you don’t enjoy trying to turn a jumble of ideas into a comprehensible whole that someone else can read and make sense of, you probably don’t want to be a writer. Do those things for which you love the process, not just the end result.

  2. Another rule is: don’t fret over the opening sentence. There’s a rule from musicals that you write the opening number last, after you know what it’s introducing. By the same token, the opening you start with need bear no relationship with the one you end up with.

    I remember that tyrannical first sentence. . . .

    • Oh, for sure. It is like airplane journeys — the beginning is a lot of waiting in security lines, pushing bags through X-ray machines, shuffling down aisles, and trundling down runways. You have to do it, but that’s not the trip. So when you go back and look at the work, you can just cut all that boring stuff, and slide right to when the wheels lift up off the tarmac.

      • Even if it turns out you slithering much useful and even necessary information into those security line scenes.

        Then you have slither it out again and put it elsewhere.

  3. Hmm, what sort of grammar and rhetoric classes? Because, yeah, learning a whole new grammar and writing in it would be a pain in the neck, but most of the things we call grammar aren’t really grammar, they’re just a set of formalities we use to make spoken language into written language that is not constrained by dialect area. Learning how to control your sentences and how to shape your ideas, which I think might be what is meant by rhetoric, however is frontal cortex work (I’d guess), the same sort of work that they tell you to do to to ward off senility (and will actually reduce the symptoms of Alzheimers), so you’re totally never too old to do something like that.

  4. Pingback: Friday Reads: v.1 – the failing novelist, stuffed owls, not waiting on God, a few hours for writing, and the secret to getting it done. « Her Silent Musings