Are you losing it?

The best writing moments are when the characters speak to each other and the scenes unfold with surprising twists. When I work, these exhilarating moments occur at a rate of about one in a thousand. First I have to slog through many dull, prosaic hours before a gem glitters in the dust. 

Word count: 435                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve looked around for ways to beat the odds, to increase the incidents of strong writing. So far the only thing that improves my writing is practice. By practice I mean work: working harder, working more, working with focus. I don’t worry about whether or not I have the talent to write. Instead I put my faith in people who have gone before me:

  •  Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.
  • The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.Marge Piercy.

Work means sitting down to long, seemingly unproductive hours, even when inspiration is weak and I’d rather wash the kitchen floor. I have to be there, chipping away for the moments when inspiration ignites and talent erupts. I have to write the bad sentences to find what doesn’t work. I have to play the wrong notes so I can find the sweet ones. Yes there are demons: the empty page, the incomplete scene, the manuscript that is 95% written. These terrifying events often tempt me to throw up my hands, to stop writing altogether. Then I move past my panic and get to work.

One of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, Dame Margot Fonteyn, overcame her stage fright with additional practice. In 1949, as she geared up for her dancing debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, she had a bad case of butterflies. Her solution? Two extra hours of drills besides her regular workday of classes, rehearsals and performances.

Because talent—if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless.Elizabeth Hand 

Talent doesn’t develop on its own. It needs practice, education, and a chance to run free. So how do you get past your stage fright to let it grow? How do you ensure your talent doesn’t atrophy?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Vinit Sharma practising violin by Rockwithvinit

What are the signs?

In Australia my husband and I adopted a series of abandoned cats. Our vet said there was a mark on our front gatepost that told the animals our house was a good place to find food, shelter, and safety—like the hobo marks of a bygone era.

The internet is that gatepost now. Whatever a person wants to do, the directions are laid out, marks carved or chalked, by those who have passed that way before. Naively, when I set out, I didn’t look for those marks. I thought writing was a solitary journey. It would be an understatement to say I made mistakes—but that’s one way to get an education.

Word count: 481                                                                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Some of the marks I wish I’d seen earlier in my writing life were these:

  • Be prepared for the long haul. It takes can take years to develop proficiency as a writer. In his book On Writing Stephen King says that commitment is one of the six essential tools in the writer’s toolbox.
  • Writing a novel can seem overwhelming. Concentrate on what is in front of you and move the story forward one paragraph or one page at a time. Or in the words of Anne Lamottone bird at a time
  • When it gets really frustrating, do something else. Agatha Christie said The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes Get away from it—for a while.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Yes, writing is a solitary occupation but there are benefits to sharing with trusted readers or writing partners. You may not find the right person (or people) to share with immediately but keep kissing those frogs. When the match is right, your work will soar.
  • Become a ruthless self-editor. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
  • Don’t send work out too soon. Impatience can close doors.
  • Don’t hang on to your work too long. Perfectionism can leave it in limbo.
  • Go to writers’ festivals, book launches, and readings at your local libraries.
  • Read books on the craft of writing. Try to absorb some of the vast wisdom available. It can be your secret—It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Go into the universe with a friendly, non judgemental soul. It’s easier to observe that way.
  • Get an online presence. It doesn’t have to be flashy but agents and editors want to be able to find you when they put your name in a search engine. They want to see what a reader will find with the same search.


What would the hobo marks look like for the points above? What other reminders should be on this list for writers new and old?