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 write


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