Over the past few years, I’ve come across hundreds of blogposts, how-to books, and brilliantly neurotic videos about creativity: about how ideas are formed, and what time of day famous writers write, and why naps are awesome (for creativity). This kind of stuff, it’s everywhere. Sure, I actively seek it out—as a teacher, I feel it’s important to buttress my own half-assed ideas with others’ half-assed ideas—but I never have to look very hard. Creativity, these days, is a hot topic.
Even my creativity is a hot topic. Well, maybe not “hot.” Maybe more like warm. Or somewhere between warm and tepid. Whatever. Point is, fives and fives of people have asked about my process—about how I choose what to write, and what kind of routine I’ve adopted, and if I’ve washed my hair recently—and a few weeks ago, someone even asked me (finally) to write a little blogpost on the topic.
Well, as I composed said post, I got to thinking more broadly about the process of writing GOING SOMEWHERE; a process so quirky and bumpy and unpredictable that I myself could never replicate it, much less recommend it to others. And then I got to thinking about how much fun it’d be to try and do just that—to package up all the minutiae and missteps and utter randomness that somehow led me to a finished book, and then prescribe it as a tried-and-true formula.
So I did that.
And it is with tongue planted firmly in cheek that I present to you the first (and most probably last) installment in my unsolicited how-to series:
How to Write
My a Book: a 13-Step Program
1. While Biking Past a Two-Pump Gas Station on Potholed Asphalt, Decide to Write a Book. Now, I cannot overemphasize how crucial it is that the asphalt be potholed, and that the gas station have two pumps. Because as you ride over those potholes, and past those pumps, you will have an epiphany; you will realize that your bike trip (you’ll want to be in northern Idaho, on the tail end of a 2,500-mile bike trip, obviously) has been a treasure trove of vivid, resonant moments, and that you owe it to the world to stitch said moments into a groundbreaking, genre-defying epic.
Please note: it is equally crucial that you, writer of Future Book of Glory, have never before attempted to write a book—this will make you more confident it’s going to be awesome.
2. Build an Outline around Tangential Asides You Alone Find Hilarious. Inside jokes? Half-baked musings? These are solid gold. During the final weeks of your ride, while you’re hanging out in roadside parks and gas station bathrooms, jot them all down on a page ripped from your journal. Upon the sturdy foundation of these disjointed anecdotes, you shall build your book.
3. Begin Writing as Soon as Possible. Critical distance is for hacks. Just jump right in. It’ll be fun! Here’s what you’ll do: two days after finishing your trip, walk into a café with your girlfriend’s computer, buy the cheapest thing on the menu, and sit down to write the first page. For the next few days, obsessively re-read it. Tell yourself its the best first page written by anyone, ever. Spend the next week tweaking the language. Don’t stop until it’s perfect.
4. The Moment It Gets Hard, Quit. When, after a week, you realize that (a) your exquisite first page has nothing to do with your story; (b) said story revolves pretty tightly around a suddenly-faltering relationship you’re unprepared to examine; and (c) writing is awful hard—this is when you should quit, fall into a depressive funk, stop calling your friends, and apply for jobs you know you’ll hate.
5. When You Come Back to the Story, Start Right in the Middle. After avoiding your story for a year, pull that dusty outline from your sock drawer and pick your favorite anecdote and start writing. Tell yourself you’re writing “a short story,” even though you know it’s part of Future Book of Glory (secrets are fun!). By focusing on the dynamics and arcs and sub-themes pertinent to this singular, tiny moment—which, let’s remember, is right in the middle of your sprawling, complex story—you’ll ensure that, years down the road, you’ll have the opportunity to learn a whole lot about editing.
6. Sign Up for Workshops, but Don’t Submit the Book. Even though you’ve finally sucked it up and trashed that first page and started over—even though you’ve got forty pages and are starting to think you may be writing something like a book—do not have your peers critique it. Hell, don’t even tell them it exists! Instead, workshop a few confusing, ethereal essays—you know, the ones you wrote when you had pneumonia, or drank too much coffee, or both? This way, when you do share some of those pages—pages full of your humor, your pathos, your voice—your teacher will be so surprised and relieved that she’ll say something silly like, “You know, this is going to be a book.”
7. The Moment You Get a Hint of Positive Feedback, Quit Your Job. Yes, you’ve been writing for four years and have barely broken a hundred pages. And yes, you’ve just found a working routine, a routine that involves waking up at dawn to churn out a few pages before heading off to your head-spinning job. But hey, who gives a shit? Because once your teacher tells you that your writing has real promise, you must immediately give your notice at work, so you can focus on finishing the book, because it is going to be a Book—she said it would—and as soon as it becomes a Book (and it will, soon, you can feel it), you’re gonna be a self-actualized billionaire.
8. Disrupt Momentum as Often as Possible. Okay, so you’ve quit your job. A good start. But if you’re ever going to finish this book, here’s what you need to do: (a) move out of your place and couchsurf, so as to ensure that you have no reliable place to write; (b) say yes to everything (you don’t have a job, so why not?), but while you’re out doing everything, feel extraordinarily guilty about not writing; (c) travel incessantly. This last one is key: your book must be written in eleven U.S. states and five foreign countries, on busses and trains, at music festivals and family reunions.
9. Don’t Back Up Your Work. Just don’t. Resist the temptation to hit “save,” to use Dropbox, to regularly transfer files to a hard drive. Why? Because that shit is BORING. Moreover, by erratically backing up your work, you’ll ensure that when someone steals your backpack—which contains your laptop, which contains three unsaved chapters from Future Book of Glory—you’ll have the opportunity to do some serious rewriting. This will be a real character-building moment for you.
10. When it Gets Hard (Again), Repeat Step 4 and Move in with Your Parents. Right around the time you reach the book’s halfway point, you’re going to get discouraged and pouty. When this happens, quit! Then, blame your creative block on Portland (you’re in Portland, duh), and do the sensible thing: load your panniers, bike to Wisconsin, and move in with your parents.
11. Just Fucking Finish the Thing. Perhaps because you’re now spending most of your time with your parents and their neurotic labradoodle—and spending the rest of your time alone—you’ll start to forget about all the other crap you think you should be doing. This is a fleeting feeling. Seize it. Go to bed before your folks. Wake at dawn. Write. Even when you get stir-crazy and move back to Portland in January—and to Orcas Island in February, and back to Portland in March—even amid all of that, do all you can to hold onto that fleeting feeling: say “no” to people you love, say “yes” to shitty paragraphs, and move on to write even shittier ones.
12. After Typing the Last Word, Indulge in Some Self-Worship. Get all misty-eyed. Blubber softly to yourself. Take a long walk through the park, smiling at babies, savoring the springtime smells you missed while huddled in your literary hobbit-hole. Call your mom. Email your mentors. Force your sister to come out for a drink, even though she’s clearly exhausted. Spend the whole day celebrating your Book, yourself. Hell, make it a week. Make it last as long as you can. Because in a couple of months—when you’re face-deep in edits, staring down your shitty paragraphs, trying to find anything resembling a dramatic arc—you’re gonna need something to be nostalgic about.
13. Do It All Over Again. Once you’ve finished your book, the first thing you’ll realize is that you have not, in fact, finished your book. And by “you’ll realize you haven’t finished,” what I really mean is, “you’ll get an email from your editor telling you the many ways in which you haven’t finished.” You will not be happy about this email. You will pout and stomp your feet and mouth-breathe for the better part of a week. And then you’ll sit back down and do what you need to do: spend four months in a dark cave with drapes drawn against glorious Portland summer, writing and rewriting, until your book, at last, is done (or until you’ve hit your final deadline—whichever comes first).
I’ll be reading from—and talking more about the writing of—GOING SOMEWHERE at Powell’s on Tuesday, June 24 (tomorrow!). I hope to see you there. And if you’re not in Portland, but would like to get a sense for the book before spending your donut money on it, you can read Chapter 1 here.