categories: Cocktail Hour
Why did I call my graduate class this coming spring “Just Write”? Well, “Just Write, Baby” seemed potentially sexist. And “Just Fucking Write” (which was my first choice) kind of crude. But the point, and I bet you get the point already, is to, yes, write.
I’m currently at work on what I hope is my tenth published book. I have easily that number of unpublished books. In some ways I’ve learned a lot and tend to think in big narrative, shaping material somewhat naturally (if you can call something earned over three decades “natural”) but in at least one very real way things are no different than when I was working on the three unpublished novels of my twenties. What remains the same is the fact that books don’t come into being through theory, through brainstorming, through gentle musing. Yes, all those things help and are necessary but the moment when something goes from a whimsical nothing into the beginning of a book is exactly the moment you start writing it. Not jotting ideas about it. Not considering point-of-view. Not wondering if a book about an amputee from Seattle who works with baboons will sell. And not writing another outline dear god.
Writing, daily effortful writing toward the goal of making a book, is quite different from any of those things. It requires pushing ahead and, if you keep pushing ahead on a daily basis, gaining the known scientific benefit of pushing: momentum. And then, if you are lucky, the problem becomes not that you can’t get going but that you can’t stop. Which means that everything else, things like work and eating and getting the taxes done and all the small things, too, things that you usually use as excuses, still get done but they get pushed far enough out of the way so that the big thing, the important thing, the book thing gets done first.
In some way I see this course as a corrective. The grad students I encounter these days are remarkably well-rounded, and are overall a lot healthier than I was as a young writer. In our program they don’t just take writing classes but they learn about publishing and become teachers and they work as editors on literary journals, and I support all this. With some students you can see them wisely thinking “I had better learn a trade,” because they see that even published writers can’t really make their living by just publishing books. I get it.
But I also believe that if you really want to become a writer, a great writer (let’s just say it out loud), then you ultimately can’t hedge your bets. Because being a writer has never been about logic, a plan, parental approval, sensible shoes. It has been and still is about wild risk and commitment. An illogical and crazy leap that everyone says you shouldn’t be taking. This was true before writing schools took over the planet and it’s still true now.
I am not saying you can’t be a good person, have a good job, balance the budget, all that. But I am saying that at some point if you really think this is for you then you’ve got to do it, got to take the wild gamble and put it all on red. “Boldness and commitment brought rewards.” Walter Jackson Bate said that in his bio of the young Keats. Boldness and commitment. Those are not part-time, hedged, sensible things. They are things that lead you places though the scary thing is you’ll have no idea where they’ll lead.
P.S. It wasn’t until I posted this that I realized I was plagiarizing an earlier Bad Advice by Bill.