How To

On Monday, I strike my head at the gym. I don’t think much about it. But then as I sit drinking my coffee this morning at the cafe where I sit and work all day, a friend becomes concerned. Don’t even finish that coffee, he says. He drives me to my doctor and sits in the waiting room with a book while my doctor runs me through the basic tests. He determines I’ve bruised my head but am fine.

I can look into your brain through your eyes, the doctor says. Did you know that?

I did not know that. For the rest of the day, meeting people’s eyes will be a little odd, I can tell.

My doctor confessed to me early in our relationship that he always wanted to do what I do. Sometimes when I tell him about my life he makes noises of mock-jealous disgust. I try to do that only after he’s examined me. I recently learned from seeing my chiropractor, whose practice is upstairs from him, that he goes outside and play the clarinet to relax. This endears him to me.

My friend returns me to the cafe. Here we are where we started, he says. And then we each open our laptops.

In the last few days, I find myself beset with requests for advice, people who want to do if not what I do, something like it. Former students of mine and then friends of former students, people who’ve never studied with me, friends. Next week I will spend the week educating people on the writing of novels, at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. Some of my students there have begun reading this blog to get a sense of who I am in advance of being there.

A summary of the advice I’ve given in the last two weeks is as follows (and may prove instructive):

  • Living in Argentina with a man who you don’t care about and doing it in order to take writing classes in a foreign language sounds like a bad idea. Like maybe the part of your brain that would write fiction has taken control of your life plans in a bad way, for being unconscious to you. And if you were to write fiction, it might let go.
  • In a bad economy, don’t give up a good job just to write, even if you work with terrible people, unless you have a great deal of rent money saved.
  • Selling your novel as a partial when it is your first novel is difficult, if the novel is literary, and even more difficult in a bad economy. Publishers want to know you’ll finish it. Also, you get more money, if this is a consideration, for books that are finished. Sell the novel when it is done.
  • Doing the job that your novel is about, in the industry your novel is about, is a good idea. But maybe don’t blog about it in a way that will leave you open to being ripped off by some other writer who might want to write a novel about that industry.
  • You will know when it is time to write your novel because you will come down with it, much like an illness.
  • Writing is an intuitive act, described by intellectual processes and informed by them, but over time it seems to me it is not an intellectual act on its own.

I then reverse myself this morning about the blogging advice, when the former student tells me her traffic has exploded since writing about that industry. “A popular blog will help with publishers,” I tell her.

At the gym, where I struck my head on a squat bar, I read, finally, the New Yorker Summer Fiction issue. I read this while doing the series of cardio circuits that is supposed to trick my metabolism into burning faster. I think of this like a variation on the reading I taught myself to do while walking. Haruki Murakami has an essay about how, operating on a signal from inside his mind, he began writing when he was a 28-year-old nightclub owner, writing a novel because he wanted to write a novel–because an idea for a novel had come to him–and not because he wanted to “be a novelist”–I put this part in quotes because he did. He went out and bought a pen and paper, and hand-wrote a 200-page draft. This seemed to me to be the most sensible thing to say about the entire thing. Though I like this abstract of the essay from the New Yorker’s website also–somehow the summary has it’s own wisdom to offer, which is almost never true.

He describes a career in which he just keeps writing, treating it partly like a secret transmission from inside himself that just keeps going, and partly like a canny business owner. He talks about how in nightclubs he learned that you had to keep providing what the one return customer of the ten that night would want, so he would keep returning and bring friends. I develop private ideas about what this means in his work and my own. But mostly I think of how hard it is to work with students who want to learn to write before they have ideas about what to write; it’s like teaching them technique against the possibility of inspiration. I know it isn’t pointless, but for some of them, talented at writing but lacking ideas, their career becomes a strange vigil.

It’s like teaching them to wait to fall in love.


  1. I love this entry for so many reasons– that we are both of us attempting to “trick” our metabolism (I’ve lost three pounds so far, one week into gymnasium), that you say “finally” in regards to getting around to reading the most recently published issue of The NYer, that you are so generous with your counsel, and, finally, the last line about waiting for love. I have been thinking about that patience lately, recalling my own wait for love. I should tell you about it sometime.

    I would love to be your trainer. I would keep you safe and sweaty. No head bruises.

  2. it must be that time of year. or maybe there’s some kind of plague of indecisiveness striking your former students. glad to see i’m not alone. thanks for all the advice (i’m still on the fence about this whole thing) and thanks for this post; all those other writing problems put my own in perspective. at least i have a couple of ideas.

  3. Juliet: Thanks. I feel less wise and brilliant than you, but I’ll take that.
    Jim: Thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
    RJ: You’re adorable.
    Lissa: It’s always that time of year.

  4. So, where do you turn when you desire advice?

    And it goes without saying, I envy your upcoming conference students.

  5. Thanks Jeffrey.

    There’s some friends where when you write to each other you just think better, as if the two of you made each other faster. So, I usually write to one of those friends, or I call them. Or I go to lunch with them.

    But I think it’s important to distinguish between being genuinely confused and just not liking the answers in front of you. That helps a lot when you go for advice.

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