Recently I finished the paperback tour for my latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, which took me to some 15 towns and cities, from San Diego, CA, to Portsmouth, NH. During my travels I found that one question in particular kept coming up: What advice would I give to someone just starting out as a writer?
My answer: Go back! Rethink! Get some electro-shock treatment and jolt the idea out of your mind. Do something sane and productive. Build houses. Make pottery. Shoot wedding portraits. Start a hedge fund.
However, if writing’s really what you want to do, here are some bits of advice that my own experience has shown to be important.
–Don’t let your friends discourage you. There’s always someone out there willing to tell you no, you can’t do it. Just ignore these folk, and look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, “If not me, then who?”
–Write every day. And by that, I mean every day, seven days a week. Okay, take a break at Christmas, and maybe on Thanksgiving Day. Maybe. But writing is one part gleaming inspiration, ten parts plain old hard work, made harder by the constant background refrain of self-doubt that every writer I’ve ever met has had to confront at some point in his or her career.
–Most important: Stop writing when you’re ahead. A lot of beginning writers tend to do what I call “binge writing.” That is, one day, when powerfully moved, they’ll sit down to write, and then keep writing for ten hours straight. The problem is, if you do this, you risk running dry.
The real challenge for writers is getting up the next day and starting all over again. In fact, a lot of writers I know devise little psychological tricks for helping them cross that threshold each day. Here’s mine: I always make sure to stop writing at a point where I know I will be able to pick up again the next morning, often in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. The sheer self-deceiving beauty of this is that when you sit down to write, you know you will be instantly productive–you’ll finish that sentence. There’s another benefit: Thanks to the miracle of the human brain, when you leave that paragraph or sentence unfinished, throughout the rest of the day and especially overnight your subconscious mind will not only finish it, but will map out the next few paragraphs, possibly even the next few pages.
In other news: This past weekend, after attending the graduation from grad school of my eldest daughter in Washington, D.C., I and my family took a drive, in our Zipcar, to Baltimore to revisit our old neighborhood and some other places that had shaped our twelve years in the city, among them “The Cafe Hon,” named for that penchant of Baltimore waitresses to address customers with the diminutive form of “honey.” As in, “what’ll it be today, hon?” We stopped in for a delightful, if rather late, lunch of crab cakes, burgers, and steamed shrimp, but only after leaving did I happen to notice the giant pink flamingo erected outside, apparently for the upcoming “HonFest.” John Waters must certainly be proud.