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)

53 comments

  • How did you get to be so right?

    Do you mind if I start worshiping you as a heathen god? Do you mind if I cover myself in pigeon’s blood and dance naked round a burning pyre of anti-Wendigists?

    Well do you? DO YOU?!

    • @Liam:

      I do not merely accept it, but I demand it.

      In fact, this sounds like you haven’t been doing this all along.

      I’ll be sending agents to your home momentarily for reeducation.

      — c.

  • So basically, the secret is there is no secret. Reading and writing and living daily is no secret. But for the first time every, I’m okay with that. I guess age really is a factor.

    Thank you for this great nonsecret secret! :)

  • http://conceptart.org/forums/showthread.php?227508-Ally-Albon-s-Sketchbook
    This is a friend of mine who has both talent and dedication. In her conceptart sketchbook you can see her improving and developing in a relatively short time just through sheer determination and daily hard work. She inspired me, because I figured if this worked for her art, perhaps it could work for my writing. Then I found this blog post of Chuck’s, so now I’m completely convinced that God, or fate, or life, or whatever the hell you wanna call it, is pointing the way. First time for fucking everything, I guess. ;o)

  • Writing critically is key, and writing critically about reading. There are so many writers to whom I am connected on Twitter who never write a critical word about anyone or anything. All they do is update me on their writing progress, and you know what? I am completely uninterested in reading their novels and whatnot because despite having been connected to them for… let’s see, years now, and reading their updates — I still have no idea who they or what they believe. And I expect to find the same lack of courage in their work.

    • @Laroquod:

      First: the site is moderated, so certain comments fall into spam (yours did for some reason).

      Also: I don’t think it’s necessary for writers to publicly be critical of other authors they’ve read — they can, but many don’t want to, and I don’t blame them. That’s not, to me, what “writing critically” is about.

      — c.

  • One of the reasons why I self-published in the first place was because finally someone was going to read it. It became more important, and so I started really learning the craft. A few years have gone by. Age brings perspective, it brings ‘living your life’ as you mention in the post. It brings instinct, and I trust my instincts more now than I did as a seventeen year-old. Good post, thank you.

  • It’s funny how many people want the shortcut without putting in the work. If it were easy, we’d all be bazillionaires by now. If you haven’t sweat droplets of blood, then you’re doing it wrong.

  • Thanks for this.

    I look at it like this: Writing is like dancing. While few are born with magic feet, once you start dancing, it becomes statistically impossible to become a worse dancer. Keep dancing and listen to the rhythm. Eventually, your feet and the beat will meet.

  • Can I publicly declare my writerly love for you? Here you go – LOVE IT. And about seeing the layers behind the layers – THAT just dawned on me yesterday. That double-reality of great fiction. It reads well when it’s not what it is. What an epiphany. Onward!

  • @Chuck. I see your point. I guess reading your article just triggered me to go thinking about something else. Namely, how boring self-published authors on Twitter and how little any of them ever say that truly makes me want to read any of their books.

  • > living is like intellectual fuel for your writing and storytelling
    Well put.

    Life’s not a specator’s sport, although de Bono would argue the world is made up of Doers and Describers.

  • Chuck, I had something profound to say about this awesome timely post, but a big black van just pulled up outside and it has a military-looking insignia on it that says “Certified Penmonkey Re-Education Corps” on it. Two beefy no-neck gentlemen all dressed in black just got out, carrying sticks…my doorbell just rang.

    O.o

  • Sure, now you tell me… AFTER I finished the damned book and sent it off to my first readers. AFTER spending… depending on how you count… either 4 months, 4 years, or SINCE I WAS IN FOURTH GRADE getting the first novel together… suddenly NOW the secret is patience. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH PRODUCTIVE TIME I WASTED ON TEQUILA AND COUGH SYRUP, BECAUSE NO ONE TOLD ME IT WAS PATIENCE?

  • Hi Chuck,

    Impressive post. It really hit hard on some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve meddled at writing for years (20+ if I’m honest with myself). Over those years I’ve managed to write a few things I considered ‘good enough’, yet I’ve never submitted anything. There was always this nagging voice whispering at the back of my skull, “You have nothing to say.”

    But now, having turned 40 years old, and raising a toddler that (so far) loves her books, I look back at all the crazy shit I’ve done over the years – mostly unhealthy to myself – and I begin to think I have something to say.

    I realize it makes no sense to anyone other than me, but I still want to say it. And if I can entertain others in the process so much the better.

    Age does indeed bring instinct. Now, back to learning the craft. See you at Crossroads.

    @mrmikemyself

  • Chuck! You’re funny, you’re good, you’re…. right! Thank you for the hilarious reminder. Bring on the sweat droplets of blood – I thought I had already sweat blood, but I’m thinking not even close. Peace!

  • Really dig this one. I’m a senior at a University in Wisconsin for English Rhetoric/Writing, and it was only a couple years ago when the gears finally started to shift into the right place (though admittedly, they’re not all firing the way they’re supposed to, though more are locking into the right order). I kicked my ass into gear and started reading more. A literature class on Milton enthralled me and allowed me to examine work outside my normal spectrum of reading. I’ve pushed that further and tried to continue to devour work like ravenous swine. This summer was the first time it clicked that I needed to make writing became more and more apart of my everyday life. I wrote, at least in some form (journaling at the minimum) every day, even when I was on vacation. It has now become so engrained that if I don’t write outside of class/notes, there is this gnawing feeling in the back of my head that tries to smash my head into the keyboard or extend my hand towards a pencil. It’s a good feeling.

  • I have a question:
    Is there anything wrong with fashioning a career out of being “a ‘short story writer?'” Meaning, someone who, for one reason or another, can not or does not want to do 80,000-100,000 word epics; just smaller works of 8,000-10,000 words or less. Thanks, Scott.

  • The process is more important than the outcome, imho, and while dreaming about being a writer is fine, it won’t happen without a whole lotta practice. Thanks for the reminder…

  • This is everything and more. The reason that it’s a secret is because we have to remind ourselves of this everyday. This certainly applies to me. Thanks so much! :)

  • The questions of “am I a writer?,” “will I ever be a writer?” are valid, as you say. When do you know you’re there?

    A person knows when they’re a plumber once they a licensed and experienced enough to take it on as a profession. A cook knows they’re doing it right when their end product consistently pleases the palet.

    When does a person know they’re a writer? When they are finally published? I’ve been published twice. Am I a writer? I don’t know. Many people enjoy my blog posts and short stories. Many others rip them apart with frank yet sometimes brutal critiques.

    But am I a writer? I sure don’t make a living at it. I make a living cooking professionally. I was recently promoted to a chef’s position. I get paid to run a kitchen.

    However, I write. And I’ll continue to write.

  • Thank for this great advice.

    It’s been too long since I actually just sat down and wrote something, the entire time I beat myself up for not being perfect, for being a failure of a writer and the solution is simple, time. And work.

    Great advice :) Thank you.

  • You know, if I was an evil mastermind who knew the secret of becoming a good writer overnight with a few cheap and easy fixes, I’d probably tell everyone that it was about time, hard work, persistence and developing your instincts too. Well played, Wendig. Well played.

    Now tell me the secret, you bastard.

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