I have nearly completed a working draft of my first novel. Having reflected a bit on the writing process in general, and what I have learned in particular, here are my 18 takeaways:
- Get the best education you can.
- Surround yourself with smart people.
- Notice the habits of mind and ways of thinking that those people exhibit.
- Notice your own habits of mind and ways of thinking. How are they similar to, and different from, thinkers you know and admire?
- Gravitate toward questions. Use questioning as a way to discover and explore deeper truths.
- A good question is one you can chew on for a long time, revealing many angles and insights.
- A whole novel can be built on a single, excellent question.
- Read widely and without prejudice or undue judgement.
- Don’t waste time– feel the urgency of the essential question(s) your novel is answering, and allow that urgency to spur you on.
- Be in conversation with several books at once. Consider how the book you are writing is or will be in conversation with existing books.
- Always with you: your notes, your notebook, something to write with.
- Listen to people– how they speak, what they say, what they do not say. Omission can be just as (if not more) revealing as inclusion.
- After a period of listening and reflection (following Faulkner’s concept of “inward listening deliberation”) consider the new and various questions that have emerged for you. What do these questions offer you and your story’s growth and development? How are your emerging questions in conversation with your grounding, essential question(s)?
- Explore, develop, and retain writing in (or that has flowed from or through) unexpected places such as:
- Emails with friends or a close family member
- Your own notebooks
- Other ephemera
- STAY ORGANIZED: Good ideas come and go in a flash. Capture and work from what you can. Do not be too upset if if came to you and is, now, gone again. The good news is that a truly strong, compelling idea– if it is in fact that– will come back to you often in better, more complete form than it did the first time around.
- Sleep well and respect sleep. Pay a degree of light, measured attention to your dreams. Only the rested mind can be a creative mind, for true, engaged, and meaningful creativity can only come from the centered, rested mind.
- Put another way: Your mind is the potter’s wheel. Your idea (or essential question) is the clay. Everything must be centered, balanced, and calm if you are going to make a pot or really anything of value and use.
- What, in the context of writing, is valuable and useful? That which can grapple with and authentically answer a good, essential question. Here are a few example of essential questions that came to and through me across my own drafting process:
- Can a lie help you to become more authentically yourself? (Dropped this one)
- In what ways can illness function as both weapon and reprieve– dagger and absolver– as those closest try to do their best to support and understand, even as (in my case) you are equally if not more engaged in the ongoing, most central work of self-preservation. A blood relative becomes a walking weapon. Now what?
- What is the relationship between love and pain? (This one can and should be acknowledged as trite, yet there is benefit to keeping it in heavy, background rotation)
- Does the past determine the future, or is reinvention possible? (Ditto)
- If reinvention is, in fact, possible, what is the role of love in the process of or quest for that reinvention? Or is love– as a construct of one’s being bound to another in a state of mutual support, admiration, and attraction, utterly irrelevant– even a distraction– in light of the individual’s private work that they and only they can do: personal reinvention which, if done well and completely, has little to no use for the outside perspective of friends, lovers, factors.
- When you have considered your own essential question(s) deeply and have remained honest across the answers, the creation and experience of those answers (no less important– nor more important– than the realization of the original questions) will form the basis of your work.
- Be confident and entirely assured that your work and process is your own. Your voice, once honed, is singular. No one can sing like you can. No one can write like you can.
- Now is the time.
For courage and fortitude, please now listen to this song, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” with words by Woody Guthrie (hear Guthrie’s version here) and music by Billy Bragg, featured on Billy Bragg & Wilco’s 1998 album Mermaid Avenue.
Here is why I am sharing this song with you right now: This song is about you. It is for you. You know who you are and you know what you can do, what you need to do. No one else can do it, not the way you can. And the world is waiting. We are patiently waiting with our hands politely clasped in our laps. We are looking you in the eye. We are waiting for you to begin.
18. Now– begin.