All the sage wisdom that begins with “Write what you know,” and ends with “Show, don’t tell,” is there for the asking. Here are some other rules you probably haven’t found in any writer’s handbook. Perhaps one of them will unlock that bestseller that’s inside you somewhere.
1. Let your wall inspire you. Furnish the wall near your desk with meaning. Frame or tack up little things your eyes can drink in when you wonder why you thought writing seemed like a good idea in the first place. My wall sports, among many things, my favorite New Yorker cartoon of a penguin flying high above other penguins, saying, “We just haven’t been flapping them hard enough.” It also has a framed note from Anne Tyler, telling me sweetly why she couldn’t read and critique my manuscript I had sent her. I keep that note to remind myself to be that gracious if I ever win the Pulitzer, and as commentary on my boundless optimism that I really thought she would read my stuff in the first place.
2. Make a negative list. Create a list of all the people who doubt you as a writer. If anyone has said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” put that person at the top. Same with someone who has used the words “writing” and “starving” in the same sentence. Give your parents a little slack. (After all, their job is to worry, so don’t include them.) When you’re finished with the list, fold it carefully and tie it with a ribbon before you throw it away.
3. Make a positive list. Make a list of 12 living people in your life, present or past. Choose one each month and write him or her a letter. E-mails, texts, and cards don’t count. Make peace with your old college roommate; tell someone why you’ve always admired them; make the day of someone who wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Good writing is about relationships, so resurrect, enhance, create or feed some of yours.
4. Don’t throw anything away. Keep a notebook and take it everywhere. After writing becomes your way of life, you may find you dream in already constructed sentences that delight you. Write down phrases and sentences that come to you even though they may have nothing to do with what you’re writing at the moment. And then never throw away your notebook.
5. People watch. Got to a ballgame, even if you don’t like baseball. Sit on a park bench. Give blood. Have lunch alone in a restaurant and listen to the way people really talk. It will help you in writing dialogue more than any workshop ever will.
6. Start over every morning. Let your accomplishments excite you, but don’t let them placate you. Let your rejections teach you something, but don’t let them paralyze you. A writer’s life is like that of any other artist — a composer, a painter, a sculptor. There is nothing there until you sit at your desk and create it. You’re in charge, and there’s no one in the world who can string words together the way you do at that moment, on that day. Now go. Create.