Being a Writer, Part One: Small, Doable Changes

As the weather changes, we get energized.

Fall is the best time to introduce a new habit. Since you are reading this, the chances are good you have an intention regarding writing. That is your inner Writer Protagonist calling you to action.

So about that protagonistic intention you have... I’m going to stop you before you say, “to start writing that novel/screenplay/memoir.”

May I gently suggest that while you can keep that big project in mind, as a conscious intention, start small. Particularly if “start” means you’ve never written long-form fiction, memoir or screenplay before.

But OK, if, in fact, you’ve written many satisfying short stories or creative nonfiction essays, why not then? Sure, start the novel; adapt a short story into a screenplay, get that memoir off your chest.

But let’s say you’ve been writing, but in a commercial or legal venue, so creative storytelling is new. I’d strongly suggest you start with very short stories or memory scenes, maybe some four-page screenplays.

I’ve been tutoring a semi-famous attorney this summer. His first attempts were explanation and summary heavy with very little active story. He’s well-known for his legal writing, but he wasn’t comfortable writing in scenes, or writing in a character’s consciousness, or ginning up conflicts. So we backtracked to writing continuous action, conflicts, and some dialogue. He quickly saw the difference; he re-focused on telling the story in scenes and conflicts, he’s building his skills every week, and now he’s written some wry, brief stories. He’s a guy who has written a lot, has even mastered one kind of writing, yet he’s willing to rebuild from the bottom up. Working this way, he’ll have a novel years sooner than if he’d started explaining and summarizing his “idea” of a novel, generating pages that would only reinforce bad habits.

So if you have no current writing practice at all, but you have always felt you wanted to write, start with characters in the middle of a scene in the middle of a problem. Experiment with “practice” writing; see if you can have fun writing to acquire and tune the skills you’ll eventually need to write that long-form ambition. Start with small writings to learn specific skills.

And whatever you do, the starting point should be just carrying a notebook and pen.

Another case in point: I had another writer in class this summer, let’s call her S—
S is a really smart, successful, motivated young woman; her writing sample showed superb potential, but just as classes started, just as she was going to start writing for fun like she had as a kid, at just that moment, the merry-go-round of her life started picking up speed—her job, her family, her relationship—and in the space of about ten days to two weeks, the very talented S, who had all the right stuff and was motivated, couldn’t find time to write because her weekly meetings doubled, she had personal emergencies, and increased responsibilities. Still, S struggled to write even fragments of stories for classes, but then, personal and professional travel meant she couldn’t even be in class. Argh!

But in the course of her struggles, I saw something. I saw an even smaller, doable writing step for her.

Cognitive Factoid: Successful people see their goals in small, doable steps; then they do them. The data on this is quite compelling. A major part of success is managing to see a big goal as a series of small “bite-sized” goals and getting a steady sense of accomplishment rather than an endless sense of incompletion.

So, if you haven’t written even a story recently, a full length novel as a next step is too big. My attorney tutorial knows he likes to write and play with ideas on paper, to solve problems and create pleasure. He came to me thinking he might have some novels in him, but first of all, wanting “to learn how to be better writer”— not a novelist, not “published.” He knew the skill sets that he’d learned to write legalese took years to acquire, so he knew the process might be incremental. He’s a good example of the Writer Protagonist: consciously choosing projects he can and will successfully complete.

However, S, as a Writer Protagonist, was overwhelmed by her Writer Antagonisms, she couldn’t even begin writing small. And as a teacher, I let her convince me there was nothing she could do. But the Writer-Protagonist (unlike your Character Protagonists) must not let Antagonism get the upper hand: there is always a small, creative, affirmative step to take. The simple thing S (and really all of us) needed to do was to carry a notebook. If she couldn’t write, she could keep the intention to write close at hand. That’s enough.

It seems so simple as to be simple-minded, but in some ways, the writer does need to be simple-minded. The simple act of writing, putting down words, any words, all words, that’s where it all begins. All great writing comes from that essential labor. The key effort in being a writer is writing, the act of writing, writing for the hell of it. Writing for fun.