“I’ll write ten more then go to the falcon. The falcon is my code name for Millennium Park in Chicago. I work across the street from it, and hide in it regularly. I write product copy for a large retailer. I write about power tools and mattresses, sometimes luggage. The volume is vast and comforting: an ocean of words, bold headlines lapping placidly at the sand. It’s different from the fiction I write, but not a competing force. They leak into each other at times, and that’s okay.
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"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work. Here are my three most repeated, most consistent writing secrets: 1. Get dressed. This may seem obvious or unimportant (especially if you work at home). And yet, what you wear is a statement of intention. If you have lucky clothes, go put them on. Grab that pink bathrobe.
“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table. Many instructors advise to ‘sit in the chair’ each day. Remember the ‘chair’ can be the commuter train or the washing machine as your kid’s clothes dry.
“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding. I've learned to accept that silence can be a kind of productivity. Loaf with yourself, to paraphrase Whitman. If you cannot relax, move on to another project or another genre.
“I’m a doodler. This has never gone over well. In high school, it convinced teachers I wasn’t really listening, and in my various jobs over the years, it has convinced bosses that some part of me is still in high school. Which is true, obviously, but that’s hardly the point. The point is knowing what works for you. The thing is, I think better when I’m dragging a pencil across the paper. I always have. And with fiction, doodling is my way back into the story.
“Over the last seven years, as I have worked to write and revise my first book and then claw a second one out of my gut, I’ve heard too many times that any successful writing practice will involve a minimum daily word count, good and round, or a slavish devotion to page and screen, no matter the quality of what comes. This advice used to make me insecure about my own practice, which, early in my book-building process, included stretches as long as a summer without writing.
“As a research tool, the Internet is the best thing to happen to writers since the invention of the modern library. On the other hand, it can be a colossal time-suck and an addictive distraction for many writers—myself included. One of our most important challenges, then, is negotiating the use of technology in our daily writing practice.
“What works to drive me to write is probably so idiosyncratic that it might not be generally useful, but it’s been my way of finding the motivation and the passion to put pen to paper. Sure, I like the hot afternoon walks in the hills of Altadena with my dog or even desperately trying to keep up with my marathon-training wife, but when I’m physically enduring, I’m not thinking of writing. I think of writing when I’m doing mindless yard work—raking and trimming trees and bushes.
“My cures for writer’s block are alarmingly pragmatic and physical. So pragmatic that they arrange themselves in list form! To wit: 1. Get up and walk around. A few years ago, I realized that the solutions to most of my writing problems would come to me in the bathroom. It wasn’t the bathroom itself, of course, that was magic, but the act of getting up from my desk and walking there, getting the blood flowing, and tearing my eyes away from the computer screen. So now, when I’m staring down a huge plot problem, I take a long walk—without a notepad.
“The very worst times in my life have been marked by silence: times when I wasn’t allowed to write, or couldn’t write, or when language completely failed me. I didn’t write a word, beyond e-mails or Facebook status updates, for nearly two years after I finished graduate school. After I had finished each of my two books, I spent at least six months casting around, writing nothing new. Each time, what finally got me off the block was digging for its root: It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t think of anything new to say, it was that I believed what I had thought of wasn’t any good.