A Reminder Of What Makes A Real Writer

If you want to be a real writer, like, a really real writer, a writer who does it right, a writer who is officially official and who will earn the respect of the rest of the tribe —

You have to write longhand. Forget your phone. Put your phone away. Your phone is just beaming nonsense into your head — telecommunications chemtrails. Real writers write longhand, on notes stuffed into secret underwear pockets. If you don’t have secret underwear pockets, then you are not a Real Writer. That’s just fact. That’s just science. You write your first draft on notes stuffed into underwear pockets, then you write your second draft carved into a fundamental surface: driveway asphalt, a granite countertop, the stump of an ancient and magical tree. (Hemingway once famously carved THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA into the back of an impudent busboy.) When that’s done, eat some bees. Because writers, Real Writers, definitely eat bees. Writers also all have English degrees, or they all die. It’s like water to fish. We need it to swim.

Also, kill a goat. TRUE writers kill goats. But you gotta kill the goat in a real specific way. You have to get a goat, then yell into the goat’s ear the full text of your first rejection letter. You scream it into the goat’s ear at top volume, then as the goat is reeling from the disappointment borne of such rejection, you seize the moment and snap its neck. (Though Edith Wharton famously dispatched her goats with a blunderbuss full of dynamite.)

Of course, none of this is true.

Because all writing advice is bullshit (though bullshit fertilizes). I’m writing this thing because once in a while we are treated to missives from well-meaning expert writers who have come to believe that The Way They Write is the Only Way To Write, because their process has been tainted by the strong smell of Survivorship Bias. “I survived this way, and so you must, too.”

There exists no one way to write any one thing, and as long as your writing has a starting point and an ending point, I think whatever shenanigans go on in the middle serve you fine as a process as long as it gets you a finished book heavy with at least some small sense of satisfaction. If you’re not finishing your books, you need to re-examine your process. If you’re not at all satisfied with your work, then again: re-examine that process.

And that’s it.

Everything else is just picking out drapes.

If you need a handy flowchart reminder, here’s my ARE YOU A REAL WRITER chart, written by me and designed by Rebekah Turner. Feel free to share!

37 comments

  • I had bees for breakfast. I plunged my hand in a hive and pulled out a big ole nasty clump of pissed off, stingy, honey-covered bees. Then I crushed those fuckers and sprinkled them over a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. Just to drive the point home. It tasted like victory.

  • BWAHAHAHA!!! I don’t even wear underwear. I guess all the books I’ve got published are just my imagination. Loved it!

  • I have a question. I have a friend who is writing a novel, but she does not read (except how-to-write books). Told me she used to listen to Grisham and Crichton tapes (not the genre she’s writing in) when she traveled, but has read only a couple books in the last 15 years (one was Stephen King’s “11/22/63” which I’m not sure counts). She has a vivid imagination and is a great storyteller. I look forward to her long emails which make me chuckle, cry, and sometimes change the way I see the world and reality. I have not read any part of her WIP.

    So my question is: Can a person write a decent novel if they don’t read? And, more importantly,why not? (Guess I’m assuming your answer.) I’ll be forwarding your response to her since she thinks you’re the “cat’s meow”.

    • I’m sure you can be a good writer without also being a reader, though I think that writer is seriously undercutting her chances and her potential and her grasp of what’s going on around her in the literary world. Further, I think it’s WEIRD being a writer who doesn’t also read, but hey, what do I know?

    • This is what Stephen King says about it: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

      Is it as simple as King says? Debatable, but after having spent several years in various critique groups, I found it pretty easy to tell which writers read a lot and which didn’t. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but reading is one of the most valuable tools available to writers, and it baffles me that anyone wouldn’t take full advantage of that. There is far more to writing than simply having a vivid imagination, and writing a witty email is a very different thing to putting together a readable novel.

  • You cannot know how much I love this. As almost always after reading your blogs, I’m in tears from laughing so hard. Besides…I’m glad all writing advice is bullshit, especially the “write in longhand” advice. I’ve arthritis so bad in my hands, I can barely hold a pen, let alone write anything legible. ‘Scuse me. Gotta go kill some goats.

  • Ah, thank you so much for the ‘Are you a Writer’ flyer! That says it all. As per the post above, there is a novel about a woman who wrote without exercising any critical evaluation of her own work or reading other novels. It is called ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor and is absolutely devastating. Read it!

  • It’s true that advice from writers can make you feel like you’re not doing something right… just because you’re not doing it like THEY are. Even after getting a book published, I still struggle to call myself a writer!

  • March 20, 2017 at 1:01 PM // Reply

    Damn it. I suck at picking out drapes. And don’t get me started on flooring. Good thing I’m a writer.

  • THANK YOU. I think the most toxic advice is, “If you don’t write every day you’re not a writer.”
    Writing every day is impossible for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Let’s not drop guilt on people doing their best.

  • Yes. Thank you for this post, Chuck. It’s a reminder that we all need from time to time. I was reading some Stephen King (On Writing) last summer and had a writer’s identity crisis but after some thought on the matter decided that I was a writer because I write. Full stop. I even wrote about it if anyone gives a shit (http://www.potatochipmath.com/2016/08/i-am-writer-because.html). Hell, even the exercise of writing about how writing makes me a writer made me feel like a writer. Writing is good. Chuck is good. Peace.

  • Love that flow chart! I currently fall into the “still a writer” class but if my plans don’t gang agley, I will be able to class myself as a professional writer by next year. Unless it counts if you have been paid on occasion in the long-distant time of yore, in which case yay! I am a professional writer already. [scuttles back into garret]

  • Perfect! Even though I devour books on the craft, I’ve always hated being told what to do. I feel like “real writers” kind of already know what to do they’re just too chicken shit to actually do it. Or am I talking about me?

  • March 23, 2017 at 7:04 PM // Reply

    “Secret scribbled notebook says and wild type written pages for your own joy. ”
    Jack Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”

  • March 24, 2017 at 7:13 PM // Reply

    Thanks for the chart, I’ve definitely had my share of “I did this so you have to as well” lectures and books.

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