Yet as they complain, they spend a whole lot of that precious time posting cartoons about writing on Facebook or putting up statuses about how if they only had more free time they just know they could get their novels written. They read books about writing and attend conferences, workshops and classes where they talk ad nauseam about writing. However, they spend very little time alone, thinking, much less hunkering down somewhere and actually putting words on the page.
The problem is, too many writers today are afraid to be still.
The people who see me out in the world might scoff at this since I am nearly always in motion, but those who know me best realize that I am being still even in my most active moments. This is because I’m not talking about the kind of stillness that involves locking yourself in a room with a laptop, while you wait for the words to come. We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal.
Most writers today have jobs or families or responsibilities, and most often, all three. We don’t have time to sit in the woods for a few hours every day, staring at the leaves, pondering life’s mysteries and miracles and the ways we can articulate them for the reading masses.
We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
We are a people who are forever moving, who do not have enough hours in the day, but while we are trying our best to be parents and partners, employees and caregivers, we must also remain writers.
There is no way to learn how to do this except by simply doing it. We must use every moment we can to think about the piece of writing at hand, to see the world through the point of view of our characters, to learn everything we can that serves the writing. We must notice details around us, while also blocking diversions and keeping our thought processes focused on our current poem, essay or book.
This way of being must be something that we have to turn off instead of actively turn on. It must be the way we live our lives.
The No. 1 question I get at readings is: “How many hours a day do you write?” I used to stumble on this question. I don’t write every day, but when I first started going on book tours I was afraid I’d be revealed as a true fraud if I admitted that. Sometimes I write for 20 minutes. Other times I don’t stop writing for six hours, falling over at the end like an emotional, wrung-out mess, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. Sometimes I go months without putting a word on the page.
One night, however, I was asked that question and the right answer just popped out, unknown to me before it found solidity on the air: “I write every waking minute,” I said. I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head.
I live a few blocks from the campus where I teach. Every morning, I ride my bicycle to work. Along the way, I’m focusing on the cars speeding by me, seemingly intent on making the life of a bicyclist as miserable as possible. But I am also thinking about the main character in the novel I’m writing now.
The book is set in Key West, so naturally he rides his bicycle all over the Florida island. When pumping those pedals toward my office, I am not myself on an orange-leaf-strewed campus. I am my character, pedaling down to the beach after a long day of working as a hotel housekeeper. I see the world through his eyes. I imagine what he is thinking. I use that brief time to become him.
I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law.
I eye each one with suspicion and dodge any cop who might be trotting along with a grocery basket in hand. I sometimes steal a quirk from a woman nearby to apply to one of my female characters in the book. I am multitasking, but there is stillness at work here.
I found myself as a writer at a gathering deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. I often encourage burgeoning novelists, poets and essayists to seek out conferences where they can be exposed to established authors, agents, editors and — most important — other folks like them who are struggling and hoping their writing dreams will come true. But I discourage people from going to too many of these, because if a writer isn’t careful, she will end up packing and traveling and workshopping far more than she writes.
Writers have been meeting at the Appalachian Writers Workshop for 35 years, and in that time the gathering has produced many award-winning, best-selling authors. One of its most beloved centerpieces, until his death in 2001, was James Still, a novelist and poet known for his keen insights into the natural world. Shortly before he died I met him.
I was a young, naïve, foolish writer who was searching for my way. I swallowed hard and asked him if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn’t answer for a long minute, gazing off at the hills as if ignoring me.
But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. “Discover something new every day,” he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person.
I give it to you now and hope that you will take it out into the waiting world, pushing forth through all of your daily work and joys and struggles with a bit of your mind focused on reality and the larger part of it quiet, still, and always thinking like a writer.
Silas House, the author of five novels, a work of nonfiction and three plays, teaches at Berea College and Spalding University’s M.F.A. program in creative writing.