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.