I don’t know how to write. There’s no punch line: I just don’t know how to do it. Each time I sit down to write, it’s like being in one of those nightmares where you forget how to swim. (Don’t you have those nightmares?) In these dreams, I am aware that I learned how to swim, once, but I can’t seem to put this knowledge into action, and so I’m drowning. It’s quite unpleasant and I know it should be easy but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. And it is thus when I write.
Although I don’t know how to swim in my dreams or write in real life, I can perfectly describe how to do both. I must warn you, though, of the huge disconnect you will encounter between being intellectually aware of this information and the actual experiences of swimming and writing.
HOW TO SWIM
We’ll learn the backstroke, because then we don’t have to deal with the breathing part. Relax your body completely. Lie back, like you’re lying in bed, and you’ll just float. Trust me and the water. As Fela Kuti sang, “Water no get enemy.” (He was speaking metaphorically, but we’ll take him at his word for our purposes.) So, you’re floating. Now, start flapping your feet in a scissors-ish fashion. Your arms should be parallel to your body. Swing your right arm up over your head, then around and down into the water and back up to your side. Just as your right arm begins its descent into the water, lift your left arm and complete the same motion. Continue in this way, alternating arms and continuing to kick. You should be moving backwards through the water. Sounds easy, yeah?
HOW TO WRITE
There are four basic components to writing, namely:
This is of two sorts, formal and experiential. First you need to spend 13-20 years in school learning proper grammar and spelling. Grammar is tough. Even the most hyperliterate among us get tripped up on constructions like, “Were it not for ramen, and had I not known about vitamin C supplements, I might have gone hungry or come down with a nasty case of scurvy.” But impeccable grammar is not enough. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with a wide range of dialects. Establish a good drug habit (so you can interact with drug dealers from all walks of life), spend lots of time conversing with Pamida cashiers in the rural Midwest, chat up Somali cab drivers when you’re stuck in traffic, and develop mental health problems so you can hear what psychologists’ jargon sounds like. Unless you are writing about college professors, you’ll want your characters to use some nonstandard grammar and maybe even some slang and malapropisms.
Second, you need real experience. Do as much as you can. Do shit that other people would consider “weird” or “dumb” like getting a cheap weave, disguising your gender, changing jobs frequently, getting fired, traveling through the Sahel by yourself on a motorbike, drinking in the morning, growing your nails two inches long, majoring in mortuary science, and/or taking the last bus of the day to the end of the line in the suburbs with no way to get back home. People will treat you differently if you’re hanging around an empty transit shelter at night on the edge of a cornfield, especially if they also can’t determine your gender. All of this will afford you new perspectives and will infuse your writing with empathy.
You need an idea. It doesn’t have to be big. In fact, it shouldn’t be big. Big ideas lead to disappointment and drinking. (Not fun drinking; cirrhosis-level drinking.) Your idea should be tiny. Maybe you want to invoke in a potential reader the way you feel right now, watching the sun rise over the Mississippi. Or you could start with a character quirk, like the way your second cousin always scratches her left cheek with her fake pinky nail, always with the damn left cheek, even though her cheek piercing is on her right cheek; it’s like she’s searching for a piercing that isn’t there. Or you could start with a fragment of dialog; something overheard, perhaps, in the checkout lane at Aldi. What, after all, leads someone to try to bargain down the price of bananas with an Aldi cashier? It’s not your job as a writer to figure that out; your job is to induce in your reader the same feeling of annoyance that bargainers induce in you.
Whatever your idea is, don’t dwell on it. The execution is the important thing, not the idea. Ideas are shit. Anyone can have an idea and most people usually do. Thankfully, most people don’t have the chops to share them with others via the writing platform, and instead confine the spread of their ideas to their Friday night pot-smoking circle.
Time to write. This is the tricky part. Say you’ve decided you want to write a noir-ish story about an odd and criminal (but titillating) encounter with a friendly stranger on a footbridge over a network of freeways. You don’t know what the odd and criminal (but titillating) encounter should be. It’s okay, just start writing. Put down something, anything, knowing full well it won’t be publishable. Remember, Hemingway tells us, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and many other good and non-good writers have echoed this sentiment. So dive in. Sentences, you learned in your 13-20 years of school, consist of a subject, a verb, and an object, which gives us: “I on bridge.” You’re not sure if “on” is a verb, but just keep going, you can fix it later. “I on bridge and sky is cold.” Good! You’re doing better. Where does this lead you? More subject, verb, object; go: “There person over there.” Brilliant! Your idea is now on the page.
Next, something needs to happen. How about some dialogue? “‘Morning!’ person over there say.” Wait a minute, what is the subject in that sentence? Is ‘morning’ the subject? This is confusing. You are starting to shake. You probably had too much coffee, so quell your nerves with a sip of beer. Fuck it, make a Brandy Alexander. Fuck it, just drink the brandy straight from the bottle.
If you’re doing it right, at this point you should have two incomprehensible sentences written, a major headache, and an urge to massage your genitals until you reach orgasm. Go ahead and fulfill this urge.
You will require a change of scenery and some exercise to eradicate the shame you feel as a result of having masturbated. Go for a walk. Walk down to the Irish pub with your notebook (or laptop, though this is less romantic). Order a pint of Smithwick’s. Pick up your story where you left off. The ale is giving you the confidence you need to continue your story. You write for pages. Your hand doesn’t stop. You are immune to your surroundings. The bartender asks what you are writing. You give him some garbled answer and order a shot of Jameson. You imagine that you are every other drunken genius writing in an Irish pub. You are James Joyce, you are Dylan Thomas. Wait, he was Welsh. No matter. Keep going. Order another drink. By the time it’s over, you will have written fifteen pages. Your confidence soars. You can conquer the world with naught but a pen!
Pay your bill and walk home with a sense of relief. You have what it takes. Sleep it off. Wake up hungover and read your pages upon pages of writing. You can barely read it; your handwriting gets sloppy when you’re drunk. And it doesn’t make much sense. Type it out nonetheless (what parts you can understand). It’s an utter mess, naturally. You have to go to work now. Go make espressos for impatient, perennially dissatisfied professionals who never fail to express shock when you mention the existence of your college degree. Do this for eight hours. On your way home, buy a sandwich with your tip money.
Now you can start your real work, the revision. Read over what you typed up this morning. Now change everything about it. Sounds easy, yeah?