4 Working with a Net
Occasionally someone will ask me about pursuing a career as a writer: is it possible, how should prepare for it, how should one do it?
Quick answers: it’s possible, but not easy–a writer needs extraordinary drive and patience; read, read, read, and write, write, write; I don’t really know how to do that, since fortunately for me I don’t write for a living. I write because sometimes I want to, and sometimes I must.
W. H. Auden told a story about a young would-be writer who asked him about being a poet. Auden asked, “Why do you want to be a poet?” The questioner thought for a moment and replied, “Because I love words.” Auden followed, “If you had given me any other answer, I’d have suggested you spend your time otherwise.” Auden’s is an interesting answer, but not the only answer, at least as I understand it. A person could also say, “Because I love stories” or “Because I want to try to add something to the great storehouse of literature that I have always loved so much” or simply “Because I have to do it. I can’t eat, sleep, or think clearly if I don’t.”
Often I’ll get a question about how or where I get ideas. That’s a kind of embarrassing one, since I’ve never had trouble getting ideas. I have more than enough. My problem has been getting the confidence, focus, and time away from my employment life to practice enough and learn how to start, continue, and finish pieces of work. The ancients used to say not “I think that” but “the thought came to me that”: I suspect ideas come to most of us pretty often, but we brush them off as random thoughts of little use.
Sometimes the real issue behind that question, when it comes from younger persons, is simply that they haven’t yet lived long enough to have clarified for themselves what they really want to write about. More living means more experiences, and more thinking means more ideas for writing.
Now, when I get an idea that seems to me to have promise, I start with list-making: the blank page is my worst enemy. Get it down, with as many details as possible, as quickly and clearly as possible, then go back to it later to see if it deserves more thought and more effort–that’s my main method.
For the young person who wants to write, I also suggest what I call working with a net. If you want to work the trapeze of writing, find a reasonable and decent way to make a living. Auden said to take up carpentry: something very different that requires different skills and thought patterns so that one sits down to write, the mind isn’t already tired and clogged with word-business. Then writing time is language-time and pleasure-time, not drudgery. Carpentry is good, but anything that helps you gain experience and make and save money and puts you in a position where you have some leisure time to write will do.
Every writer must find his or her own methods through practice and persistence and an open mind to ideas that come from anywhere and everywhere.
Good luck, and best of success!