At the community college where I taught last spring, my students and I read about twenty of the Writers on Writing essays that were published in the New York Times and that have also been anthologized. The one that I think about most, the one that enters my mind daily, is the one by Walter Mosley, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day.”
This essay begins with refreshing directness, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.” This sounds difficult. To me, this sounds impossible and if I stopped reading there, maybe I’d just assume I couldn’t be a writer.
People have all kinds of ways of telling you you’re not a writer, that what you thought was writing isn’t even writing. They’ll say that research isn’t writing and fiddling with punctuation isn’t writing. Some people will say re-reading what you’ve written and tinkering with it aren’t writing.
And they have so many rules about what must be done to achieve success: write the same time every day or for the same amount of time every day, write a certain number of words a day, write in a certain place each day, write in a different place each day.
You need to write a whole story in one sitting, a whole novel in a month. Get it down. You can make it good later. You can make it into sentences later. You can determine the plot later, fine tune the characters later. What, then, are you doing now?
Walter Mosely insists on the importance of writing every day. And this is why he insists:
Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It’s an excursion into the ether of ideas. There’s no time to waste. You must work with that idea as well as you can, jotting down notes and dialogue.
The first day the dream you gathered will linger, but it won’t last long. The next day you have to return to tend to your flimsy vapors. You have to brush them, reshape them, breathe into them and gather more.
It’s because the process, the ideas, the images are fragile. If you depart from them too long, they’ll disappear or at least lose their inviting shapes or aromas. About the everyday part, Mosely is intractable, strict.
But about the other things, and this is what I love so much about him, about the other parts of writing he is delightfully open, permissive, nurturingly kind:
It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you. You must write every day, but there’s no time limit on how long you have to write.
One day you might read over what you’ve done and think about it. You pick up the pencil or turn on the computer, but no new words come. That’s fine. Sometimes you can’t go further. Correct a misspelling, reread a perplexing paragraph, and then let it go. You have re-entered the dream of the work, and that’s enough to keep the story alive for another 24 hours.
The next day you might write for hours; there’s no way to tell. The goal is not a number of words or hours spent writing. All you need to do is to keep your heart and mind open to the work.
Lately I’ve been spending a few minutes writing each morning before I get wrenched in the tight muscle of the day. Some days it involves adding to the character sketches of my main characters. Other days it involves writing a few sentences or paragraphs of my actual “novel.” Sometimes it involves tweaking sentences or deleting them. What feels important to me is that I’m engaging with the work each day. Most days. And that gets the smoke working its way through my thoughts the rest of the day. When next I sit down to write, I have all sorts of ideas I want to try out.
Over Christmas break I had coffee with my friend Lyall in Seattle. He told me that fifteen minutes is a long time to write. Fifteen minutes is enough these days to keep writing alive in my life.
What are your rules? What are your secrets?