How I Write

When I was in college I’d scour the internet for bits and pieces of writing advice, searching for little bitty nuggets successful writers employ when they work. At that age, I had it in my brain that the act of writing was this communion with the Lord of Creativity, but in order to tap into that well of knowledge you first had to have things right.

The right desk. The right pen. The right notebook. A creative laptop with clever and cool stickers stuck to its back. The words would flow in the morning with a cup of coffee steaming to one side; they would flow at night with an evening nip of bourbon. There’d be music, and a candle, maybe some popcorn (ok, then a paper towel to wipe down buttery fingers). I’d be single living as a bohemian; I’d be married with a dog at my feet.

The situation would be right.

Then I could write.

The answer is much simpler: coffee/tea/bourbon/dog, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done or it doesn’t. Only you can write one word followed by another and another until you end it with punctuation. Rinse and repeat until you have a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a story. Only you can pick up the red pen and make it better today than it was yesterday. Only you know how to choose between two phrases, two ideas, and pick the one that works best. The only way to be a writer is to write; everything else is negotiable.

In college I wanted to be a screenwriter. I found the Scriptnotes podcast (a good resource for any kind of writer), I bought Story by Robert McKee and More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, and I surfed Wikipedia and my class textbooks for story ideas. On some thumb drive somewhere is a treatment and the first 10 pages of a script on the South American rubber trade. If I remember correctly, it was called Rubber. Great times, college.

This was freshman year. My first roommate got Swine Flu and didn’t come back after Thanksgiving. I was assigned a new roommate for second semester, but he spent almost every night with his girlfriend. For six months I was basically on my own every night and I spent much of that time watching movies, playing Wii, or writing. I’ve reread some of that stuff and not all of it is bad. Even so, it takes a special writer to spin an interesting story about rubber, labor, and shamanism in the jungles of South America and I was not a special writer at 18.

By the end of my college career I’d written a number of short scripts: a comedic pilot about a retail store’s stock team, a dramatic pilot about a red light district in New Orleans, an Entourage spec, a short about an anti-terrorism agent modeled after Lewis Black. I haven’t done much screenwriting since.

I started working in spring 2013 as an intern for a company that aggressively encouraged its employees to take time away from their desks at lunch. At this point, my plan was to get an MFA and work up the nerve to move to Los Angeles. Each day, I spent my lunch break studying for the GRE while eating either a footlong Subway sub or a Mexican Caesar from Chopt. I did nothing else for months. I took the GRE the same time I got a full-time staff writer position for the company’s B2B website and I circled the Fall of 2014 for the start of my MFA adventure.

Most of the MFAs I was interested in required fiction submissions along with the application. I hadn’t really written prose in college but now was the time to start. This is really when I learned how to write.

Each lunch break I’d fold up a lined notebook page from pads I stole from the utility closet, stick it into my pocket, and grab Subway on 17th and K in Washington, DC. I’d spend the first half of my break reading articles on my phone while I ate. Once I was done, I’d pull out the paper and a pen and get to work.

I always started with an outline that took up about half a notebook page. There were five things I needed to know.

  • What was I trying to say? Was there a morale, a point, an idea behind just plot?
  • What did the main character want? A relic of my screenwriting education surely. But identifying what that want was early on helped me guide decision making from lunch to lunch.
  • What happened in the beginning?
  • What happened in the middle?
  • What happened at the end?

I’m of the opinion that in a short story there’s only room for one thing to change. It’s all status quo, it’s all build up until the moment arrives when your main character makes a choice that sets up the fallout. Within those guideposts there’s room for nuance and development and diversion but ultimately I believe that one thing should happen and it has to be big enough to carry everything else.

Being able to sketch out at the beginning what happens when was enough for me to write in 30-minute sprints until I felt I was done. Usually I needed six notebook pages, front and back, to get there.

Here’s what a typical short story looks like for me.

(At some point I traded the Subway for the nearby International Food Court, which was larger and more empty, better for sitting and writing over longer periods. Sadly, they’ve turned that court into some hip food hall now. It’s probably been just about two years now since I ate lunch down there and wrote.)

Once I finished, I typed everything up and printed it out. Those computer pages I’d fold small enough to fit into my pocket and spend my lunchtimes editing rather than generating. For me, the edit is the most important part, and often where I find the story. Sadly, editing for me requires rewriting huge parts of a given story but only because it allows me to see everything from a higher vantage. It’s easy to lose the narrative thread when you only work on something for 30ish minutes a day (reread your work, kids) but during the edit I’m more capable of holding onto it. It’s also where I cut and sharpen the story, where I can tell which words are no good and which ones are better.

It’s also messy.

How I edit my short stories. Shield your eyes!

With COVID, this process has been totally thrown into the blender. My lunches are now spent walking my dog before I eat with my wife and catch up about that day. I no longer escape to my creative pursuits, I have responsibilities that I put first.

But I still steal some time in between meetings or at night to generate on the same sheets of notebook paper, still type it all up afterwards and edit by hand until it’s where I want it to be – or at least get it closer.

The important thing is that I’m writing. That’s the only way it can be done.

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