A perennial question for writers is “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” I think people are often looking for practical answers, perhaps a checklist that will lead directly to publication. In part because there is no such path, writers’ answers tend to be more big-picture. My standard answer: “Read a lot, travel as much as you can, and just sit down and write.”
The last one, just sit down and write, was instilled in my by a childhood friend who was a family friend of legendary writing teacher Donald Murray. Writing doesn’t come like magical butterflies sprinkling pixie dust on you. If there is such a thing as muse, she is fickle, and likes to be worshiped often: you show your devotion by sitting down and writing and then maybe, maybe, you will get some inspiration.
Another fantastic writing teacher, Monica Wood, presents a slight variation in her essay “Learning From Goldilocks” in Teaching the Neglected “R”, the anthology I am reading for my graduate class. (For reactions to other pieces in this book see Great Beginnings and Emphatic Implicitness.)
. . . you can’t make a body of work out of happy accidents. Sooner or later you have to burrow deep into craft and tunnel through the mud just like every exhausted scribe who ever preceded you. Craft is power . . .
This passage resonates with me first and foremost because it captures the fact that writing is work. Sometimes it really feels like you’re going through a deep, dark, muddy tunnel, and you don’t know if you will get out. Sometimes you don’t. Second, it gives you a light to help you find your way: craft.
If you ever have a chance to take a workshop with Monica Wood, I recommend that you do so. I took a one night class with her this fall at The Telling Room, and found it completely empowering as a writer because what she teaches is craft: how to find the right word, how to start a story off in a powerful way, and, as in the case of this essay, how to structure a piece.
Every writer needs to develop his or her own tricks, or tool box if you prefer a less magical term. These are what you use to help yourself when you sit down and no words come, or the ones that do are awful. So no more sitting around waiting for the magical butterflies. Sit down, write, and power through the muck and mire. Who knows what you’ll find at the end of that tunnel?