10 Things That Should Never Stop You from Writing Your Story
By Amy Shearn
October 15, 2012
Everyone has at least one. Don't let anxiety—or the goblins of self-doubt—keep you from telling yours. 1. The Wrong Pen. Or Plum Tree
Real writers compose longhand with feather quills plucked from golden geese. Or wait, no, they clack away at gleamy MacBooks in cafes. Or no, make that typewriters in secluded garden huts. No, sorry, the quill pen, but under a plum tree in bloom, and if the plum tree isn't in bloom, then, sorry, no words makey story. We are all fascinated with the tools of writers' trade, but the truth is, whatever works, works, whether you're a Moleskin addict or you swear by the friendly wink of the Microsoft Word cursor. Here's a hint: If you're feeling as if that blank document is starting to sneer at you, mix it up. Perhaps you'll do better with a languid stretch of lined yellow paper or, you know, notes scribbled in crayon on the backs of receipts that you then carry around in your purse for a year. To paraphrase a misplaced maxim: It's not the tools that make the writer; it's the act of writing.
2. An Impressively Terrible First Sentence
Believe it or not, a terrible first sentence is a gift from the universe. It means that each sentence to follow will be better.
3. Aunt Ethel's Disapproving Glare
The fear that you'll offend your family—and that Thanksgiving will be as awkward as it was during your vegan stage—is totally normal. The good news is that everyone who's ever read a memoir knows you're telling your big-T-Truth. So, by all means, write bravely and honestly and to your own pure reading self. When the big questions surface ("What if everyone is mad at me and hates me and thinks I'm a huge jerk after they read it?"), focus on the writing itself, one word after another, like literary marching. Your job is to write the best way you know how. Should it become a book, should Aunt Ethel enthusiastically preorder it and recommend it to her book group—sexy bits, family skeletons and all —you'll have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that she knew what she was getting into when she decided to read it.
4. Your (Long-Past) 30th Birthday
You know why there's so much noise when someone gets a huge book deal or writes a best-seller before she can legally drink? It's because it's unusual. If you find yourself sitting down to write for the first time during some unspecified stretch of middle age, you're in good company. Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison didn't publish her first book until she was 39; Alice Munro, that beloved chronicler of the human spirit and frequent New Yorker contributor, published her first story collection at 37; E.L. James was in her late 40s when she wrote her debut, some novel called...50 Shades of Grey. It just may be that you have to live your story before being able to write your story.
5. The Fear That You Will Never Finish
Here's a secret about creative blocks They often have important messages stowed within them. I once knew a man who had been working on the first chapter of his memoir for 40 years and was convinced he was incapable of finishing the book. It was a great chapter. Perfect, really—each sentence a masterpiece, painstakingly polished until the chapter was like a handful of jewels; in short, a cry for help. It took about 12 seconds of conversation to discover that he was dreading reliving the painful part of the story: when he came out to his parents and they disowned him. He was like an animal favoring an injured paw, limping narratively around the pain. But if you can work through the obstacle currently in your way, you are almost guaranteed writerly remunerations of some sort. The solution to that perfect, orphaned first chapter? The author decided to focus first on writing a personal essay—an attainable goal he could accomplish that could serve as a jumping-off point—both emotionally and confidence-building-wise—to his next, slightly bigger project: Chapter 2. Baby steps, gentle writers. Baby steps.
Next: The exercise you should try the next time you sit down to writeEveryone has at least one. Don't let anxiety—or the goblins of self-doubt—keep you from telling yours. 6. Derisive Elves in Your Furniture
The next time you sit down to write, engage, if you will, in this proven-to-be-effective writing exercise: Peek under all the cushions of your couch. Glance beneath your desk. Crouch down to spy under the bed. Do you see little elves ready to laugh in your face and call you a fraud as soon as you start writing? No? Good—that's because they're not real. Do you see lots of dust bunnies? Good—you've been spending time doing creative work more important than cleaning.
7. The Mount Everest of Laundry
Speaking of dust bunnies...there are 50 million more urgent things you should be doing right now than writing. But the socks will get paired somehow eventually; the writing won't happen unless you make it. Focusing on telling this story might just be the most important thing you can do today.
8. A Seemingly Broken Word-Count Tool
We've all heard of writers whose books descend like tidal waves while they lock themselves in their secluded garret and write in a frenzy for 10 days straight without breaks for food or water or an episode of The Voice. But there are as many ways to create as there are people. Your free time might not be so plentiful. Take heart—great works can be created in small bursts. Remember Alice Munro, she of the debut book at almost the age of 40? She wrote her first book of short stories over 20 years in stolen slivers of time while her three children were napping or otherwise occupied. Graham Greene, the prolific novelist and journalist, was famous for writing exactly 500 words a day (that's less than two pages) and then stopping, even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Math break! If you write 500 words a day—say, before or after work, or during a lunch break even—for five days a week, by the end of a year you'll have 130,000 words, or a 500-something-page draft of a book.
9. The Anticipated Pile of Rejection Letters
It is possible that you will work very hard for a long time writing something and that no one will want to publish it. (Not to nag, but they definitely won't publish your story if you never write it.) So what if they don't offer a book contract or placement in a major magazine? There are tons of self-publishing options. And, not to beat a dead anecdote, but surely you've heard that Walt Whitman's classic long poem Leaves of Grass was self-published? Not to mention this thing called the Internet, wherein scores of excellent writers have honed their skills and seen their work grow from humble blogs to full-fledged paper publications: the Bloggess, the Pioneer Woman and Rurally Screwed, to name just a few.
10. The Idea That Someone Else Could Tell It Better
It's easy to psych yourself out thinking about how someone else has already told a story like yours, and has probably done it better. But no one—think of that, no one—has lived exactly your life, has exactly your way of seeing things, exactly your way of describing the rubies of blood stinging to the surface of your knee when you fell racing your kindergarten best friend and she kept running anyway. The great Marilynne Robinson once told me that you must write the story you want to read. This is how you can keep from losing your nerve, from obsessing over who has done it better or getting mired in the muck of what-do-you-think-you-are-doing-anyway. Think of what you'd like to read but never have. That is the story that only you can write.