Every now and then, someone asks me for advice on how to become a writer. I aspire to live by the insightful words of theologian Nelle Morton,
“Our job is to hear people into speech.”
So instead of offering a dozen do’s and don’ts, I ask questions meant to evoke my conversation partner’s inner teacher, the best source of guidance any of us has. If he or she presses me, the best I can do is draw a few lessons from the story of my own writing life. Call it “advice lite.”
The urge to write first dropped in on me in my early twenties and soon made it clear it was here for the duration. Nearly two decades passed before my first book was published, and yet I never stopped writing — my daemon would not let me go. But, truth be told, that first book had less to do with persistence than with dumb luck.
In the fall of 1978, I taught a class about Thomas Merton at an adult study center. For our final session, I’d planned to show a film of Merton’s last talk, given in Bangkok an hour or two before he died. At the last moment, I learned that the copy I’d ordered had been mailed to the wrong address. No, young people, you couldn’t stream or download videos in the olden days!
Hoping to bring the class to a proper close, I burned the kerosene lantern late into the night and wrote a lecture.
One of my students liked the lecture so much she asked for a copy to send to her uncle. He called me a few weeks later and said he was an editor at a small publishing house. He and his colleagues liked my piece, and wondered if I’d written others like it. Knowing that I had twenty years’ worth of writing interred in my file cabinet, I replied, “I might be able to dig something up.”
So I relit the kerosene lantern, spent much of that night exhuming my files, and early the next morning mailed off a dozen pieces. My accidental editor chose six and said he’d make a book out of them. Nine months later I was holding a copy of my first book, The Promise of Paradox. I remember gazing at it with a bit of the wide-eyed wonder I’d felt when I held my first child.
Today — 36 years and nine books after that sweet moment — the writing scene has changed big-time. There’s much I don’t know about blogging, e-books, and self-publishing. But when someone asks me how to become a writer, I can still share three eternal (so far) truths from my own experience.
First, you need to figure out whether your chief aim is to write or to publish. Two decades of rejection letters would have shut me down if I hadn’t decided early on that my primary goal was not to be published but to be a writer — a person who, as someone sagely observed, is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes! Once it became clear that I wanted to write even if the publishing fairy never left a contract under my pillow, I could declare success as long as I kept writing. That’s a doable goal, and it’s under my control.
Second, you need to lust after dumb luck. When people think I’m joking, I remind them of a simple truth: the more often you get your voice “out there,” even in a venue as small as a fifteen-student course on Thomas Merton, the more likely it is that dumb luck will strike. Be Jennie or Johnny Appleseed, scattering your words hither and yon, and a few may fall on fertile ground. But here’s the deal: this often means giving your work away free, for nothing. In addition to being its own reward, this kind of generosity maximizes the chance of dumb luck by giving you more exposure than you get by trying to monetize everything. (And if you want to be respected as a writer, never, ever use words like “monetize.” Seriously.)
Third, and most important, allow yourself to be baffled, which shouldn’t be hard to do. I mean, what’s not baffling about ourselves, other people, and the world we co-create? The problem is that some of us (read “the person writing this sentence”) make the mistake of writing in an effort to pretend we’re smarter than we are. Take my early writing…please! When I go back and read some of that schlock, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as I watch this pathetic fellow slogging through page after page of multisyllabic muck, making his case with “academic rigor” and nary a drop of uncertainty, playfulness, or humanity. I was writing to impress rather than express, always a bad idea. What I regarded as rigor turned out to be rigor mortis.
Eventually, I managed to come to ground with a few moderately successful books, which confronted me with my next challenge as a writer. In this society, people who write passable books — and even books that aren’t — tend to get pegged as experts on their subjects. My ego loves to absorb and massage those projections of expertise. My soul knows it ain’t true: I’ve never written a book on something I’ve mastered. Once I master something, I get bored with it, and writing a book is way too hard to take on a subject that bores me.
I write about things that feel to me like bottomless mysteries — teaching, social change, spirituality, democracy, etc. — and I start writing from a place of “beginner’s mind.” For me, writing does not begin with reaching for expertise by gathering facts, wrapping them in lucid thoughts, then downloading all of that from my mind to the page. It begins with making a deep dive into something that baffles me — into my not-knowing — and dwelling in the dark long enough that “the eye begins to see” what’s down there. I want to make my own discoveries, think my own thoughts, and feel my own feelings before I explore what conventional wisdom says about the subject. That’s why I’m not so much a writer as a re-writer, most of whose scribbling goes through eight or ten drafts.
As a writer, my most critical inner work is to fend off projections of expertise — whether they come from without or within — that would allow my ego to trump beginner’s mind. The moment ego takes over, I lose the main gift I bring to my work, the fact that I was born baffled.
Novices are often advised to “write about what you know.” I wouldn’t call that bad advice, but I think it needs tweaking. Write about what you want to know because it intrigues and baffles you. That’s the hunger that keeps me engaged with a craft I find endlessly challenging, of which Red Smith famously said,
“There’s nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Evocative questions always trump advice. But for whatever it’s worth, my advice boils down to this:
- Care more about the process than the outcome.
- Be generous in order to maximize the chances of dumb luck.
- Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests
Hmmm… The same counsel might apply to things other than writing. Who knows? Maybe there’s a book in that!