One of the most difficult aspects of the writing life for me was just getting started. Just doing it. It was like I was paralyzed or something. My mind was going — ideas were swarming, stuff was being written already in my head and squirreled away until the card file was threatening to burst — but my body refused to cooperate. It was only through sheer force of will that I finally sat down and began to write.
I attended the “Getting Started As A Writer” workshop at the recent UCLA Writers Faire because, though I am now in the habit of writing, the truth is that I’m always beginning. And the fear that paralyzed me and kept me from starting in the first place is a daily threat I deal with. So I wanted to hear what accomplished authors had to share about how they continue to make the perpetual choice to begin.
What the four panelists offered wasn’t so much advice on how to get started, but tips for keeping the proper attitude, which is more than half the battle, isn’t it? And having the proper attitude in part means doing something other than dwelling on that paralysis. For these four writers, that means focusing on community, craft, and continuous reading.
Leslie Schwartz emphasized repeatedly that writing is about community and sharing our stories with each other. She stated that we are all born as creative beings and we can learn to be writers with the proper support from a positive community and others who may act as constructive mentors. This means cultivating relationships with other writers who can offer feedback, ask you the hard questions, and push you forward with critiques that come from a place of respect.
This emphasis on community was a theme that came up over and over again, in all of the workshops. Writers necessarily need solitude to create; however, those words cannot exist in a vaccuum. Books, poems, memoirs, all are written to be read. And so a developing writer, a serious writer, needs to surround herself with other serious writers who can help her and her work become their best possible selves. To that end, Ms. Schwartz said taking ourselves seriously as writers means having at least one person, or a workshop that you trust, to read your work and give you feedback. liz gonzalez said that the serious writer will also do what needs to be done to make room in her life to write and that she “needs to be willing to write a lot of crap to get to the good stuff.” And to do this, according to Ms. Schwartz, means cultivating great patience — good writing takes time, a lot of time, and the serious writer needs to commit to making that investment and be willing to revise, revise, revise…… and revise some more.
The serious writer also pays attention to the world around her because everything is useful material. Everything. The poet Laurel Ann Bogan said a writer needs to “keep her antenna up because you never know when inspiration will hit.” The good writer is open to what happens, to the things that cross her path, the people she meets, the experiences she has, because they may be the germ, the seed, the spark of her next project. This is why the good writer is never without her handy-dandy notebook — I prefer the Moleskin, but any notebook will do, so long as you have something to write down the brainstorms that come to you in the shower, in traffic, or while making dinner.
Ms. Bogan said that “the only thing that keeps one from writing meaningful work are the limits of your imagination.” All of the authors were emphatic about the need to feed the imagination continuously by reading. In this way, other writers become your mentors. Ms. Schwartz said it wasn’t out of place to read a book a week, no matter what it is. Reading well teaches you how to write. This reading is ESSENTIAL — all the authors agreed that you cannot be a writer unless you read. (For new writers or those who might be skeptical of this sage advice, I recommend Francine Prose’s excellent book Reading Like a Writer.)
The author panel never did talk about how to overcome the devastating paralysis of fear that keeps many writers from starting in the first place and perhaps there wasn’t anything “new” in what I heard. But their emphasis on attitude, on redirecting the mental activity away from fear to concrete applications of the writing life, is truly the way to get started. Sometimes, while the advice remains the same, we are changed and in a different place to be able to finally hear and understand it. One must cultivate the mind of a writer, and think the way a writer thinks, and then she will behave the way a writer behaves. Actively applying these simple principles of community, craft, and continuous reading mean that the sheer force of will necessary to actually apply the butt-to-chair rule, which initiates the ultimate writing behavior, might just be more manageable.