On Writing


From the time I can remember I’ve felt compelled to write things down. Yet for many years I identified myself as a painter. Painting allowed me to expose my inner life without revealing too much. Painting was my first stab at storytelling.

The trajectory of a shadow tells a tale. So do to tracks in snow. Story recounts histories and chants names. It propels us forward and backward, setting us free to travel in time and space. Story connect us to other realms yet always leads us back to our own spacious inner kingdom. Stories give us context and make us human.

As a child in the 50’s I watched Robin Hood on TV. I willingly tumbled into the deep dark greenwood (from which I have not yet emerged) and fought side-by-side with the Merry Men, immersed in the fight for justice and bonded to my fellows by our common cause. Justice, fellowship, the persistence of evil and the undying power of love. These things fired my blood. They still do.

After the TV went off, the Merry Men lived on in my imagination. I shaped sticks into swords, climbed trees and re-lived their adventures with my friends. We fought undaunted by the superior forces arrayed against us because we labored on the side of Good. Life seemed simple then.

Life has become more complex, but the struggle between the forces of light and dark still tug at my heart. So it’s no surprise that someone like Cassie McCool would show up in my universe. Cassie didn’t knock. She didn’t even ask my permission to come in. She busted through the door wearing a Jersey Girl tee shirt, threadbare jeans and a pair of Keds. She had a dagger in one hand, a book of Fairytales in the other and a thirst for justice in her heart. Robin would have approved.

A word to writers…

Writing novels can be exhilarating. It can also be frustrating and lonely. But once a story tags you, you’re pretty much stuck with it, so you might as well develop some skills. Here are some things that have helped me.

Cultivate discipline. Sit in the chair every day. Put something down on paper (or screen). Don’t think. Just do it. If you’re blocked, try some unfiltered ‘wild writing’. This lets your subconscious, the part of you that creates, out of its cage. Your subconscious may need to run around the room like an intoxicated puppy for a while, but it will settle down eventually. Wait for this to happen. Try not to succumb to the urge to do laundry or clip your nose hairs. My friend Maria says that a lot of the time it looks like you’re just sitting there doing nothing, but you’re not. You’re waiting for the puppy to get tired.

Your writer friends will understand your behavior. If you don’t have any of these, get some. They’ll make you feel normal. Your non-writer friends will roll their eyes at you for not answering your phone or putting on street clothes. In extreme cases they might even enter your house to see what you’re really doing. Lay down boundaries. Successful writers get to hide out in cottages out on rocky promontories. We have to do this at home where we are required to relate to family members and cook meals. Boundaries are essential.

For most of us, writing requires long spaces of silence in which we wait to hear a line of dialogue or see the trajectory of our plot. We have to cock an ear to the ethers and remain still. This looks weird to an outsider. But it’s part of the job. Cultivate stillness. (See section on Yoga)

Find mentors. Live ones are best. I was fortunate to find a teacher who pointed out my bad habits, taught me about point-of-view, plot and voice, then shoved two books into my hands. ‘Stein on Writing’ by Sol Stein, and ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Browne and King. Get them. Read them. Keep them close. Then go out and buy books on writing that have been written by writers.

Books on your craft by people who practice it daily will buoy you up and feed you intravenous hope. They will remind you that even the Great Ones despaired of finding their way and that you are in grand company even as you bang your forehead on the desk. There’s no need to go it alone. Use the experience of others. And read, read, read. Read what you love and what you hate. Read in your genre and all around it. Fill yourself up with Stein and Browne and King, then start reading like a writer. See how the Great Ones did it. Or failed to do it (this happens). Learn from everything. Be a sponge. Stay hungry. You’ve been given a gift. If you don’t use it, the fairy that gave it to you will show up sooner or later to ask you why.


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