I go to conventions and conferences, that’s the question I get asked.
“How do you write?”
“How do I write?”
The question can mean all kinds of things. How does one write day to day? Or how does one become — and remain, and simply be — a writer? What’s it like? How to start? How to keep it going? WILL THERE BE BOURBON AND SHAME? (Yes to at least one of those.)
It’s sometimes accompanied by the look of a truck-struck possum.
It may come with an exhortation of bewilderment and exasperation.
A sound not unlike, whuhhh, or pffffffh. Cheeks puffed out. Lips working soundlessly.
This is a difficult question. It’s difficult because you’re you and I’m me. Each writer isn’t a snowflake until they are, and this is one of the ways that they are — we are cartographers of our own journeys, charting the map as we go and then burning it soon after. The way I did it isn’t the way that Joe Hill did it, or Kameron Hurley, or Delilah S. Dawson, or Kevin Hearne, or Heinlein or Dante or that one weird dude who wrote the Bible (his name was “The Prophet Scott” and he had one eye and a romantic eye for tired sheep).
Just the same, I feel like I should draw you a map.
I should attempt to answer the question.
None of this will be helpful. Zero of it will be factual.
But maybe it’ll give you a glimpse — a sense — of the scope of the thing.
The very short answer is:
“YOU JUST DO,” and that’s it.
You do it by doing. It’s like asking, “How do I open a door?” You just fucking do it. I dunno. Part of me thinks this should always be the answer, often jabbered in loud, caps-lock volume.
The still-short but not-as-short answer is:
You clench your buttocks together and tighten your middle and bite down on the belt and then you stab the fountain pen into your heart to suck up a draught of your vitalmost blood and you write furiously and without hesitation or pretension the story that lived there in the deepest part of your pulsing aorta. And you keep scribbling over it and rewriting over the scribbles until that story is as good as you can make it without killing yourself or taking up all your time.
That, too, may not be helpful.
So, let’s try the all-too-long version.
You start by reading because to want to be a writer you should first need to be a reader — no writers need to be writers despite what they’ll tell you but all writers need to be readers, full-stop, no arguments, don’t sass me. You learn to want to write by loving to read.
Then you decide to write and at first you write for yourself but soon you realize you write for other people — or at least one other person — and you write silly stories as a Wee Tiny Person, stories that might be called MOON BADGERS or THE DAY THE OCEAN POOPED THE SKY or some mythic pop-culture syncretism like FINN AND JAKE FIGHT THE KRAKEN or SCOOBY-DOO VERSUS THE BOYS OF ONE DIRECTION and maybe you illustrate these stories with whatever burnt umber crayons you’ve got hanging about.
Somewhere along the way you maybe stop writing for a while because it feels weird to not be that good at it, because it just doesn’t match the stories you read and love.
Eventually a teacher teaches you things about writing. They teach you good lessons and bad ones. Some things stick. Some things don’t. The bones of the skeleton form, awkward and herky-jerky and with a funky palsy lean, but it’s there, these bones, and it looks familiar, and somewhere you think, “This would look better with some meat and sinew packed onto its frame.”
So, you write again.
And it’s still not great, but you try to emulate the voices of other writers you love. And it’s a crass mockery of their work but it’s better just the same, and so you do this for a long time, as long as you need to. You likely run through other voices like it’s a catalog — you pick them and write them, Lovecraft to Frank Herbert to Stephen King to Margaret Atwood to Some New Young Writer I Haven’t Heard Of Yet Because You’re Just That Cool And I’m Just That Not.
Somewhere along the way, you think, I could really do this.
And people laugh. Or encourage you to your face while making panic-stricken faces behind your back. Or they tell you do to something else, anything else, be an accountant, doctor, truck driver, artificial horse inseminator (which is to say one who inseminates artificial horses artificially), and they wave their hands around like you’re careening toward a bridge that’s out ahead.
You drive past them, heading toward the shattered bridge.
And you drive off the bridge because all writers drive off the bridge.
You take the plunge.
You write and write and write, and you write to whatever direction you think the market is going. You write the Hot Genres, from Vampire Nuns to Erotic Kalepunk to Literary Doge to whatever is you think is going to sell the book, and you study agents and you study publishers and you think about self-publishing and really, honestly, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. You finish one out of every ten books you start. The ones you finish feel weird, like they were written by someone else, like maybe you just walked into a room where the angles are off and the mirrors are cracked and it sounds like a television is on with that white noise weirdness but you see no TV — these books seem written by a doppelganger, some alt-world version of you, but you figure fuck it, this is what writing is, and so you keep trying to do it.
Writing and writing and writing.
And reading and reading and reading.
And thinking, too. You study writing advice. You get good lessons. You get bad lessons. You take it all to heart, all the useful bits and shitty rules, and maybe along the way you go to school for writing and you give some institution tens of thousands of dollars to make you a writer, and once more: good stuff, bad stuff, all of it goes into the crockpot to make the stew-beef slurry that is your writerly soul. Bubble, bubble, bourbon and trouble.
You think: I NEED THESE RULES BECAUSE RULES MAKE THE WRITING GO. You cleave to them like a thirsting man licking tears from the face of a sad panda.
Then later you decide: I HATE THESE RULES BECAUSE ALL RULES AND NO CHAOS MAKE WRITER A DULL BOY. You discard them like ruined underpants.
Eventually you figure out: SOME RULES ARE CRITICAL AND OTHER RULES ARE LESS SO AND SOME RULES AREN’T RULES AT ALL AND WRITING IS DIFFERENT FROM STORYTELLING AND I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS I SERIOUSLY CANNOT DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THIS.
So you go back to the basics.
You keep writing.
You keep reading.
You start to submit work.
Maybe something small. Maybe something big.
Maybe to a magazine. Or an agent. Or a publisher. Or to a digital marketplace as a self-publisher.
You, of course, are rejected. Or reviewed poorly.
And, of course, it stings like a motherfucker.
It hurts your heart. And within the tear made in that most necessary of muscles, the fungus of self-doubt grows — fuzzy and black, sucking the confidence out of you with the hunger of a leech, with the tenacity of a tumor, and for a while you just sit and rock back and forth on your heels wondering if you should really do this thing. And others hesitantly agree out of what they perceive to be a kindness — once more they try to steer you from a sure collision with disaster, hoping you’ll turn your boat away from the waterfall ahead.
And yet you chug on.
The boat goes over the falls.
Over the falls, rejection letters trailing behind you in the moonlit mist.
You start to think, fuck it.
I’m going to do this my way. At least a little bit.
At the bottom of the churn, the water punching you into the rocks, you decide that if you’re going to drown you’re going to drown your own way, and you’re going to write the book you really want to write, the one that squirms inside your guts like a pit of eels, the one story that chokes you with its emotions, the one tale that’s scary as a clown with spider-teeth and serpent-fingers and a Tea Party membership, and down there in the dark you put that story to paper.
You don’t know if it’s any good but it’s yours.
And that makes you feel good.
Because it sounds like you. It feels like you.
You ran after your voice for so long, but your voice found you.
You were the voice all along.
You submit that book.
And for once, it pings some radars.
Holy shitwich. Holy fucksnacks. Holy handjobs-from-hell.
Someone responds. You call out into the lightless space, your plea just a flurry of bubbles, and an echo responds, and they respond that they want the story. But they want you to make changes because it isn’t quite there yet and that scares you, frustrates you, makes you mad because it’s perfect of course it’s perfect you finally figured out how to do this execrable job and now some cocky know-it-all piss-ant hyphen-loving word-nerd is telling you otherwise.
And for three hours or three days or three months you sit on it and pace back and forth upon those notes like a jaguar trying to suss out how to escape its zoo cage and suddenly there’s this moment, a moment like when you figure out how to open a puzzle box and — click — you realize, oh, you know some things but mostly you know nothing, Jon Snow, and so you go ahead and take the notes to heart and you make the changes and suddenly, you have a story.
You learn that writing is really rewriting.
And you rewrite it once, then again for another reader, and again for an agent or an editor, and again and again, writing until it’s right, cutting through your own nonsense, carving through your own fog, recognizing your own stink — and you see your work out there.
A shining moment. A diamond in the dark. A beam of light through it, made prismatic.
An imperfect moment because the story still isn’t perfect.
But you’ve got the scars of rejection to show you’re fighting the battle.
You realize you’ve gotta suck to not suck.
You embrace the time you tried to be someone else just to realize you had to be you.
You push past the idea of trends, because chasing trends is trying to catch and bottle lightning — some do it, but most don’t, so maybe it’s time to make your own motherfucking lightning instead.
You submit and you hate yourself and yet to push on you spear self-doubt to the earth with a spear made not of unearned confidence but with a pike formed of experience and instinct and awareness of what you’re doing and why.
You have your rules and your ways.
You have your process, cobbled together over many years and wordy iterations.
You have your voice.
Each ginger step into this dark forest becomes quicker, nimbler, more sure-footed as your eyes adjust and your muscles tighten. You run, unabashed, unfettered.
And you write.
And you read.
And maybe, just maybe, you get published.
And soon, you do it all again.
Again and again and again.
Because you’re never really done forming.
You’re always a protoplasmic blob.
But at least you know that you can twist into shapes when need be.
You know you can always — and will always — write.
You will write to stave off the cuckoo bananapants feelings.
You will write because you love to read.
You will write because you want to be read.
You will write because you want to be paid.
You will write because you love it even when you hate it.
You will write because you want to, not because you need to.
It’ll get easier and it’ll get harder.
Everything will change and sometimes you will, too.
And some day someone will ask you how you do it, how you be this thing called a writer, and you’ll have no idea how to answer them, so you’ll shrug or yawp or lie, you’ll write a tweet or a blog post and answer their question with a question or with a short answer or a long solution and most of it will be true even when it’s made-up because truth is almost never beholden to fact.
But at the end of the day you know the reality is, everyone does this differently. And no map through this dark forest will look the same, but all will carry themselves through it with the same conveyance: we all step through by reading, by writing, by living our lives, and by doing it again and again and again until we maybe, maybe, think we know what the fuck we’re doing.
All this is just step one.
Who knows what step two looks like?
* * *
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