On Cultivating Instinct As An Inkslinging Storyspinning Penmonkey Type

I get emails.

These emails, they’re drenched in impatience and uncertainty. Sopping with it. Drippy.

And I get it.

These are fundamental, deep-seated, stomach-squirming and gut-churning questions of, “Am I making a mistake? Can I do this? Should I do this? How do I know? Will I ever know? Am I really a writer? Am I any good? Will I ever get better? Do I smell burned toast? Do I hear ducks? Where are my pants?”

So: if you’re a writer of any age, any experience level, any stripe-or-polka-dot, let me say: it’s totally reasonable to be asking these questions. It’s completely normal to feel like a fucking lunatic, to feel like a half-assed failure, to feel like it’s inevitable that this house of snowflakes and eggshells you’ve built for yourself will fall apart above your head just as soon as someone notices what a fake-ass freak you are.

It’s completely natural to just not know. To not know your skill level, your talent, your future. To not know what comes next. Everything a big neon question mark like all your life is The Riddler just fucking with you, throwing riddle and rhyme upon you to always keep you ever-guessing.

It’s fine.

It is. Really. It’s fine, and normal, and much as it sucks: it’s totally cool.

And I’m going to tell you how you get past all this.

I’m going to give you Yet Another Holy Shit Writing Secret, the kind handed down from the Ancient Ink-Dark Gods to the Ululating Monks of the Temple of the Intrepid Penmonkey. Ready? Here goes.

You need to cultivate your instincts.

You’re not born with them. Okay, fine, some writers seem like they hatch out of a Mother Egg with all the talent and instinct required to be a fully-formed-and-forged Bestselling Author. But most? Not so much. Not me. Probably not you. We enter into this thing with only the desire. We don’t come complete with the skill-sets. We don’t come with the talent, the experience. We just plum don’t have the instincts.

Two ways you get the instincts —

First, age. And there ain’t shit nor shoeshine you can do about that. We all age one minute at a time, the days passing at the same rate for everybody, so — put that one out of your mind. Just know that as you get older, your instincts for most things sharpen (which is often in equal measure a recognition of how little we actually know, for our lack of certainty gives way to the birth of instinct).

The second way?

By doing it. By making it happen. By daily taking the dream and dragging in into the light of day where you make that sonofabitch as real as you can make it. What that means on a practical level is:

Reading and writing.

(And, to a degree, just living your life. But living is like intellectual fuel for your writing and storytelling and here I’m talking more about the talents and instincts needed, and those only come from the act of completing your desire by acting, of evoking talent by the very dint of doing that shit.)

You read, and you read critically.

You write, and you write critically.

And you do both of these things as often as humanly possible.

Which means: daily.

DAILY.

Daily!

This isn’t a thing that happens overnight. It’s not like you spend three months writing a novel and it’s suddenly — bam! “I get it now! I’m like Saul on the Road to Damascus! The hard crust of sleep-boogers has fallen from my eyes! I AM WRITER, BEHOLD MY GOLDEN STORY VOMIT.”

I didn’t just sit down and write Blackbirds out of nowhere. It didn’t just fall out of my fool head like yams out of an upended can. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I started trying to write professionally at the age of 18 (and that’s when my first story was published). This has taken well over half of my life. I wrote six books before Blackbirds, all of them easily described with the quality of “mostly ass.”

And this is why the hardest but straightest-arrow advice for all writers is: write your way through it. Write your way through writer’s block, through plot problems, through everything. Write every day. Write unceasingly, without fear, without the need for certainty. Write blogs, tweets, short stories, short-short stories, novels, comic scripts, film scripts, drug scripts, whatever you can. Because over time, you find that you… just get better. And not only that: you start to know why and how you’re getting better. That’s instinct forming — equal parts callus and built-muscle. You soon start to get a handle on how words can and should go together. You start to not just see story as a mechanical clockwork thing, but rather, you start to get a feel for it. Less intellectual, more emotional.

And then, when you read, that makes more sense, too. You start to see the layers behind the layers. All the sub rosa shit that goes into a story — stuff that’s conscious and not-so-conscious and that forms the fabric of good story, bad story, and all the qualities in between. You write to put it in practice.

You read to see how others do the same.

Reading and writing, reading and writing.

Not just for pleasure. But to understand. To know what the fuck it all means.

But, like I said: doesn’t happen overnight.

Takes time. Often lots of it.

Which makes this the hardest advice of them all. Everyone wants a short-cut. Everyone wants an easy answer, like you can just take an aptitude test or go visit a fucking palm-reader or haruspex to give you the truth you seek. But the only truth is, it takes the time that it takes. Five, ten, twenty years. You can’t accelerate your age (at least not without evil science). But you can accelerate the other part. You can read as much as you can. And you can write as much as you can.

You do both of those things every day, and soon you’ll feel eyes opening that had long been closed.

That’s the secret.

TELL NO ONE.

(shhhh)