Writer Joe Fassler interviewed 150 writers to compile a list of tips, habits and philosophies that writers apply to their creative process. But since our lives are like a narrative, we found it surprising that so many of the tips could be applied not only to any creative process, but life itself.
Here are a few of our favourites from the article...
It’s supposed to be difficult.
One of the things that’s surprised me most is how much the process—even for best-selling and critically acclaimed writers—never seems to get any easier. Khaled Hosseini’s piece in Light the Dark is one especially poignant testament to this: material success doesn’t blunt the pain an author feels when the words just come up short.
But writers seem to be masters of deflecting existential despair, the malaise that takes hold in the middle of a taxing enterprise. I’ve covered this in more detail in an essay for The Atlantic, so one example in particular will suffice here: Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of “stubborn gladness,” a term she borrows from the poet Jack Gilbert. It’s a promise to take things in stride, to remain cheerfully engaged no matter how difficult things get. “My path as a writer became much more smooth,” she said, “when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”
Keep a totem.
Charles Dickens famously wrote with a series of porcelain figurines arranged across his desk, characters that kept him company as he toiled under punishing deadlines. It’s not as strange as it sounds: Many of the writers I talk to keep a totem—an object of special significance, whether it’s a small trinket or printed slogan—nearby as they work, something that serves as a source of inspiration or a barrier against despair.
Jane Smiley described pasting the phrase “Nobody asked you to write that novel” above her desk, an empowering reminder that creative hardships are voluntarily chosen. Mohsin Hamid keeps a Murakami passage taped to his printer—lines that link creativity and physical exercise, ones that encouraged him to build six-mile walks into his daily writing regimen. And Russell Banks keeps part of an old gravestone in his office, inscribed with the epitaph “Remember Death.” There’s nothing more inspiring than the awareness that time is short, and that the ultimate deadline is soon approaching.
Find the joy.
Ultimately, the writers I speak to seem committed to finding the joy within their work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. “One of the things that aids me, and which he helped teach me, is this: fundamentally, I do not believe in despair as a real aspect of the human condition,” says Ayana Mathis. “There is great confusion, there is great pain, there is suffering, all of those things, yes. But despair? I don’t believe in despair, and I don’t write from despair. I write from difficulty, absolutely. I write about people who are in great pain, who are desperate and sometimes even miserable. But despair, to me, means an absolute absence of hope. It is a nothing. There is always hope for betterment.”
But it’s not just leaving room for hope and levity on the page. It’s about retaining one’s own capacity to find joy within the process, making sure the work’s difficulty never fully squeezes out delight.
“The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything,” says Neil Gaiman in Light the Dark. “There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?”.
Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.
Read the rest here.