I’m beginning to see (after thirty years) that learning how to write is like learning how to put your baby to sleep, or keep your marriage happy, something that can’t be accomplished by following rules, even though the rules calm us down and help us stay in the maelstrom.

Let’s stay with that baby. People become rabid on the topic of how to get the baby to sleep, largely because it’s the first unpredicted moment of parenting– this force of nature, drilling itself relentlessly into the quiet hours of your night, depriving you of peace daily, hourly, until you are bleary and bloodshot and possibly psychotic, and you begin to understand that you are going to have to do this same thing for eighteen years unless you get the baby under control. So you read the books, and the books say, warningly, never touch the baby, or it will never learn to stop crying. Or: sleep with the baby, or it will grow up socially impaired. Or: whatever you do, don’t give the baby mixed messages, because then it will cry and be socially impaired. Each book layers a thin skin of hope over a cold kernel of certainty: you will not be able to follow any of these instructions. You are one big walking mixed message, a mixed message billboard. Your baby is going to grow up demanding, psychotic and omnipotent, while you go slowly insane. One day during this dark period of my life I read, like a voice in the wilderness, a person who said, here’s our rule: chef’s surprise. What we do with our baby on any given night depends on our mood, the baby’s mood, and how things go. In other words, there are no rules. There are ways. And you can try all of them without fear.

This is also true for writing. One day you will think, this is the best way, and the next day it will fail. Or, you might be like Trollope and wake up every single day for the rest of your life and do the same thing, without wavering, like one of those self-winding watches. When I first started writing I interviewed two famous writers because I was so desperate to figure out how it worked. I wasn’t interested in story, or metaphor, or character. I wanted to know, literally, what writers do every day. What kind of clothes you wear, where you sit, how you pay your bills and what happens when your mother calls asking you to meet the UPS guy at her house because you don’t have a job. They gave me two completely different answers. Lanford Wilson chased butterflies around his lush garden, ate pints of ice cream for dinner and wrote plays in wild twenty-day stretches. Richard Nelson woke up, put on a suit and tie, left his apartment and came back in after buying a cup of coffee on the corner, as if he were going to an office. You need to find your way. Try not to be intimidated by the guy who chases butterflies, if that’s not your thing, and don’t put on a suit if it drains you of hope. Some of the ways are pretty straightforward: nothing will happen if you don’t make words on a regular basis. Maybe a gush of words several times a year, or daily words, maybe ten words or ten thousand. The only truth is, if you never write, nothing can happen. Try to write words. And you should probably read some words that other people have written.

People who give advice make life appear pristine: march steadily from the imagined outcome to the successful outcome. So I imagine a pristine solution: write every day for three hours without fail. Then I fail. And then, mercifully, somebody says “people always say they write every day, but nobody does.” I try to remind myself: do my best.

I had that feeling again, of being both intimidated and stifled by the plethora of people out there, pitching tents on the Internet. A crowded, clamoring forum, everybody listing accomplishments, outlining projects, trying to seem more successful than they actually are. The most popular bloggers have a similar bio: some failure led to a great success, the writer (consultant, motivational speaker, life coach) reinvented, baptized by fires of defeat. A more likely truth: we are not always improved. There are short straws and long straws and we will draw some of each, and some people will draw more of one than the other, not always because they deserve it. There’s failure—I tried to be a professional athlete and didn’t have enough talent; I wanted to write but lacked drive. And there’s bad luck— I wanted a happy marriage but never met anybody; I wanted a long life but got sick. It’s hard to talk about defeat, especially in the can-do cyber-universe. Every narrative is subtly framed as a step in the direction of eventual triumph. A consoling template until we meet a road block that won’t be moved, or until the road dwindles to a path, and then a trail, and then disappears. How do we talk about loss? How do we talk about aging? How can we talk frankly and truthfully about life without talking about death?

I read A Room of One’s Own, and it was incredibly comforting. Woolf talked about how the psychology of women and the history of women and the social and political place of women in our culture works against becoming a writer. Even though she wrote it 85 years ago and the circumstances of women have improved, I was comforted. Because I saw, in her descriptions, my own vacillations, and hesitations, and built-in sense of failure. Who am I to write something? What in the world do I have to say? Why should anybody listen to me?

Her friendly, brilliant, funny mind, cutting to the quick of the horror without becoming dramatic, or lugubrious, or enraged, just deftly laying it out, reminding us of Shakespeare’s sister, and the Beadle who keeps you off the grass and locks the library doors, with an anthropologist’s detached fascination, a humorist’s eye for irony, so you can bear to read it, you feel almost uplifted by it: of course men can write, because they are in a warm study, eating pudding and drinking port, while we chew tough prunes and drink cheap wine.

Woolf said no wonder women haven’t written. Maybe in a hundred years we will have women writers, because women will have gotten permission to do lots of things– vote, have money, run their own business, get divorced. As she predicted, the subjugation of women has been coming to an end, and more women are writing. But still. There are no men in mother’s groups. Men don’t volunteer at school. And the women who work successfully sometimes seem like mutations, unexpectedly full of themselves, unexpectedly driven, or self-absorbed, or focused. They are different from most women, who still, in spite of everything, do the shopping and make dinner and keep track of doctor’s appointments and socks, choose no work at all but instead volunteer, or wait to work, half-time, when the kids are in school.

Success breeds enthusiasm, and practice breeds success. That is the feedback loop, the mysterious spinning top that, once you hop on, just keeps turning: you work, you have success, success makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic, so you work, which brings success, which makes you feel energetic and enthusiastic. The secret question: how do you get that top spinning? When you are a boy, men run along beside you, helping you build momentum, giving you a push, encouragement. Institutions do it if your father or your uncle won’t, schools and banks and professional sports teams; history will inspire you, or the newspaper, filled with men building things, making and changing rules. For a girl, even today, after so much time, those influences are not robust. Maybe your mother stayed home, and her life was spent organizing the kitchen cabinets. She can say, you are such a hard worker, I saw your movie, I’m so impressed, but she can’t tell you how to do it, and she’s a little baffled, even bored, by your struggle. She has other engagements. She has dinner to cook, laundry, she wants to play bridge. And the institutions– well, so much history still belongs to men and so many books, so when you write what that you think about they say, “that’s a kitchen play,” or a “kitchen poem,” which is to say, not serious. Muddled. Parochial. Private. You can fuck the professor, and grade his papers, but you don’t get invited to his poker parties, and nobody sits you down and says look, if you want to be a writer, here’s how to do it. You yourself are paralyzed by politeness, wanting to be nice. You linger at the door, waiting for an opportunity to sit down and talk, waiting for somebody to invite you in. All that time they spent playing the piano, or playing soccer, you spent getting tan, painting yourself with baby oil and lying on the hot grass out back, buying the dress (blue with rhinestone straps, and silver shoes to match) that you would write the poem about, the poem about the boy who broke up with you, the poem that won a prize, one year before the Harvard professor told you that you wrote kitchen poems and kept you out of his class.

Woolf says the whole world of women is different, the things we value, the way we talk to each other, the way we think and what we think about. So it’s not as simple as having the Beadle unlock the library and stepping inside, sitting down at the table and joining the conversation. What we find there will seem alien, both because we have been raised in the kitchen, and because our thinking about the world is different. Either because of our genes, or because of the things we learned in the kitchen, taking care of children and men.