The first time I wrote something I liked I was in college. I had a story due for a class and no story ideas. Normally, I had lots of ideas, a vivid fantasy of myself as a Great Solitary Writer, and endless energy to devote to the fine-tuning of my sentences. I was always disappointed with the results, but I refused to give up. This time, my mind was blank. I went to the library to keep from procrastinating and, with people all around me writing research papers and solving problem sets, I tried to come up with a story. Nothing. I had no creative juices, just a deadline.
That’s all I remember until much later in the evening. Somehow—and this is the key thing: I had no idea how—I had written a story and I liked it. Thirty years later, I still like it. I can vaguely remember sitting at a desk, finishing it, but how I started, where the idea came from, is still a blank.
The next time I wrote something I liked, I was in graduate school. Once again, the good writing came when I was frustrated and had nothing to say. Two stories hardly make a pattern, but I was convinced: I could only write when I was so sick of the whole business that I was ready to give up. When my approach to the blank page was, “what the hell.”
Months later, a fellow student whose writing I loved told me she had finally figured out how to write a story. I had the feeling that she’d figured out a formula—not something that would result in formulaic stories, but some steps or rules to follow that would lead to truly good fiction every time. What’s odd is that I didn’t ask her what those steps were. I can hardly believe it—there I was, in striking distance (I thought) of the answer I’d been looking for for so long and all I said was, “Wow. That’s great.”
I understand now what was really going on when I thought, “What the hell.” I know how to re-create those conditions whenever I want. In other words, I’ve learned how to write fiction. I can even teach it to other people.
But here’s another key thing: I know how to write in general, but I don’t know how to write my next novel. Every book has to be written in its own particular way, and the techniques I mastered when I was writing Lili were little help to me when I was writing Dogs. The only way to learn to write a novel is to write it, and then what you’ll know is how to write that novel. Which sounds exhausting and daunting—and would be, were it not for the great, miraculous gift of a writing community.
When I was in graduate school and I didn’t ask that woman what she’d learned, I still believed writing was a solitary art. Now I know that trusted readers are a writer’s greatest treasure. Judy Goldman and I regularly exchange manuscripts—she knows what my intention is with any given piece and she can tell me when I’m on the wrong track and when I’ve struck gold without realizing it.
What I finally learned about those “what the hell” moments was how to get out of my own way and write from the unconscious. What I’ve learned from having trusted readers is another kind of ego-dismissal. There are no Great Solitary Artists—we all write together, learning from the writers who went before us, from our friends, from our students.