Natalie Goldberg, in Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, spells out her rules of writing practice. If you haven’t read them, do. You might want to post them where you write. Let them be your guide behind the writer’s curtain.
Here are my seven golden rules. Use them to limber up your writing muscles, or, if you write by the seat of your pants, for first drafts. Some are variations of Natalie’s, because they’re that good.
1. Celebrate writing badly
Give yourself permission to write the worst stuff on earth, in case it shows up. And it will. When it does? Celebrate. Laugh, snarl, be your own bad self on the page. It’s all good! All of those cliches and disjointed sentences and half-eaten thoughts. Purge that stuff onto the page until your inner editor walks away in disgust. Be a bit manic about it. See where the energy leads. It’s like brainstorming, saying yes to every bad idea. “Bravo! Keep ‘em coming!” You’ve got to get that junk out of the way to find the gold that’s buried underneath. Don’t cross out that sentence, don’t back up on the keyboard. Forge onward!
2. Write quickly
Delight in the wind in your hair, the pedal to the metal, ripping down that byway, the words flying, scattering across the page. No pulling over, waiting for the right phrase, the best image. When you find yourself searching for the right word, just write any word. A string of words. And then move on. Quickly. Write in a condensed period of time. Five minutes. Fifteen. Keep the fingers moving on the keyboard, the pen flying across the page. It frees the brain, unsticks the sticky parts.
3. Don’t make plans
Be spontaneous on this writing journey. No baggage. An idea, that’s it. Maybe not even that. See what comes. And then riff. Improvise. Say “yes, and…” to every character, every thought, every mood that appears on the page. See the scenery. Hear the voices. Feel the feelings. Taste the tastes. Be in the experience, not in your head. See where the path leads.
4. Surprise yourself
It happens naturally, if you don’t make plans. You follow a character and it leads you to 1940’s San Francisco, the Haight. You follow the sentence and it leads you to a circus in Moscow. You follow a street in Paris and it leads you to a story about how your heart broke open from loneliness. Follow, follow, follow, or you won’t get there.
5. Be a rebel
Set your voice free. Don’t worry so much about sentence length and active voice and all those writerly rules you’ve learned over the years. Just write whatever comes, in whatever form it takes. As author Jerry Jenkins says, get that hunk of meat down on the page so you can carve it. Chances are, if you give your voice free rein, the amount of carving needed will be minimal. Because here’s the thing: if you break the rules, you know the rules. And all great writers know their craft. It’s there, in your subconscious. You’ll be surprised how much of it bleeds through.
6. Be a beginner in an expert’s world
If you know your craft, there’s the expertise. Now show up with a beginner’s mind. What is beginner’s mind? It’s looking at everything new again. What does that sycamore look like? What does that bubble gum ice cream taste like? What can I explore, discover, in the topic of which I write? Fit your tiny feet in those oversize high heels and totter around pretending to be a fancy lady. As a writer, you’re always playing make-believe. Be that child again, experiencing the world for the first time.
7. Give up, but not on your work
I wrote this post after spending twenty minutes trying to force a piece that wasn’t working. I finally gave up, walked away. Forcing something never works. Best to let whatever wants to be born come through, slip out. And it will! Easy. When the needle is stuck on the record, playing the same thing over and over, you’ve got to jiggle it. Give it a nudge. Then the music, the ideas, flow. So, when you’re expending too much effort, stop. Walk away. But not from writing. Just from what isn’t working. Later, if the piece is meant to be, it’ll come through.