Bad Advice Wednesday: Just Write

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


This is no time to get ready!

My old grad student and now friend Connie writes from beautiful New Zealand to say, “Help!  How do I get back to my book?”  I know her book.  She’s been working on it for some years, and it’s already really good, the story of how she ended up where she is (small jets are involved, and an ad in the newspaper, also running away cold from a certain husband and falling in with a kind of sky pirate, now dead.)  And then someone I’ve never met, Roger K., writes to say, “I’m just about started on THE BOOK.” This is not the first email from Roger K.  We’ve been back and forth for years.  As a former roadie, he has access to Mick Jagger.  Well, not actually Mick Jagger, but someone just as big whose name I shouldn’t say so as not to give away Roger’s proposed project.  Notebook after notebook of interviews and confidences and inside dope to make your knees wobble, also permission to use it all!  Written permission.  Just about started!  And from a friend, call her Ishmaela, the author of several good novels, just lamenting, not really looking for any advice: “Nine years on this fucking piece of shit novel.  Nine, Bill.  I’m thinking of giving up.  No, I’ve given up.  I can’t even stand to look at my computer.  I can’t even stand to see a bookstore.

Connie’s next paragraph is about all the work that’s going on, despite all: “I’ve been in the library with the kids [yes, she’s got an oblivious new husband now, and a family], and so I get to nip off and do some research.”  Apparently there are news stories about one of her rescues to be found.  And the trial.  Also there are long phone calls with her Dad, offering insight into what went on when she went missing in the states, if not entire forgiveness.

Roger, meanwhile, is “… reading over all my notes and my journals—TWENTY-SIX of those spiral notebooks—and when I’m done with that and one more interview and reviewing all the video footage I’ll jump right in.”

Ishmaela’s not really giving up, you can tell.  She’s just waiting for someone in the rigging to shout, “Thar she blows.”

Connie says she’ll get back to it, she knows she will, “When the time is right.”

How to get started?  How to get back to work in progress? How to stave off despair?

Same answer to all: Just write.

Connie, the time is right.

Roger, jump in.

Ishmaela, man the long boats.  I mean staff the long boats!

The way to move is to start.

Writing a book isn’t a trip to France.  You don’t have to get ready.  You don’t need a passport photo.  You don’t need a ticket.  You don’t even need to pack.  You just go.

And don’t worry: you’ll learn the language when you get there.

That is, you’ll be able to do your research while writing, if necessary, Connie.  In fact, if you’re in the midst of paragraphs, you’ll know how to pinpoint the search, what you really need.  Roger, those notebooks and tapes and transcripts aren’t going anywhere.  Best to put them away while you make a first draft, consult them in the revision.  As for Ishmaela, honey, there are certain whales that will kill you.  If you really want to give up, give up.  But start something new.  Start it tonight.  Those nine years aren’t wasted: they were training for something new, something you’re going to start right now.

And of course, the old draft will always be there.  Maybe it’s just waiting for a better writer—you—to come back from the rigors of other writing endeavors with a fresh eye and fresher wits, new chops.

Here’s the news:  Getting ready isn’t writing.

Connie, stop getting ready.  Research isn’t writing.  The library is great, but it’s missing a book: yours.

Roger, one more interview, even with a star, even as envious as I am, is just one more delay.

Despair is a waste of time, Ishmaela.  Just walk the plank and step into the ring: a new book is a new game.

Okay everyone?

Get to work!


Right now.

It only takes a minute!

  1. Dave writes:

    “That is, you’ll be able to do your research while writing, if necessary.” Exactly….”research” is the greatest procrastiantion technique ever invented.

  2. John Jack writes:

    Just write was the best bad advice a writing mentor gave me some four decades ago. Angry the writing assignment was due in three hours and I didn’t have a clue what I was writing about, I dashed off a penciled draft of a parody of the Dick and Jane and Spot grammar school chapbook readers, with heavy sexual innuendos and an ironical tone toward waiting for Godot to descend and hammer me with inspiration.

    Five hundred words’ requirement sloppily and timely met, barely. A raw as a laid open artery gash raw draft hemoraghing blood onto an emergency room floor. It was unanimously well-received to applause and guffaws by eighth grade English instructor and classmates alike when instructor read it aloud to the class. “Jane and Spot Wait for Dick” was the title. Punch lines were no Dick, still no Dick, you don’t know Dick. The assignment was to parody a popular culture motif.

    Okay, success is fleeting when premature. Just write hasn’t worked for the next great global novel I began three decades, a dozen new raw drafts, ten million words a lifetime ago. I know the events cold, inside out, hot, upside down. What’s missing I’ve known now for a few years, a core concept for unifying the whole all those false starts lack for and just writing didn’t discover as of yet. I still don’t know. Meanwhile, I’ve begun a segment of the whole I do soemwhat know what its core concept is about. It feels like a novella in length.