From How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead
Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
–Rita Mae Brown
Everybody knows it because Virginia Wolf said it: You need money and a room of your own if you’re going to write. But I’ve written five books, edited three anthologies, published hundreds of articles and short stories, and put out 37 issues of my zine without either one. If I’d waited for money and room, I’d still be an unpublished welfare mom–except they would have cut off my welfare by now. It might be nice to have money and a room–or it might be suicidally depressing, who knows?–but all you need is a blank page, a pen, and a little bit of time.
Maybe it goes without saying that if you want to become a famous writer before you’re dead, you’re going to have to write something. But the folks in my classes with the biggest ideas and the best publicity shots ready to grace the back covers of their bestselling novels are also usually the ones who aren’t holding any paper. They’ve got plans, lemme tell ya, and their book is going to be better than yours. Too bad it’s written entirely on the sheaths of their imagination.
I don’t know all the reasons folks pay good money to take my classes and still don’t write, but often it has to do with their own high expectations of themselves and wild notions about genius. They think stories should spring fully formed like goddesses from their Zeus-heads. They read novels by masters and imagine their own books snuggling up with the classics at the bookstore. They can’t fathom the reality that all these masterpieces were once messy scrawls across ripped pages. First drafts of masterpieces are rarely recognizable as such–and good writers don’t leave the price tags on their work. Inspiration comes mythic-magical, but an annoying thing happens in the transmission from inspiration to worldly draft: Things come out a little fuzzy. Introductions are clunky, transitions are awkward, dialogue sounds forced, and sensory details are wholly lacking. A writer’s privilege is that she can fix it later. And then fix it again. There’s magic in the first raw draft of a story, but the real alchemy happens in rewriting.
It doesn’t take a world of discipline to put words to paper–plenty of writers are famously undisciplined procrastinators–but it does take a commitment bordering on obsession, and it takes some humility.
It’s Thursday evening and my dreamy student walks in, takes her seat, empty-handed.
“Didn’t get a chance to write anything this week?” I ask.
She shakes her head, looks down at her lap. “I didn’t have time.”
And I nod.
“When do you have time to write?” she asks.
And I answer as honestly as I can: If I’m on deadline, I write furiously. A chapter a day. One of my best writing teachers, Ms. Sarah Pollock back at Mills College, taught me that it isn’t the most talented writers who are widely published, but rather the ones who meet their deadlines. So I’ve always met my deadlines.
Left to my own inspirations, I write in spurts and stops–sometimes every day for hours, and sometimes not at all. Weeks pass. I think I’m blocked. What does that mean, “blocked?” I decide I’m empty. With some relief and some nostalgia, I think it’s over—this need to put thoughts to words and words to paper. I consider other jobs, like carpentry or bartending. I romanticize more physical hobbies like weight-lifting or cooking. I forget all about it. I get distracted. And then one day I wake up from a strange dream of elephants stampeding over bridges and I sit down to a blank page and see what comes of it.
That doesn’t answer my student’s question, of course. The answer is that I write when I can.
As a teenager, I traveled all over Asia and Europe, almost never enrolled in school, almost never punctuating my days with a regular job. I didn’t have much money, so I slept in hostels, squats, train stations, and doorways. I had all the time in the world. Sometimes I sat in near-empty cafes, bored out of my mind. Aside from a cork-covered journal that took me four years to fill and an hour to burn, I wrote nothing.
I’ve never been more productive than I was in my early twenties. I had a baby, took a full load of college classes, worked part-time, spent a day out of every week dealing with bureaucracies at the welfare office, the financial aid office, or family court. Still, my daughter’s infancy lent an urgency to my days. I wanted to be a writer. Even if I produced nothing publishable or otherwise presentable to the world, I had to write. Something. Every day. Sketches. Observations. Whatever. I wanted to be a writer, so I became one. How? I wrote things down.
Later, when I finished grad school and my daughter started elementary, I wrote every day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Four hours seemed a goodly chunk of time, but I kept my pace at a leisure. No mad rushing computer key banging scribbling across a blank page just to fill it dash through the night towards the inevitable moment when the baby would wake, hungry and demanding a tit, pulling me away from the kitchen table and into the bedroom we shared, forcing me, finally, to lay down, to feed her, to fall asleep. And dream. Nine a.m. to 1 p.m.
Then I invited a partner to come and live with us. Nine a.m. to 1 p.m. But wouldn’t it be nicer to go out to breakfast than to write? Wouldn’t it be just as well to sit and talk?
I’ll write nights, I decided, before I go to bed. Night: The sun sets, painting things orange. My daughter needs help with her homework. She needs to be tucked in. Kiss me good-night, Mama. Tell me another story in the dark. At last, she’s asleep. Or she’s not asleep and I leave her with instructions to count porcupines. From the dark of her room to the flickering light of the living room… there’s a trashy Lifetime movie on TV and we’ve got some cheap wine. My neck hurts. The chiropractor says it’s because I use the wrong muscles to move my arms. Oh, well. Weary eyes, tired of focusing. I’ve seen this movie before. I take out my contacts and change into my pajamas, jot a few blurry lines across the top of a yellow legal pad. Should I get my glasses? No. Turn out the light, dear. You can write tomorrow.
And so it goes. There are children to be raised, money to be earned, wine to drink, movies to watch, lovers to kiss.
When do I write? I write when I can. I’ve learned that I work best on deadline, so I invent my own closing dates and trick myself into believing something bad will happen if I don’t have twelve pages by Tuesday. I write during the day when my daughter is at school. I write nights when everyone else is sleeping. I write in the mornings before they get up. I bought a blue velvet couch at a garage sale and put it out on the covered porch and it became my office. I write afternoons when my daughter is on the phone. I’ve picked up the pace. If I get an hour, I can write five pages. It’s nothing Kerouac would have been proud of. Fuck Kerouac.
I write while I’m driving. This is probably rather dangerous. Worse than being on the cell phone, really. But I try to be careful. I write in my head and then I speak it out loud so I won’t forget and then I jot it down at red lights.
This is why I do not take the freeway.
I learned to write driving when my daughter was small and the car seat provided the only respite before sleep. Later, she got a plastic car and tooled around our concrete backyard muttering half-lines of poetry as she turned the wheel because she understood that this was how to drive—you drive muttering and then you write at red lights. I don’t even look down at the notebook in my lap as I scribble because the person behind me inevitably starts raging on his horn when the light turns green and I don’t budge. I keep my eye on the signal, hoping it will stay red just a little bit longer, and I write in a shorthand that’s part English, part Chinese, and part random symbolism. Arrows and circles and plus signs and ankhs and a cursive that would make my third grade penmanship teacher weep serve as my first draft. It’s pretty hard to decipher it all when I get home, but I do the best I can.
“But I don’t have any time to write,” my student says. And I don’t ask her how it is, then, that she has time to come to class. I’m glad to have her, even empty-handed. Instead, I offer some suggestions: If you don’t have time to write, stop answering the phone. Change your email address. Kill your television. If you don’t have a baby, have one. If you have a baby, get a sitter. If you work too much, work more. If you don’t work enough, work less. If there’s a problem, exaggerate it. If you’re broke, go to the food bank. If you have too much money, give it away. If you’re north, go south. If you’re south, go north. If you don’t drink, start. If you drink, sober up. If you’re in school, drop out. If you’re out of school, drop in. If you believe you have a year to live, imagine you have a hundred. If you believe you have a hundred years to live, imagine you only have one. If you’re sane, go crazy. If you’re crazy, snap out of it. If you’ve got a partner, break-up. If you’re single, find a lover! The shock of the new–shake yourself awake. There is only this moment, this night, this remembrance rolling toward you from the distant past, this blank page, this inspiration yielding itself to you. Will you meet it?
You don’t need money and a room of your own, you need pen and paper, and you need to read Marcy Sheiner’s most excellent poem, I Write in The Laundromat:
I write in the Laundromat.
I am a woman
and between wash & dry cycles
I write while the beans soak
and with children’s voices in my ear.
I spell out words for scrabble
while I am writing.
I write as I drive to the office
where I type a man’s letters
and when he goes to lunch
When the kids go out the door
on Saturday I write
and while the frozen dinners thaw
I write on the toilet
and in the bathtub
and when I appear to be talking
I am often writing.
I write in the Laundromat
while the kids soak
with scrabbled ears
and beans in the office
and frozen toilets
and in the car
between wash and dry.
And your words
and my words
and her words
and their words
and I am a woman
and I write in the Laundromat.