Here’s how it goes:

Nice Smart Young Woman New to Writing: (Enters class on a Friday morning her laptop under her arm) Shit. I didn’t write anything! (She slumps down into chair, dropping her oversized handbag to the floor.)

Me: So what does that matter? You’re here anyway. That’s the deal.

NSYWNTW: Well yes, but I don’t have anything. I just couldn’t write. You know, here I am going on and on about the same old crap—going to the health clinic in fucking Sylmar because I don’t have any money and about how awful they treat everyone even if you’re a legal immigrant, which most of them probably aren’t, and how just saying that makes me feel like a racist, and the health care system being fucked even for people like me who have a heart condition and have to have their blood taken every month, even from when I was  kid and then calling my crazy mother to see if I could drop in on her knowing she would say “It’s not a good time,” not because it wasn’t a good time, but because she has turned into a hoarder and there are no chairs to sit on and you have to climb over stacks on the floor and I can remember a time when she was beautiful, really beautiful and it makes me so sad.

Me: Oh. Yeah…..and…?

NSYWNTW: Well… just nothing.

Me:  (head down on the table laughing helplessly) “Nothing” you say?  (another fit of laughing)

Of all the people I get to work with the ones new to writing are often my favorites. They show up because there is something they want to say, they wonder if they can and if they do, will it be worth it.  They are at their most curious and innocent at the same time—a great combination. The liberating logic is, if you don’t know how to do something, then you can’t screw it up. (If  wanted to be a taxidermist, for example, I wouldn’t have any expectations. Rest easy. I’m only saying.)

They may just want to get something off their chests: memories, losses, scary stuff, secrets. And that’s a bad thing? If it makes anyone feel better to write their experiences (like the NYSWNTW,) and in the doing discover something deeper that with care can lift into story, isn’t that growth? I ask you, where does fiction come from anyway?

The newcomer may move on without latching on to a project and if so, I don’t mind  because for sure I know they  leave better readers with respect for the layers that inhabit any creative effort.

Then there are the times when someone new to writing finds that spinning a tale can be much like flying a kite. You run into the wind, let out the string and once up, your job is to hang on to the wonderful flying thing in the sky.

(Forgive me for becoming all rainbow-ish, but the analogy was irresistible.)

Art is not an esoteric remote ideal, it is grounded in ordinary, lived lives and imagination. The bottom line is, novice or professional, the imagination is a muscle and gets stronger with use.

P.S. I’ll take an excited newbie any day over “I’ve got a book in me, I just know it. Everyone says so.” Shoot me.

Read this book







If asked, I bet you can name at least five turning points in your life or close to it. They would be times after which nothing you thought you knew was ever quite the same—times when you had to take a leap of faith you hadn’t planned because the alternative was either unpleasant, the status quo not good enough, or you believed there was something better in the offing.

The leap itself isn’t really the problem, staying in the air is the challenge.

Now apply this to your work. Think about where you must go as an artist. You step in front of a canvas, onto a stage, pick up a musical instrument, sit down at your desk, etc.  There is endless discussion about the writer’s blank piece of paper but I think there is more to be said about the half-filled pages, those graphic but undeniably disturbing reminders that what you have is, gasp, unfinished!

What happened?

You are one third of the way through your novel or into act two of your screenplay. You have been charging forward as if you were channeling. You can’t wait to get to the computer and find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to jot down notes.  They know you by first name at the local coffee shop. You are so delighted and energized that you begin to haplessly and foolishly read it aloud to spouses or even more distant family members, best friends who only want the best for you and then—you hit a snag. Though “snag” is a fairly cute word, it can become black and deadly when it lasts more than an overnight. Weeks perhaps.  Maybe longer.  Like a fungus! And what happened to all those assurances and accolades from your nearest and dearest? This is when it’s good to remind yourself, that the people who know you are not the ones who publish novels or produce films. They are people who like you and want to make you feel good which has little or nothing to do with your work. You, after all, are not your work. But that’s what I mean by “looking down.”

There are as many versions as this as there are starfish in the sea. They sound familiar because we return to them again and again, like a stuck CD.

“What was I thinking?”

“Someone else has already written this.”

“Who am I to think I have a story to tell?”

I’m not for a moment suggesting that you can negotiate or reason with these messages. That’s insanity. I’m convinced those blindly rhetorical questions are built into our creative and cultural DNA. Can’t say why, (actually not interested) but for sure, they make you look down. While you were confidently sailing through the air in that leap, you looked down. (Think Wile E. Coyote and his desperately windmilling legs. It can’t end well.)

Do this.  Focus back on where you were headed in the first place. Keep your eye on where you wanted to land.  It was what put you in motion. It is something dear, something true, something worth tending.  It is what matters.  It wants you. And for all those reasons, it’s trustworthy. In fact, it’s your best friend.

Write the destination. Write the last scene of the movie, the essay, the poem or even the last chapter of the book.  You brought it into being when you leapt. Don’t abandon your first impulses. Sure, a lot gets in the way, but so what? A lot gets in the way of everything—raising children, money, appearances, position, geography, leavings, sorrow, falling out of love, falling back into love, ageing—so what?

The work of the artist is to simply continue.  Or even, continue simply; beyond sensibility, beyond knowing.  It is key to discovering that the capacity for growth is what has been set in motion by your leap of imagination. I ask you, why wouldn’t you want to think that?

Which brings us around nicely to the word “faith.”

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King, Jr.