Like many, I’ve eaten up those top tips for writers lists. I’ve quoted them on my Facebook page. Tagged them on the page for my Writing Our Lives workshop. I’ve made notes in my journal and posted them by my computer so I can stare at them when I write. I’ve read them with a curled lip, too, because while I see their value, I also can’t stand them.
These lists come off as pretentious and preachy. This whole nonsense of you have to do this or that to write brings me back to a professor at Columbia University who told me that if I wasn’t working on a poem or an essay or a book, I wasn’t writing. In his mind, journal writing did not count as writing. PLEASE! I still think that shit is nonsense. The writing process is such an individual one, such a personal journey, that I’m really resistant to these lists of absolutes.
So, what is this post about and why am I giving my own writing tips to people? Ah pues, let me get to that.
Something happened late last summer. After years of putting in some serious work, my writing started getting a lot of attention. Julia Alvarez reposted an essay I wrote, “Meeting Julia,” about how her book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents shifted me in my junior year of high school and is one of the major milestones in my road to becoming a writer. A Huffington Post editor found my essay on single motherhood, “I’m a Single Mother and This Shit is Hard,” circulating around Twitter and invited me to write for HuffPo: “we need your voice,” is what he said. My work started getting an attention it hadn’t yet garnered, and I was floored. The upswing hasn’t abated. Just this week, after posting a reflection on AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Resources) in my blog, Side B Magazine reached out and asked if they could publish it. Color in AW(hite)Place went up on Thursday morning and not long after, Roxane Gay caught wind and posted and quoted it on her Twitter. She then included it on this week’s Toast Link Round Up. The essay has gone viral.
People who know me have said everything from “you’re on a roll” to “you’re on fiyah” to comments like my friend Nivea’s “don’t forget me when you’re rich and famous,” which makes me chuckle and blush. Many have asked, “How do you do it? How is your work getting out there like that?”
Many of them are looking for maps. Fail proof formulas to getting their work published and out in the world. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a formula and I’ve said as much. Mostly I’ve told them to do the work. I’ve told them about how sitting in my grief over losing my brother and writing and reading voraciously through and with it made all the difference. Then, a few days ago, I started giving more detailed tips on my Facebook. Why? Because it was time. Because the number of people asking me these kinds of questions has grown exponentially. This list grew organically out of these Facebook statuses so they’re not in any particular order. I didn’t plan this. It just happened.
To be completely honest, I’m still uncomfortable offering this kind of advice. A voice in my head is saying “but you ain’t shit, who are you to give this kind of advice?” This time I have an answer to that inner critic that is shady as mothafucka: I’m a writer who is extremely prolific. I write more days than I don’t. That right there is reason enough. For once that voice in my head doesn’t answer back.
I think of Lauryn Hill who referred to herself on her MTV unplugged performance as a “mad scientist” who tests out her experiments on herself first. I can give you these tips, because this is what I’ve done. These are the moves I’ve made. This is my grind.
Tip 1. Start a blog and be consistent about posting on it. Be your true authentic self on that blog. Write what you want to write NOT what you think people want to read. Take risks. Let yourself be vulnerable. Write for yourself. Seriously.
Tip 2: The only people who have time to write are in prison. The rest of us make time. I get that your life is busy. I’m a single mom; trust me, I get that it’s hard. Swallow that shit and get to work. I say that with the most love possible. You are doing yourself and the work a disservice by not making it a priority. Write when you can–get up early, stay up late, write during lunch, write in the cracks when you’re waiting on line or commuting to and from work, while waiting for a load of laundry, etc. Make. The. Time. That’s how writers are made.
Tip 3: (I wrote this one while sitting in the forest of Inwood Hill Park.) Take care of yourself while doing the work. Writing what we write is often so hard, so taxing on the heart and spirit, so please do practice self-care. What that means exactly depends on you. For me it means lots of walks/hikes in the park (preferably a natural forest as they have different energy), working out, crying, therapy, etc. Taking care of yourself does not make you weak; it makes you smart and also better able to continue doing the work.
Tip 4: If something makes you cringe and want to run from the page, you’re probably onto something. Keep going! Push through! Then treat yourself to something that will make you sigh and smile.
Tip 5: Stop expecting people to honor your process. Demand that shit! Honor your writing time. And yes, that means your partner, your kids, your parents, everybody. When you’re working, you’re working. Say that! My kid has been trained to leave mommy alone when she’s working. Unless an appendage is hanging off or it’s an absolutely emergency, she knows to leave me be. People will respect your writing time when you teach them to. It starts with YOU respecting your writing time. This is essential. Remember that.
Tip 6: (Some people will take issue with this tip but I’m good with that.) You should be writing with people who are at least as good as or better than you. Pats on the back are great but they won’t help you grow as a writer. You want people who will lovingly (and sometimes bluntly) tell you when you’re bullshitting, when you’ve looked away from the page and didn’t go in when you should have, when you used a metaphor because you didn’t dare say what you should because it’s too scary or you’re censoring yourself. That does not serve the writing. That does not serve you. You know when you’ve outgrown a writing group or circle. Honor and respect yourself enough to know that and move on. This is not about ego. This is about the work. It’s not personal. It’s about evolution. If people get mad or get their undies in a bunch, let them. Do what you have to do for you. This writing life takes a certain level of selfishness that most people will not understand. This is not a pass for being an asshole. Nah. This is me telling you that you and your work deserve that kind of honesty. Focus on the craft. Seriously.
Tip 7: READ! Writing is reading! Seriously, READ! Read voraciously. I can’t tell you how many young writers have told me “I don’t read. I want my voice to stay original.” That is so unoriginal. That is ego and that will not serve you or make you a better writer. Read for pleasure but also read like a writer, which is a different kind of engagement with the text. When you read like a writer you are analyzing the text, looking at why the writer made the decisions she made. You are picking the text apart. You can never read enough. I know I will die not having read everything I want to read, but I’m going to try regardless.
Tip 8: In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. In other words, it would take 416.6 days of you writing round the clock to master the craft. What’s my point? That you can always get better. That I, you, we can always improve. None of us has mastered shit. If your focus is really the craft, then you’ll do the work. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it will require so much of your time and dedication and relentlessness. But if it matters, then you’ll do it. Simple as that.
Tip 9: Learn to surrender to the page. It’s great when you know what you want to write when you open that journal or that laptop or whatever it is you use. But it’s also great when you don’t. Some of my best essays have come from a space of not knowing and just trusting that I could and would write what I needed to. When I wasn’t trying to control what was coming because I’ve learned that some of the best writing comes when I get out of my own way. So, direct yourself: Ass, meet chair. Write. Don’t let yourself get up. Create a ritual around it. Mine includes tea and candles. Then I write. I can’t get up until I have at least a full page, single spaced, 11 point Calibri font. And that’s just the beginning.
Tip 10: What’s made the most difference in my writing? That I stopped a giving a fuck. I stopped worrying about how people were going to receive my work. I stopped worrying about how I should sound. I stopped trying to be anyone but myself, Vanessa, with all my fierce and relentless and foul mouth and Bushwick and neck swerving, lip curling, all heart and love and bite back self. Stop giving a fuck. Again, this is not me telling you to be an asshole. This is me telling you that what really touches hearts is when you are your true, authentic self, with all your flaws and all your beauty. This is the most freeing epiphany I’ve had in all my years of writing, and I just came to it last year as I was enduring the greatest grief of my life. I’m still in it. I’m still writing it. I’m still not giving a fuck.
Tip 11: Pay attention to the signs. Seriously, they’re everywhere. Yes, I know this may be a bit “woo woo” for some but I live by this. Just pay attention. You may be working on something or have an idea stirring in your head, the universe will give you a sign, and it may come (often does) in the strangest way: a hawk’s scream through the canopy, an overhead conversation on the bus, a bartender sharing wisdom as she pours your whiskey, a child staring at you with big eyes that are filled with more wisdom that we can ever fathom. Open yourself up to that woo woo and let it take you where you’ve always wanted to go. Pay attention! Then write that shit down, right then and there (on your phone, in your journal, on a napkin, wherever) because how many times have you told yourself, “I’ll remember that” and then you kick yourself because you don’t.
Tip 12: This one comes in the form of a mini essay:
I returned to my second consecutive VONA (Voices Of Our Nation Arts Foundation) in 2009 full of myself. In a year, I’d finished a novel, co-wrote a handbook for young social activists, and quit my job to write and teach. My arrogance was only encouraged by having been accepted into Chris Abani’s Advanced Fiction workshop.
On the first day Chris silenced the class effortlessly with a glance, his thick-fingered hands folded on a stack of papers. “Why do you write?”
I shot my hand up. “It’s the air that I breathe.” I think I may have even clutched my chest when I said it.
Chris smirked. “Yeah, that’s that flowery shit you’ve been told. It doesn’t answer the question.” I gasped. “Why do you write, Vanessa? You could have done anything else, paint, take pictures, whatever, but you chose to write. Why?”
I stammered. He kept pushing. I felt like a serial killer being interrogated by the FBI. Finally, in a cracked voice, I said, “Because on the page I could be myself. I could shut out those voices that said I was too much, that girls shouldn’t be anything like I was.”
Chris softened. “So you write to take back your power.” Tears streamed down my face.
When he dismissed us, I ran to my room. All that confidence I’d come to VONA with was smashed. If you know me, you know I don’t wear powerlessness anywhere. I write to take back my power? What the fuck does that mean? I didn’t come out until late evening when I was dizzy with hunger.
The next day, brooding over my morning pages, I realized Chris’s motives: he needed me to go back to when I started writing so I could understand why I kept writing. He needed us all to see that writers write from the same place—a wound.
I walked up to him when I entered the classroom. “You messed me up yesterday.” He smiled. “Seriously, I was rattled, like I had shaken baby syndrome.” We stared at each other as the visual set in, then we burst out laughing.
What’s my point? Remember why you started writing. Revisit this lesson often, especially during those times that you feel deflated and defeated by the world and the magnitude of the work. Remembering can and will carry you through.
Tip 13: Toss all these writer tips out and come up with your own. Create tips that will keep you coming back to that blank page, with all your fear and all your love and all your “I got this.”
Suerte and mad love.
Photo credit: “Sunday” by Roco Julie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.