Rules for Writing and Life

I have never understood why people who can least tolerate unkindness choose an occupation that entails rejection,typically in written form, there on the page in black and white. I adopted rules forty years ago that helped me to write with a minimal regard for the outcome of my writing. These rules have helped me survive the exigencies that came my way:

Write what haunts you, lest you spend your life amidst drivel. Write what you care most about, the beauty, the absurdity, and the sorrow of the world.

Set achievable goals. The thought of writing anovel may be too daunting, so focus on today’s work.  Two manuscript pages is possible, even on abad day, so write two pages, not thinking at all about their quality. If you’rerolling after five hundred words, and if you’re enjoying the work, write more,but you’re off the hook for today. Even if you write more than today’s quota,though, tomorrow you owe yourself a minimum of another two pages.

Complete a draft. When you have written a whole draft, then you can smile and say that now you have something you can work on. You don’t know what you’re doing, while you’re doing it. None of us does. We learn what the story wants to be by writing it. Revision is not the mere installation of a copy editor’s corrections but a new vision of the work. You could tinker with the first chapter for the rest of your life while it still amounts to nothing, so finish a draft, and then go back to the beginning with new insight.

Be kind to yourself. The muse does not like abuse. Put down the horsewhip. Treat yourself with the kindness you give to your writer friends. You hear yourself dish out the criticism: “Who are you  kidding?” you say. “You’re a fraud. You don’t know how to write a novel.” Don’t lie to yourself, but pose the observation in a more optimistic way: “I don’t know how to write a novel, but I’m learning how by writing one.” (Noticing the grammatical error in the first sentence of the criticism, remind yourself that nobody’s perfect. Then recast the sentence to avoid both the error and the clumsy whom.)

Do your work. You can’t control how others react to your writing. You can’t control the response of editors and reviewers. You can’t even control the quality of your work, apart from doing your best. The only thing you can control is whether you do your work. Study your craft, master grammar and punctuation, revise until the story hangs together and the writing sings. Your work involves discipline, a daily routine that has readied your mind when you sit down at your desk. Another part of your work is reading what others have written, in all forms. If you immerse yourself in others’ writing, you will absorb language and method naturally, as a sponge absorbs water. As the language becomes your very bone and sinew, you will also grow in compassion. If you do your work, something good will come of it.

These rules have kept me going as a writer. They are adaptable, as well, to life.

Jane Resh Thomas has written more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction books for young readers, including the highly praised Behind the Mask for Clarion. See a listing of some of the many books by Jane Resh Thomas.

Jane is retired from Hamline’s faculty.