Step one: Pencils down. Do not just dive in, and actually do the job at hand. No real writer actually begins writing when they need to write. You need to give your idea space, let it breathe. You need to circle it, like a concussed deer who has staggered into the woods after a near-death collision with your Ford F-150.
Zig zag around it; don’t let it get your scent— or maybe, by zig zagging, letting it get your scent is exactly what you’re doing. It gets your scent, but that’s all it gets. Leave it confused but wanting more. Just like you—confused on how to start the piece, unsure if you’re a real writer or a pathetic fraud. Why didn’t you go to nursing school like your dad suggested? Did you hit your head on the steering wheel when you slammed on the brakes? What’s that throbbing behind your eyes?
Step two: Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t just write what everyone else writes, but at the same time, do write what you know. Does that make sense? Let’s go back to the deer—It follows its instincts to crash through the brush, looking for a small cave to collapse in, a final moment of peace while its life blood flows out, encrusting its neck fur. Try to do that.
Step three: Pull your truck over and stalk the wounded animal into the woods. (This is the outlining process.)
When you find the dying deer in the cave, it’s a lot more gruesome and bloody than you expected. You really smacked the hell out of that sucker. You’ll probably pay out the ass to repair the grill of your truck. But it is kind of sad, and gross, the way the deer is laying there (much like your meandering list of ideas; I’m sorry, but no professional writer would call that an outline.)
Sit down and contemplate the meaning of existence. We’re all just worthless hunks of meat, aren’t we? Even if you’d gone to nursing school you’d have probably flunked out by now. This part isn’t symbolic—it’s normal for every writer to hate themselves and their work at some point during the process, if not for the entire process.
Here’s the truth: you have no real talent, you’re not funny or clever and now the deer carcass has begun to stink. You are lost in the woods and the sun is going down.
Step four: Now is the time to finally begin writing! You’ve been pushed to the brink, and that’s where creativity HAPPENS. Dig into your ideas, like the driver of the truck digs into the rancid flesh of the deer. It’s the thrill of discovery, the panic of survival, the disorientation of dehydration (or in the professional writer’s case— over-hydration from too much coffee.)
Become the piece you are writing, just as the now-hallucinating driver becomes the dead deer. Immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. Smear your face with words, like the driver smears their face with blood. Adorn your mind with character devices, like the driver adorns their head with the deer’s antlers.
Step five: Stagger back onto the highway to flag down a passing car (in the case of the professional writer, this symbolizes requesting notes, and then revision.)
When the on-coming cars don’t slow down—remember, you look like an actual nightmare with all the blood and antlers—step further into the road. Your vision is blurry, but has never been more clear: you are finally at one with your writing, which means you’re ready to put it out into the world (the penultimate step in your courageous journey, just before the victory of publication.)
Has a Dodge Caravan just hit you, then driven off to leave you to die, like you did to the deer? Or have you been hit by the Dodge Caravan of fame and glory and landed on the New York Times best-seller list? Maybe it’s both. Either way, your spleen has exploded, and you’re choking on blood, probably from all the coffee, or again, maybe the Dodge.
NOW you are a writer.
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Erin Weller is a tv and humor writer, living in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two small kids. She often longs for a nap.