How many times have you been told to "show, not tell," or that it's important to "write what you know?"
While these tried- and true- adages about writing are important, equally important are the tactics and habits that good writers develop unconsciously, and that thus often fail to make their way into any Beginning Writer's Handbook.
1--Turn off your ipod. Writing is about people—how they communicate, behave, and interact. You can only learn about people through observation, so rather than cranking the ipod when you’re on the subway, street, or bus, listen to people instead. Cultivate the fine art of eavesdropping, and of spying on people while pretending to be staring blankly into space. Go ahead and peep if you have to! Just don’t get arrested.
2--Go to therapy. You know how I said that writing is about people, and how they behave, speak, and interact? Well, it’s also about what they feel. And you’ll never have better access to feelings than to your own. You need to understand them, to think about what motivates and frightens you, what brings you happiness or provokes anxiety. So get a therapist! If you can’t afford a shrink, spend some time journaling your thoughts, or meet with friends for a good old heart-to-heart. Bonus? You’ll get closer with your friends.
3--Go stir-crazy. Imagination is a skill. Like any other skill, it can be strengthened through habit--and conversely, will run to seed if it isn’t exercised, like a butt that gets parked too often on a couch). Actually, butts and imagination have a lot in common: TV and endless web surfing takes a toll on each. It’s so easy, nowadays, to take refuge in worlds that have already been imagined for us—in books, movies, webisodes, cute kitten videos on Youtube. But that means that our own imaginative capacity never gets its workout. Power down the ipads, nooks, kindles, TV, and computers for a day, and feel that crazy, itchy, gotta-do-something-cuz-real-life-is-boring burn. Start daydreaming. Start fantasizing. Think yourself into different characters and different worlds.
4—Delete Angry Birds from your phone. Writing is hard. Writing often sucks. And unless you’re paid a gajillion dollars to write already, you’re probably trying to juggle writing while in school, or working, or popping out babies, or all of the above. There will always be many competing claims for your time and attention. But you know what? All of us—even the busiest among us--have five minutes here and there when we’re alone, and bored, and we surf facebook or start lobbing birds at various architecturally unsound structures. And instead of doing that, we should be writing. I wrote Before I Fall while commuting between a full time job, full-time graduate school, and part-time work at a nightclub. In spare moments on the subway or yes, in the bathroom, I typed paragraphs on my Blackberry, later emailing them to myself so I could cut and paste into a word doc. Two hundred words is better than no words. Forty words is better than no words—and if you have time to compose that pithy tweet, you have time to bang out forty words.
5--Be selfish. See entry #4. Right now, as you’re reading this, you probably should be doing something else: laundry, data entry for your boss, homework, calling mom. . .The list of obligations we’re all trying to juggle on a daily basis could fill a novel in itself (a really boring novel, but a novel nonetheless). It’s really hard to make time for writing, especially before you’ve been paid to do it; writing time usually comes dead last on a list on the list of Important To-Dos. But it shouldn’t. If you love it, it should be a daily part of your life. Period. Train yourself to value it above almost everything else except, I don’t know, peeing and eating. You can go without clean socks for a day—no one will notice. You can talk to your friends tomorrow or over the weekend. Writing is just as important as your homework. And take-out exists for a reason. Make time to write. Pretend you’re already getting paid for it, and one day you will be.
6--Take a humiliating job. I’ve worked in a variety of service jobs in my life I’ve waitressed at a rowdy Canadian bar in Paris where ex-pats liked to puke up their poutine in the bathroom; I’ve worked in swanky clubs where the patrons thought it was funny to insult the servers (when they weren’t trying to grab your ass). I’ve been called every bad name in the book—and some that aren’t in it—by leering, drunken a-holes with nothing better to do. And you know what? I’m glad. As a writer, you have to be prepared for hard criticism, rejection, and humiliation. You have to develop a thick skin, and a desire to persevere, even when you feel like crawling into a hole and putting a blanket over your head...preferably until you suffocate. So get your practice early. Toughen up. Get insulted. Get rejected and criticized. And let it roll off your back. That way, the first round of rejection letters won’t even phase you. Or the second. Or the third.
Bonus? You’ll have interesting backstory when you finally land that feature profile in the New York Times!
7—Develop a gym habit. This is strange, but half of my breakthrough ideas have occurred when I’m at the gym or taking a long run. I think it has something to do with relaxation: the brain, typically dominated by everyday concerns about bills, dinner, relationship issues, future plans, detaches from “conscious” worries, which permits the subconscious mind to start firing out ideas. If huffing on a treadmill isn’t your idea of relaxation, try yoga, or knitting, or something physical and repetitive that allows your conscious mind to “switch off.” Bonus? A hot body...or hand-knitted scarves for all your friends and fam at Christmas. :)
8—Shower more. You know how I said that half my breakthrough ideas have occurred when I’m exercising? The other half have hit me when I’m in the shower. (See above for my theories on relaxation and the unconscious mind.) So steam up your bathroom and soap up. Bonus? Your significant other will thank you!
Let me know what you think!