Write, Damn It
January 7, 2019 § 45 Comments
By Tawni Waters
Can anything be sadder
than work left unfinished?
Yes, work never begun.
For five years, I’ve lived on the road, earning money to support my travel addiction by writing books, freelance editing, and teaching writing. Between editing and teaching, I’ve read thousands of manuscripts and worked with hundreds of writers, from beginners to professionals. This process has taught me much about writing, because when you work with so many writers and read so many manuscripts, you see patterns emerging, mistakes that almost everyone makes, hesitancies and deficiencies that are reflected in your own writing life.
The biggest mistake writers consistently make is failing to write. I’ve discovered that writers like to think about writing. They like to talk about writing. They like to wax rhapsodic about their big ideas. But they don’t like putting pen to page.
I work with writers who pay me $100 an hour for editing services and then spend all of their hours on the phone, telling me what they think will happen to their characters or how epic their big climax is going to be. When I say, “That sounds great, now write it!” they balk. Almost universally, they say, “I don’t know how.” I say, “You do know how. You pick up a pen, put it to the page, and start writing words.”
This never seems to help. They don’t write words. Instead, they call me a week later and spend another $100 telling me about bigger, better ideas for their award-winning book. “What do you think of my pacing, plotting, and characterizations?” they ask about work not-yet-written. This is the equivalent of telling me about an idea for a painting and then asking me to critique your use of form and color. It’s also the moment in the conversation when I resist the urge to bang my head against the table. Instead, I say something like this:
“I don’t know. Your plot sounds great, but sometimes plots that look lovely in outline form don’t pan out on the page. I’m glad you understand your protagonist loves macramé and detests her mother, but whether or not these nuances translate to the page believably will be seen after I read your manuscript. I can’t possibly tell you if your pacing is working when you haven’t put a word on the page. Well, yes, I can. Your pacing isn’t working. There is no pacing. Pacing is about the way words, ideas, and events flow on a page. You have no words, ideas, or events on a page, so you have no pacing.”
In interviews, I am often asked for my best writing advice. I’ve changed my answer through the years. But now, I think my best advice is this: Write, damn it.
Think of writing that first draft as vomiting. I’m using an ugly metaphor on purpose. I don’t want you to feel compelled to produce something beautiful. If I said sculpting or skating or embroidering, you’d freeze up on me. No pressure here. We are talking about puke. Think back to that time you drank too much cheap tequila in college, or last Christmas when Aunt Helga’s meat pie brought on a legendary case of food poisoning. Remember kneeling in front of the toilet, possessed by the urge to get what was inside you out? You weren’t worried about being pretty. You had to cleanse. And what you brought into the world certainly wasn’t pretty, nor consistent. It came in big heaves and little burbles. You didn’t always hit the toilet. Sometimes, you hit the wall. And finally, when it was all over, you cleaned up the mess.
Right now, if you’re resisting writing work that has been rumbling inside you for a long, long time, you need to throw up. You need to get it on the page, knowing it’s going to be god-awful. You need to let it come as it will, without chastising yourself for getting vomit on the linoleum. It’s not going to be pretty, profound, or publishable.
But when you’re done puking, you can go back and clean it up. When all your great ideas are on the page, you can start to shape the material, adding nuance to the characterizations, motivation to the plotting, consistency to the pacing. You have something to work with, so you can work. But until you have a draft, you have nothing but thoughts, which are basically air. It’s so hard to make air into good art. (If I now rhapsodized about the possibilities of a nice vomit sculpture, you might accuse me of carrying the metaphor too far.)
Until you write something, my dear friend, you are not a writer. You are a thinker. And while writing is a profession, thinking isn’t (unless you’re living in ancient Greece, in which case, you have either greater powers or bigger problems than I’m equipped to handle). Stop trying to figure how to write. You know how to write. Put your pen to the page and write words.
Write, damn it. Write.
Tawni Waters is the author of two novels, Beauty of the Broken and The Long Ride Home, and two poetry collections, Siren Song and So Speak the Stars. Beauty of the Broken was adapted for the stage and performed live and is now being adapted for the screen. Her writing has garnered multiple awards, including the prestigious International Literacy Association Award for Young Adult Literature, and has been published in myriad journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Best Travel Writing 2010 and The Soul of a Great Traveler. She teaches creative writing at various universities and writers conferences throughout the U.S., Europe, and Mexico. A professional wanderer, she lives on the road full time. Learn more at tawniwaters.com.