My writing partner and I had lunch with a colleague who was having trouble writing messages for a fundraising program. She says she composes perfect prose in her head, but then her hand just freezes up with the pen and the thoughts never make it to paper.
She wanted to know how we, as professional writers, keep from getting stuck. I immediately launched into a spiel about how you have to give yourself permission to write anything, to compose a really crappy first draft that no one will ever see. And once you have something written—anything at all—you’re technically unstuck. Just keep giving yourself permission to write crap until you can start to feel the right words and concepts take shape.
Then I talked about how it really helps—indeed, it sometimes saves you—to envision your target audience right in front of you. Conjure up someone whose life, or job, or day could be saved by what you have to say. Speak to that person out of compassion and with a sense of urgency.
At this point, my partner, Caitlin Kerk, chimed in with, “Well, after hearing this, you won’t like what I have to say.” We looked at her expectantly. “It’s just that nobody can tell you how to be a writer. Nobody can teach you. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”
And I had to agree. I told them how I’d just come across a line in The Writer’s Manifesto by Jeff Goins, one of my favorite bloggers. It’s now on the right sidebar of my blog:
“Real writers don’t write for recognition. They don’t do it for fame, accolades, or notoriety. They do it because they cannot not write.”
And just that morning I had read a terrific post by Liz Strauss about Hunter S. Thompson, who said,
…no one can help you write…I’ve spent years working with young writers. I could coach them. I could say what wasn’t working. I could make suggestions on how to approach the problem. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t help them write. I had to stand back and watch them struggle.
And both Caitlin and I question our own sanity at times. Why would anybody want to do this for a living? Writing is so hard. (Oh, that’s another blog post: [writing is damn hard].) You would only do it year after year if, as Lady Gaga says, you were “born that way.”
Then this reminded me of my grandmother, about whom I wrote in [the writing gene]. She had very little education but she was a writer. She wrote 20-page letters in tiny, cramped handwriting, often a dozen a week. She also wrote obituaries for the local newspaper of her tiny Iowa farm town—and I was surprised to hear that Caitlin really enjoyed writing obituaries during her previous career in the newspaper business.