The Key to Writing
It was a slow day at work (more to the point, I’m moving slowly, even if I shouldn’t be) and I hadn’t written here for awhile, so I decided it was probably time for a blog post. And why not one on writing? It’s something I do a lot and probably don’t talk about as much as I should, because it’s probably the subject on which I have the most knowledge to impart. I’m not talking about past participles or present pluperfects, because I couldn’t teach you what those are, nor am I an peanut gallery grammarian (I am vicious with with my own prose, but only insofar as I know mistakes when I see them; I never bothered to learn what most of them are called) I’m talking about the act of writing itself, of putting words together to make sentences, not in theory but in practice.
During the period in my adult life where I was the most preachy about writing—which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the period in my life where I was doing the least of it—I had a phrase that I was ready to repeat to anyone but most often ended up telling my satisfied self: “The key to writing is to write.” I was, I confess, on to something. One cannot become a better writer without doing the hard work of writing every day, the exact same way one cannot become a great runner without running every day, or one (presumably) cannot become a great chef without cooking every day. At the time I was saying it not to describe my habits, but to describe my past ones at the Queens newspaper, where I wrote hundreds of thousands of words that ultimately landed me unemployed by choice, but unemployed nonetheless. I wanted credit for the life I had lived instead of enjoying the life I was living.
I still wrote, and wrote a lot, but without much discipline. My mind would wander from subject to subject, and my output was frighteningly erratic. I could write nothing for months and then write 20,000 words in two weeks. Most of these words went nowhere, and passed before no one’s eyes but my own. My computer is a graveyard of unfinished project after unfinished project. I have taken pains not to erase most of them in the event that, some day, I have the courage to face them and make them into something readable, but that day has not yet arrived.
It turns out that when I said, “The key to writing is to write,” I was only partially correct. There are a lot of other things that help; things that I’ve done virtually all my life, but never as rigorously as I do now in the service of my own work. The first is reading. For a long time I thought that reading was important to writing merely to give the author a platform from which to have an authoritative voice; something of a pile of books to stand on. That is important, but it’s not the only part that is important, nor is it even the critical part. There would be periods of months at a time over the past few years that I wouldn’t read a book at all, because I was satisfied with the amount which I had read. I was underestimating, greatly, the process by which gradually reading one’s way through a book influences one’s ability and inclination to write. I had become the hare and the tortoises were passing me. I have forever rallied against being labeled as a “writer,” because it’s a meaningless, self-applicable title. I wanted to be published first. That led to an unfortunately long neither-chicken-nor-egg scenario for my career, which ultimately righted itself to a degree when I moved to Brooklyn, shut off the TV, and began acting like a professional writer. That meant moving through a book at all times, and putting some words down every day. The important thing for me on the writing side is to keep the restrict0r plates on, so to speak. I stop myself at 750 words, which I’ve already bumped up from 500, in order to maintain my enthusiasm about writing from day to day. As a journalist, I have always been goal-oriented: get the article done, get it edited, get it published. A writer’s job is different: it’s process-oriented, and no amount of guffawing about my past is going to change that.