There is a lively discussion that always follows this question when it’s asked within groups and communities of writers.
But, before I can answer this question…
I need to first explain why I write.
I write because it is a way to give form to the need to express emotions that are hard to describe. The story becomes a vehicle to work those emotions out. The process of writing untaps all kinds of images, experiences, ideas, thoughts, and that process is fundamentally satisfying. Perhaps I’ll explain more about this on another blog post.
So when do you know it’s time to begin writing something, really?
I know it is time to start writing when it becomes difficult to read someone else’s book, or watch someone else’s movie. When I find myself wanting to imagine a world to get lost within, perhaps a big library overlooking a manicured garden on a rainy winter afternoon, that is when I know. When you seek not only the escape of a story, but also the control of your own story, that is when it’s time to start writing.
I got to this point of wanting to daydream my own story a few times before, and on the second episode it led me down the path of writing the multicultural fiction novel, Finding Warrior Pose.
Now let me share a few things about my path to becoming a writer. First, despite having a great liberal arts education and a master’s degree, I have taken exactly one creative writing class – in high school. Second, although my profession does require me to write, that writing tends to be technical in nature – writing positioning documents or website copy and such. That is to say, aside from my ability to imagine and a life-long love of reading honed at libraries by the age of 8, I really have no special talent or ability to write.
But what I did have was other people’s advice. Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird remains for me the ultimate guidepost.
Because writing a novel is overwhelming.
When I began, I first started to sketch out some character ideas and describe the characters in a word document. I then created in Microsoft Excel a possible plot, with a row for each section of the plot and a column series that included main characters, and then I tried to plot out each chapter and what would happen. I then went back and also kept embellishing the character’s descriptions and who they were.
Once I started writing, I quickly found out that there is no substitute to actually writing. Yes, it was obviously fine to imagine a possible plot scene on the subway when I had ten minutes, but it rarely ever led to completed writing. Sure, I could put “write every day for 20 minutes” on my to-do list, but procrastination and the fear of a blank page could be debilitating. All that said, though, the only way to write my novel would be to actually write it, and that meant sitting down to my computer to write, without the TV on, with the Internet access turned off, without any distractions, for some set period of time on a regular basis. Knowing that I only had to focus on one task that day, that half inch picture frame assignment of writing as Annie would call it, made it bearable. Because I did not have to mentally solve “everything” about my book, I just had to do that one little task. Most times my writing sessions would net maybe 500 words. But I kept doing it. Every time I sat down to write, I’d inch the story along, well, half-inch the story along.
Once I sat down to write is also when Annie Lamott’s second piece of advice kicked in, about shitty first drafts. You see, what often happens to me is that I start out just really weak. This is the same process when I run. Most runs, instead of feeling like a beautiful, gazelle like creature gliding through my run listening to music and smiling like I’m on a Nike commercial, I feel instead like a clunky fool, wearing mismatched clothing, clodding about on flat feet, bad posture and knowing that this would only be a max 15 minute run and it would all feel bad and miserable and it would be terrible. Writing was no different. I’d stare at the page wishing I could do anything but write, coming up with all sorts of procrastination chores. But here is Annie saying – “hey that’s ok, it’s totally ok to have the world’s shittiest first draft”. So I got really used to embracing a terrible, terrible shitty first draft of a half inch picture frame. I gave myself the “out” to let the quality and judgement go. That was the only way I could start, was from the very ground level.
But anyway, the last, crucial piece of advice is that when you start writing, what I did was put a time on it. I would say: I will write for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, rarely any more than that, and whatever time I gave myself, I would suffer the fear of the blank page, the mental exhaustion of trying to tie a story together, the lack of diversion of the internet, and I would agree with the nasty, know it all voice that said this was a totally pointless exercise, that I might never finish the book nor publish it, and it would probably be terrible and no one would care, but all that being said, since I’d committed to spend this 20 minutes pounding out some writing, I might as well not be totally pathetic and get to it.
“It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to get done”. - That was what an onlooker cheered at me at mile 20 of my first (and only) marathon race. I was sweaty and beginning to decompensate, but it stuck. If you want to start writing, it might not look pretty, but if you put your mind to it, it will get done.