Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
—Kris Kristopherson, “Me and Bobby McGee”
- Spend one day being a troll
Be as obnoxious as humanly possible online. Go around arguing with people on their own sites, expressing opinions they won’t agree with, picking fights you have no possible hope of winning. Make a complete idiot of yourself. And no hiding behind “Anonymous,” either. Use your own name. Then go back at the end of the day and read all the responses, especially the ones that prove you wrong. APOLOGIZE SINCERELY. (This one doesn’t count if you skip that step.) Endure the shame. That’s your crash course in publication.
Alternatively, if your moral code won’t let you be a troll, go to the last three people you’ve hurt in your life and ask them to talk to you for as long as they want about how it felt to them. Don’t respond, just listen. Endure the shame.
This step is necessary to clean out the interior censor, the one who thinks there’s still time left to protect your reputation. There’s no time left. You’ve already long-since destroyed your reputation with the ones you love, the people who matter most. Welcome to the real world.
If you’ve never hurt anyone, put down your keyboard and go apply for sainthood. You are the wrong kind of liar to be a writer.
- Spend one whole day being silent
Don’t speak. Not even when asked a question. Point when your husband asks you where you keep the toilet paper. Smile and nod when your neighbor asks about your weekend. Don’t email or DM or comment on social media. Just be silent. Larry Hagman used to do this every Sunday, for years on end, and he said it was an extraordinary education in self-awareness. Of course, he informed his friends and family of what he was doing, so they wouldn’t think he’d lost his mind—you should too.
This step is necessary to clean out the interior egoist, the one who thinks what you have to say is the most important thing. You have nothing all that important to say. You can only record the world of your readers for them.
- Spend one day as a student of reality
Take a notebook and make a list of the most important locations of scenes in your novel. Then, beginning as early as possible, go to each location at the time of day your characters are there. Sit for at least an hour at each place taking copious notes. Note down every single fact you can about that location and the people in it. Not impressions. Just facts.
The sidewalk is pale grey with oval splotches of charcoal grey one-to-three inches in diameter every foot or so and, when the sun gets to about 60 degrees, almost invisible sparks of rainbow light from bits of glass embedded in the concrete, more reds and blues than yellow. The woman who sells fruit at the corner is in her fifties with a slight double chin ending rather sharply in premature dewlaps and a dress with huge pinkish-brownish-greenish blossoms and what look like spiders, which hangs on her as if there were weights in the hem.
This step is necessary to teach you to write in your reader’s world.
- Spend one day with the lyrics of your favorite songs
Pick one, and annotate every single line with random details you can see or hear (or smell or taste or touch) from where you are. Make the details absolutely specific—not a book, but Maria Durmout’s The Ten Thousand Things lying open on its face; not a cat, but the grey-&-black striped nine-year-old James Dean wannabe or the carrot-tip Siamese who pees outside the litter box whenever he’s mad. Feel free to throw in gratuitous imaginary details so long as they’re neutral and not meant to sway the reader toward either positive or negative interpretation. If you feel the urge to sway the reader, use a detail bent in the opposite direction from where you want it to bend.
Do this with a handful of your favorite songs, then treat the annotated songs as Rorschach blots. Read them and take copious notes on what underlying connections you pick up. Swap the details around and do it all over again.
This step is necessary to teach you subtext.
- Spend one day writing and re-writing a single scene
Make it a scene about confrontation, and write it the first time as if you were the protagonist and you were indisputably in the right. Then write it as if you were indisputably in the wrong. Then write it as if you were insane. Then write it as if you were unbelievably boring. Then write two scenes about different confrontations and cut-&-paste the characters’ lines into the opposite scenes.
Read the first scene and notice how appallingly self-congratulatory victims are to read. Read the second scene and notice that you didn’t entirely manage to make yourself indisputably in the wrong—write that second scene over again more honestly. Read the third scene and notice how hilarious non-sequiturs are. Read the boring scene and notice how much you rely on action and description to illuminate boring dialog—write that scene over again with the same action and description, but only 1/3 of the lines of dialog. Read the final two scenes and notice how much innuendo is buried in scenes at cross-purposes.
Write the second scene over again, even more honestly. Write the boring scene over again with those 1/3 lines of dialog taken from one of the final two scenes. Write the second scene over again, even more honestly.
Write all kinds of confrontation scenes, swapping characters indiscriminately when you’re done. Keep this up for the rest of the day.
This step is necessary to teach you hard work.
- Spend one day on research
Pick a handful of topics you know a little or nothing about and learn everything you can about them. Read articles. Take notes. Collate your findings. Write essays. Compare your conclusions. Look for the essential truth about reality underlying two of your topics, and write an essay on that. Do the same thing for two others. And the same thing for two others. Do the same thing for three. And four. And five.
Write an essay taking the most fascinating fact out of each topic and linking them into a single theory of everything. Voila! You’re Einstein!
Write a counter-essay proving yourself completely wrong.
This step is necessary to teach you deeper understanding.
- Spend one day watching children
Children are people confused by their world, without adequate skills to either communicate or function within the social norms of their tribe. Watch a family, preferably of several generations. Take copious notes on how they interact with each other—how they treat one child, how they respond to the child’s efforts to communicate and function, how they communicate with each other about the child, how they communicate with each other with no reference to the child at all. Take notes on how the child attempts or does not attempt to be involved with them. Now take the same notes on the other children, along with notes on why you picked that first child first. Sketch choreographic notes on how the members of this family move around each other in space.
Write a scene in which a character is an adult using the child’s tactics, only in adult language and with adult understanding. Read it, and analyze the subtext between the characters. Write it again with a different character. And again with a different character. And again with the same character but a different outcome. And again with the same character but a different outcome.
Write it as if it were your one chance in life to communicate what you need to communicate.
This step is necessary to teach you compassion for every single character you create.
- Spend one day crying
Face it: you’ve got a lot to cry about. Sometimes your life has sucked. And putting all the effort of not crying into your work will make it superficial and dishonest. Go ahead and cry as much as you can out of your system. Reach the anger underneath and go punch a tree. Reach the pain under that and go bandage up your hand. Take a good look at the damage while you’re bandaging it. You did this to yourself. You punched a tree. Don’t you feel like a prize idiot? Learn to love the prize idiot who punched the tree. You need to know how to love prize idiots who rush around getting themselves into trouble without ever feeling sorry for them or allowing them to feel sorry for themselves.
This step is necessary to teach you courage.
If you don’t have a lot to cry about, put down your keyboard and go apply for a job in a nice, safe cube somewhere. You’re the wrong kind of fantasist to be a writer.
- Spend one day laughing at things nobody thinks are funny but you
This will feel like hysteria brought on by all the crying, which is what it is. Laugh until you can’t talk. Laugh until you can’t breathe. Laugh until tears are running down your face. Laugh in front of loved ones to whom you can’t explain the joke. Laugh in front of strangers until they raise their eyebrows and shy away.
This step is necessary to teach you to accept what you bring to the craft of fiction. Claim your own utterly unique and bizarre nature. This is the only new thing you have to bring to literature, the one thing—paradoxically—your reader comes there seeking.
- Spend one whole day being grateful
In our family, we used to do a gratitude ceremony around a lit candle at the dinner table every evening, everyone taking a turn to say what they were grateful for. Dinner guests would wonder if they had to be grateful for only important things, and we’d say, no, no, anything at all. We had one friend who was always grateful for football. Sometimes I was grateful for compost or fingernail clippers. Sometimes my son—when he was very young—was simply grateful for the candle.
Write long, rambling, specific letters to people who have made a difference in your life. You don’t have to send them. Just get them down in words. And don’t worry about making sense or communicating what you really mean. Just blither. Go up to people you love and look them in the eye. Tell them why your life is better because of them, in very specific terms. Mention football and fingernail clippers and candles, if they’re pertinent. Write letters to your characters. Write a letter to your imagination. Write a letter of gratitude to yourself about all the most dreadful aspects of your personality without which you would not be you.
Remember that 1970s chain letter where you were supposed to send cute underwear to the top ten people on the list and then sit around waiting for 500 pairs of underwear some total strangers thought were cute? Say, “Thanks for all the underwear.”
Put your hand on your heart and say to the world in general, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me all you wonderful, insane senders of underwear.”
If you don’t have anything to laugh about, go back a step and cry some more.
Then go keep your promise.
UPDATE: If you have trouble making yourself cry, try celebrating the end of the War in Iraq with the return of our soldiers to the families who love them—guaranteed to push you over the edge. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, President Obama.
And once you’ve made yourself a better writer, you’re ready to tackle the three aspects of the novel:
DEVELOPMENT: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive
Of course, you’ll need to know those 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.
Starred comment: I not only punched a tree, but I punched a lot of other things too… breaking two fingers on my writing hand in the process. Ah, the irony.—AnnaMay Fox