Let me tell you two things this isn't going to be about: getting published or getting rich.
I know almost nothing about how to do either. If you're reading this on paper, it's more likely you printed it from the web than that I have found a publisher. I write mostly for the enjoyment of putting my thoughts on paper. That's good because the sum total of my writing riches amounts to less than $500 over thirty years. I'm not here to guide anyone to the promised lands of fame and fortune. I don't ever expect to find my own way to those strange lands, but If I do, I’ll come back and tell you how. My guess is that it boils down to this: do the work.
But if I don’t know about publishing or becoming rich, what am I doing here? Is this just a waste of time?
I hope not.
It turns out there’s a third promised land named joy or contentment or maybe even enlightenment. I'm going to explain some methods to write your way into that place. The plan is simple, so if you're disinclined to read much more, I'll boil it down to five words: start writing and don't stop. In other words, do the work.
Sure, there are other things to think about. I've written about many of those and will share them, but it's really down to doing a lot of writing in a regular way and mostly for yourself.
I used to end every blog post with two words: write on. That's what you need to do. If you're good at writing, write on. If you're terrible at it, write on. If you are scared to reveal yourself, think you’re too boring, worry that you're not allowed to write, or think someone will be offended, write on. If you have any problem with writing or think you have no problems at all, write on and things will improve.
Learning to write won't happen in a day. Improvement won't come quickly. Or rather, you won't feel improved though writing even just once changes us. The process reminds me of NASA's Voyager probe swinging around Jupiter to pick up speed. Jupiter's tremendous mass spun the craft around and hurtled it faster into space. That’s impressive, but what floors me is how tiny Voyager slowed impossibly-large Jupiter. The largest planet in our solar system spins slower now that Jupiter affected it. The difference isn’t so much anyone could notice, but it’s there. Writing is like that. Every time we do it, Jupiter slows down just the tiniest fraction. Do it often enough and the difference becomes noticeable. Write enough pages and you fly out of the solar system.
Improvement doesn't come in a day or a week, but after a month of writing there's a difference the same way there would be if we did a hundred push-ups every day for a month. It feels different and we find that we can do things that seemed impossible or at least beyond our abilities.
If you wonder how many pages the change will require, who the hell knows? Stop thinking that way. Cut it out. Just write. This isn't something that quantifies well. Joy, contentment, and enlightenment are qualities that don’t chart on spreadsheets. Writing toward them is about qualitative change over time. Quantity will play a part in that progress. The more we write, the better we become at writing. For now, let’s just start writing.
Some practical advice: Get pen or pencil and begin writing by hand. There are really fine writing tools out there, but most anything will do. There’s no need to worry about penmanship. Don’t buy anything special. That can wait. Use what you have. Write on whatever will work for ten minutes at a time. Find an old notebook with blank pages. Write on the backs of used copy paper. If you have a pretty new notebook just for writing, spill coffee or tea on it so you won’t feel bound to write pretty things. And if writing by hand is a problem, use a laptop. There are good reasons to write by hand, especially at this stage, but do whatever works, whatever gets you started.
Begin by writing only for you. No one else should see it. Save what you write, but don't share it. The fossil record may intrigue you down the line and the habit of saving writing can be useful, but showing your writing to others can and should wait. Write for you. Don’t even consider anyone else.
Ready? Got paper and pen or pencil? Good.
Go somewhere you won’t be disturbed, put on headphones, or send the family out for ice cream. Shut the phone off. Put it in the microwave. Have your family take it with them. Now set a timer for ten minutes, start writing, and, no matter what happens, don’t stop until it goes off.
Start writing and don't stop. Do the work. Write on.
A friend had an important piece of writing to do about his photography. He had drafted it, editing as he goes, a process he describes as difficult if not torturous. With it finished as much as he could, he asked me to have a look. We've known each other long enough to not worry about feelings, and so I dug in. Right away I could hear where he was going and I had a few things to suggest, mostly sentence tweaks, words to cut, and other small revisions. The piece was good but I was able to help him make it better and the process got me thinking about how seldom I involve others in my writing. I wondered if that needs to change.
He does almost all his photography alone. He likes solitude in nature when he takes his shots and process them on the computer by himself. The work goes out for publication, exposure, and, if the winds are right, a living wage.
Writing isn't his usual thing, though he's a strong, clear writer and that helps elevate him out of the ordinary. Writing is a way of organizing and elevating thinking. The person who can write has at hand a habit of structuring thoughts so as to do greater things with them. Most every creative person I know is adept with words. There are reasons for that.
I can take a passable photograph but need to learn the basics of phone photography. I don't need expensive equipment to take shots for my blog, but learning the basics of design, composition, and lighting would help position me to do things I want to do.
I imagine asking my friend for help with that but not with my writing. There are very few people to whom I would send my writing and I wonder why. Is it fear? I don't think so. I'm happy enough with my writing to put it out into the world. I just feel like the work I'm doing now is stuff I can and should do on my own.
This, of course, is foolishness. Not utter and complete, but a good dose of the stuff. These blog essays I can probably pull off by myself. As I try to move into more challenging writing, I'm going to need guides.
My friend has studied past masters and continues to study the work of contemporary photographers. He follows what they do, listens to their thinking, and allows all that to influence him while remaining true to himself. I've been studying writing for a very long time. It wasn't a formal study until college, but even as far back as elementary school I've been trying to pay attention. Twenty three years of teaching writing while doing my own writing, I've picked up a few things. I continue to practice writing and study it by reading with the mind of a writer. It's what I want to do.
As I go forward, I'll need help and have to ask for it. That's going to be a challenge since I got into writing to be by myself. I'll get over that though. I'm in a small writing group and have felt the effects of being pushed in that way. It's not as frightening as I might have thought and this idea that writing has to be done completely alone is just wrong. I can get to the next levels with a little help from my friends.
Those next levels may or may not have to do with publishing. I don't write for fame and fortune (though I wouldn't say no to either). If those were the goals, everything I've done so far has been failure. That's simply not the case. I have other reasons to keep striving and they are enough that I'm willing to risk asking for help.