On Being a Fearless Writer

Writers, stop complicating your creative life. Seriously, just stop it.

Most writers (and I simply mean one who writes, whether they do it for money or not) have personalized habits surrounding their writing routine, and there’s nothing terribly unusual or surprising about that. However, far too often I have seen these habits get in the way of just putting words on a page. Stacking too many requisites onto this hobby/habit/skill will create a barrier between you and your imagination. If a very specific kind of coffee is truly the only conduit to the stories in your head, if your expensive computer is the only medium with which you can express yourself, if that overpriced writing class taught by a smug asshole wearing a fedora is the only way you think you’ll be able to get in touch with your creative being, then something is truly wrong. You have thrown up roadblocks between you and your imagination. You have created an unnecessary barrier. Your inspiration may feed off of the experiences in your life, but your creativity is not dependent on the type of word processing program you have on your computer, or even whether you own a computer at all. Your imagination will not be fooled into compliance by writing “tricks” taught to you by well-meaning but otherwise clueless workshop presenters. The best piece of advice that I can, and do, give people when they ask about how to write is this:

Write. Just write. That’s all. It doesn’t even matter what you write, it just matters that you write.

No tricks. No gimmicks. No $400 writing workshops with prompts like, “In 500 words or less, describe what it would be like to be a doorknob!” (I actually got that one in a college class.) By virtue of being a living being upon this Earth, you have stories to tell and thoughts to share. Don’t let anything get in the way of those stories and thoughts. They are what make you human. You have to practice your craft, hone it, and make it your own. No one on Earth can find your voice but you.

I wrote my first book – a relatively short non-fiction piece published by my college’s press – entirely on public computers at the library on campus, surrounded on all sides and at all hours by every specimen of mouth-breather, smartass, and odoriferous miscreant known to mankind. I submitted my first published article for a [now-dead] website by sitting outside a public library in the middle of a freezing night, frantically typing last-minute corrections and add-ons before using the free wireless to submit the article. I used the back of receipts to write a story that came to me in a hotel room in Fargo, I’ve used napkins to sketch out an idea, I’ve even been known to pull to the side of the road in the middle of a trip just to use the voice recorder of my cell phone when a few perfect lines made an entire project fall into place. The medium and the circumstance never mattered – I was a writer, and so I wrote.

The only reason I feel all of this must be said is because I’ve known many writers who take such roundabout ways to their own imaginations that it is a wonder they can create at all. Some of them, unfortunately, get to the point where they can’t; the process of writing becomes too complicated, too much trouble, provoking too many conflicting ideas from a hundred different experts and authors, and the magic is broken. Whenever I meet a writer like that, I can’t help but feel heartbroken for them. Writing can be extremely painful, riling up emotions long dormant or making you question the entire direction of your life, but that is why we do it. Writing is how writers make sense of their world. I remember a quote from an author that sums it up perfectly: “If I didn’t write, I’d kill someone.” The creative types in the audience will know exactly what that author meant.

I have also been witness – far too many times to count – of people who swear that their Mac, or their Moleskine, or their whatever-the-hell makes them more creative. This is both ludicrous and infuriating. Congratulations, retailers have you exactly where they want you.

Companies have a vested interest in making artists believe that we need their merchandise and services in order to truly unleash our artistic spirit, that somehow by using their wares, we would suddenly ignite with innovatory passion and produce untold masterpieces of the human spirit. While I believe that there are many tools which can aid us, and that building a community of like-minded individuals with whom to openly discuss and critique our work can be eminently beneficial, it doesn’t replace just sitting down alone with the thoughts in your head and putting something on paper (or on screen). There is a stereotype of a scarf-wearing hipster sitting in Starbucks writing screenplays, but what is far more common are writers getting hung up on someone else’s idea of the creative process, rather than working through that process themselves. Taking advice from professionals, finding inspiration in the work of others, or re-evaluating your work based on the opinion of someone you trust is wonderful; just don’t let those opinions – and those alone – determine whether you write or not. Even if no one sees the words you write, they are still worthwhile, because they are your words, your story, your voice.

Be fearless.

I’ve often felt that writers are the most fortunate of all artists. We can create our masterpieces with nothing more than a stolen pen from the bank and a notebook we bought for a quarter at Wal-Mart, if that’s all we had available to us. We don’t need paints or canvases, we don’t need a script or a director, we don’t even need an instrument or a camera or anything else that is necessary equipment to so many other types of artists. We are the freest of all artists; free to roam, free to wonder, free to create with no true need for anything but a scrap of paper and a pencil stub.

So be fearless. Writing is not easy nor is it meant to be. There will be days (or weeks, or months) when your creative reservoirs are empty and the muse has abandoned you. It’s OK to still call yourself a writer during those times. It’s OK to still think of yourself as a creative person even when you are not actively creating. Just don’t use those times as an excuse to tell yourself that the reason you cannot write is because you need a better this, a prettier that, a newer how-to guide, one more piece of advice, or whatever.

Write. Just write. It doesn’t matter if your computer is the newest model of the most “creatively-inspired” brand-of-the-moment, and it doesn’t matter whether your notebooks sports organic paper and a smooth faux-leather cover. If those sorts of things heavily impact the quality of your writing, take a step back and try to remember why you first began to write. You’ll find that the yearning to express yourself through the written word is born of a deep love for weaving a story, creating a narrative, or telling a tale you feel needs to be told. That’s what matters. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Your second draft doesn’t even have to be perfect. Everything else will work itself out in due time. It’s so simple.

All you have to do is sit down and write.

9 replies on “On Being a Fearless Writer”

I’ve always got a notebook with me when I go walking. Physical activity really gets my mind working. But there are some things you shouldn’t write on; tables at cafes/bars/delis/whatever, for example. Not that I have any experience with that. ;)

If you don’t mind, what were you doing in Fargo? That’s my hometown.

I have a waterproof whiteboard in our family shower, because I always think the most when I’m washing my armpits.

The human mind is a bizarre thing.

Oh, and I’m very much a novice writer and still a teenager and barely know what I’m doing, but an A4 pad in my bag at all times makes me so, so happy.

Either you think quickly or you spend a lot of time scrubbing your pits, and…. I’m really not sure I want to know which it is :/

(Not that I’ve something against squeaky-clean pits [quite the opposite!], I just feel a bit odd speculating on the state of a guy on the internet’s pits.)

I tend to get  a lot thinking done in the shower as well. Never thought of putting a whiteboard in there though. When I’m winding to go to sleep, I’ve had a few ideas come to me as well, which is a pain because then I have to get out of bed and find a pen and a piece of paper.

Amen. Sometimes it’s messy to get all your notes on back sides of bills, pieces of paper and your note book into the document at your computer, but it doesn’t mean you should carry your computer around everywhere or wait for inspiration to strike at a more convenient time.

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