A Checklist For the Writing Life

All pilots and surgeons use checklists, so can writers!

All pilots and surgeons use checklists, so can writers!

Every writer – be they young or mature, just starting out or grizzled with experience and publication – needs a checklist. Like a proficient pilot or cautious surgeon, use of a checklist ensures that you do not forget important details before setting out to fly an airplane, cut your patient open or embark on your writing life.

☐ Throw out all the rules about writing. Especially “Write what you know;” “Write from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. before the kids wake up;” and “Write every day without fail.” Poet William Matthews once gave me a gift – in response to my question about the supposed importance of writing every day, he said it was more helpful to do what works for you than to write each day. “I do not write every single day, but I like to write almost every day,” he said. He added, “I wish I wrote every day, but I don’t always get to it.” I sighed and ran up to hug and thank him for relieving me of the pain and suffering I caused myself through my guilty conscience about not writing each and every day. Okay, I did not really run up and hug him. But I should have. He died a couple of years after I met him. What I have since learned is that William Matthews could no more impart a specific routine of disciplined structure for my own writing practice, as could the ghost of Jane Austen. We must all create our own business of the writing life, if that is what we are called to do. And peace be upon you if you do not feel the incessant gravity of sitting down to record what you see, to tell a story or to develop a plot that is thickening inside of you. You are lucky indeed.

☐ Seek coaches and teachers everywhere, form a team. Never settle for just one. I have had many creative writing, English and literature teachers. I marveled at how several were so tuned in to my needs as a student and yet others were completely tone-deaf to my position in life. I worried that I had to enjoy each class and lecture and become chummy with the other students, even when those students were not very good writers or very charitable human beings in general. I thought I had to give them as much attention as I would my own voice and trembling finger on the keyboard. I believed I owed them, as if with pen in hand, I had to commit to their success. Then my good friend Sela gave me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I found freedom. I realized that I had been holding back, I had shut my creative power down time and again because I thought I was not a real writer, that real writers gained entrance to prestigious Masters of Fine Art programs (MFA) or were published by the time they were 24 years old. I thought I should have been in a writing workshop rather than in a chair of my own. Julia’s book revealed the truth – I could write without a classroom! Without an MFA! I could follow along in Julia’s book, step by easy, loving step, and I could recover my passion and heal myself and write god damn it! Julia and I are close as sisters; she truly set me on a path to possibility. The funny thing is that I don’t even know Julia! That is the beauty of coaches and teachers everywhere. They publish books and blogs, poems and novels, short stories and compendiums of the best advice on writing. You don’t have to know them personally, yet they will become your trusted advisors and mentors, friends and kindred spirits. Most of the best books are available to borrow from your public library. I hereby give you permission to learn to your heart’s content. No need to spend more than $500 on a creative writing class at the University of California or to go into between $30,000 – $70,000 in debt (not counting what you’ll need to eat and pay rent) to do an MFA. You can learn on the cheap. Or you can organize your own writer workshops and facilitate good process and learn through others as well! Click here to see who is on my coaching staff. Your team can be similar or maybe you want to throw in a sumo wrestler, since that is a topic with which you are fascinated. See, you can do whatever you want and no one can stop you! Guilt be gone!

☐ Get yourself a student identification card, and hold on to it – for the rest of your life. You’re never going to be done with becoming a writer, so keep learning, practicing, being patient and loving and focus on how cool it is to be a student. Would you expect a sailor to know how to fly a plane, just because they are good with equipment and reading the winds? There are skills, there are drills, there are lots of things to learn. You are a student of writing. Yet even when you are getting good at it, you still need to practice. Even the best basketball players lift weights and practice their layups, their dunks, their three-point shots. Even Olympic swimmers hire coaches and trainers, eat well and refine their form. And the world’s best musicians do their scales and keep their minds and fingers limber for the performance. So get over yourself that you’re going to be brilliant and that your words will string together with effervescence and verve. They might. They might not. But do keep practicing.

☐ Debate the devil on your shoulder – early and often. The inner voice, that shrill one telling you that you suck, that you being a writer is a crock of crud, that you’ll never get a damn thing published and who do you think you are sitting down to compose even one lousy sentence? That voice is not in charge of the writing operation. But it will try to convince you that it is. So always be on the lookout for Opposite Land, a place you can visit anytime that most critical of voices pipes up. When it says, “You can’t make any money off of this poem!” say “It is possible to make money off this poem.” Or maybe you sneer, “I don’t care about money right now, anyways, nanny, nanny billy goat.” When the red devil on your shoulder says, “Hey, wise guy, what do you say we weasel out of this stupid writing thing you have going on right now and go do something fun instead?” You can reply, “It isn’t stupid, it’s important to me and it is fun, so please go away. Now.” Just come up with the opposite point of view of your inner critic. The endless storyline that you’re not good enough to do this is old, tiresome and banal – and yet it has power and it always will exist. Don’t pretend you don’t hear it. Just reply. Or think of the criticism as a phone call. When you hear the voice, hang up. They will try to call again. You can curse at your critic and tell him off, too. Muck You! Muck off! Go Muck Yourself! Powerful cuss words that rhyme with “muck” feel good when you hurl them at your inner devil.

☐ Read good writing. Devour your predecessors: eat and drink their words like the water, vitamins, protein, complex carbohydrates, dessert, tea and coffee they are. Your fellow writers are your guides, your teachers, your forebears and your intrepid explorers. See what they did. Admire it, criticize it, copy it, try it on for size. Underline their passages, write reviews of their books on Goodreads or Amazon and tell others what you are reading. Need help on where to begin? There are top lists of books published every year in most major newspapers, blogs and websites for public radio, just find a list and pick one book off it and go read it. Or find a list of the top classics and read some (Moby Dick is on mine this year). Or choose a region in the world, say New Orleans, and read three novels set there (I adored Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing). Make up your own list of ten books you’ve always wanted to read and set out on an adventure to do it.

☐ Fitness routine – get one. If you are overweight, suffering from depression, indigestion or an acute illness, writing will bring some relief, but not much. You need to move. Go for a walk before you write. I run like John Irving does, before I even eat, just to clear out my mind’s cobwebs, deal with the nasty voices telling me I suck (damn them, do they ever shut up?) and to see the path. I am an athlete. I write, I fly, I read, I love. I need to be healthy, I need to be free. I need to be calm. We are NOT CALM, you see! We are such an anxiety-ridden culture that we prevent ourselves from growing and enjoying this planet and one another because of all the unhealthful habits we have acquired. Anyone can be an athlete. Find something to do and just try it. Sometimes I turn on electronica or pop hits music in the living room and dance for 30 minutes. I am able to be far more productive once I move. I think it loosens a lot of chemicals in the brain and strengthens all my cell walls so that I breathe better. And I’m much nicer to my husband and my colleagues when I run.

☐ Morning Pages – write three pages of absolutely any old thing. Consider this your warm-up. Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages are a miracle disguised as an easy task. You can write about what’s keeping you up at night, you can make a list of things to get at the store, you might want to describe the objects in your living room, or you can imagine a vacation you’ve always wanted to take. I tend to write about my day, whether it is the one I’ve lived (yesterday) or the one to come (today – tomorrow). The great thing about this ritual, and I’ve been at it for more than ten years, is that you begin with a dirty old garret, one full of tax returns you no longer need, boxes overflowing with mothball-scented sweaters and piles of newspapers from when your team won the World Series. Oh, and there are the National Geographic magazines from the 1970s your parents saved for you. There you are, in front of your computer or journal, and you sweep up the dirt and the stiff, dead insects, the balls of fuzz, and you take a broom and knock out the cobwebs in the corners, and then you fill a debris box to the rim with paper to be recycled (in my imagination there is a company that comes, faithful as the sun rising, to help with this daily task; they deliver bins, provide shredder pick-up service and thrift store donation assistance. Isn’t that nice of them?) Finally, you sprinkle some Murphy Oil Soap on your wooden floors and give them a mopping. When you’re done, the attic’s in order and you are ready for writing, for flying, for managing people, for commuting, for loving your spouse, for whatever it is you need and want to do.

☐ Say no, so that you can say yes. As a young woman, I hardly ever turned down an invitation, whether it was to see a movie, go to the shopping mall with friends, attend a party or help other writers with their own work. I grew to resent the very people I thought I was helping by being their companion or editing their own writing. One night my husband said, “How is spending time with those people helping you with your writing?” Good question. I spent so much time with others, doing what they wanted to do, that I hardly had a free moment to delve into my own creativity. Be as social as you like, but don’t feel you have to do anything with anybody if it means you don’t get what you ultimately want. You are going to need time alone. If you have roommates or a family, write in a library, in a café, or on the bus. Heck, take a tip from Raymond Carver, who used to sit in his driveway, in his car, to write. Find a way. This may be a bit painful for you, especially if you are a people pleaser like I am (though I have made progress and now prioritize putting my own needs ahead of others more and more often). You will need to set a boundary with some people in your life. They may not like it. That is none of your business. Or, they may respect you and love the fact you are following your dream to write more and resent less.

☐ Upload to the Cloud. In the old days I would have said to back up your files. You do not want to lose your manuscript, your Morning Pages, your plans. Also, you don’t want to get to your special writing place and not have access to the very files you need because you forgot the memory stick or saved your story on your personal laptop, but not on your work laptop. With the Cloud (pick your cloud, I use Dropbox and love it) you can access your files on any computer, any device. Don’t put your words at risk of being lost when your motherboard dies.

☐ Make specific plans. Be as disciplined with the business plan for your writing as you are for projects at work. Write up your objectives and how you’ll go about seeing them through and give yourself deadlines. I have found that applying the same business objective setting process to my own writing goals has led to several of my “wishes” becoming reality – I finished a book, taught several workshops, was awarded two writing residencies and submitted to over 200 literary journals. If I had casually hoped to do it all, I doubt I would have done the right things to get the actions rolling in the first place.

☐ Go do stuff you like to do. Take yourself to see the ballet, an art exhibit, or merely walk to a park and sit on a bench. Go snorkeling in Hawaii. Watch Minor League baseball. Hike in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. Walk your dog. Go to yard sales. Sit in a restaurant and look at each person at the bar. Bring a journal. Write down every sound and sight. Take notes on how people talk. This is about idea generation and celebration of art and being alive. I love watching sci-fi that my friend Regina recommends; losing myself in an episode of Black Mirror is so thrilling that I can hardly wait to try my hand at writing my own sci-fi story! Standing in front of a 19th century American landscape painting of Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, I imagine what those artists would have experienced and how they would have conveyed the grandeur of these iconic California places to their Eastern seaboard family members. Doing stuff gives you ideas and energy. Go do stuff.

☐ Show your writing to other people if you feel like it and want feedback. Otherwise, keep it to yourself and push forward by reading other writers, practicing on your own and revising. No one said you have to get an MFA to write, or that you must get beat up at a writing workshop or that you have to listen to someone who has no idea what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Trust few people with your precious cargo. Listen to those who care enough to help you grow and get better. If you need direction, sign up for a workshop or class. Just remember that you don’t have to do what everyone will say you have to do to your work. Receiving ten people’s worth of feedback on your story can be overwhelming if you are not sure how to revise your next draft in order to please those same ten people. You can’t please them all and it’s not worth trying. You can please yourself and you can listen for common themes. You can refuse to revise a damn thing. You can stick your story in a drawer for six months and then decide.