What Do You Need in Order to Write?

What do you need in order to write?

Let’s say it better, make it more precise and accurate, make it a Real Question: What do you tell yourself you need in order to write?

Silence? Time? A contract? Two course reductions? An assistant? A grant from the NEA?

An idea?

Because, folks—let’s not kid ourselves—all you really need in order to write is a scrap of paper and a pencil nub. You don’t need 500 pounds sterling or a room of one’s one (pace Virgina Woolf); you don’t need passionate kisses (pace Mary Chapin Carpenter); and you certainly don’t need an M.F.A. (pace expensive programs around the country).

You don’t need to drink, although you might need to get sober; you don’t need to torture yourself, although you might need to stop long enough to put a few words together that can withstand your inner critic and remain on the page; you don’t need to have friends in the right places, because if your work gets out there (onto the page, into the air, into the heads of readers) your company will become the right place.

If you want to write, at the most you need 15 minutes, a spiral notebook, and a pen you got for free at the AWP conference from one of the many vendors selling a complete set of DVD’s titled How To Write Your Novel (which makes the process of writing a novel sound as if it’s the same thing as hammering in a nail, creating a scrapbook, or cleaning a cat box) or Express The Author Within (which makes the author seem like a squeezebox).

What stops most of us from writing is the thought that what we’re writing won’t be good enough; the threat of not being good enough can stop you before you write the first word. You think of the many ways in which your work will be slammed, obliterated, and torn apart by critics. You imagine the many ways in which it could be ridiculed by The Onion (“Academic Believes She Can Do Something Other Than Grade Papers”). You compare it to the admirable work being done by writers you love and become wistful and sad; you compare it to wildly successful work by writers you despise and become frustrated and nasty.

You’ve taken yourself way too seriously before you’ve even started and prevented yourself from having any fun. It’s got to be fun, this business of writing, because most of the time there’s precious little else to recommend it. Sure, you have to write in order to be hired in higher education, and you have to publish something useful in order to be awarded tenure and promotion. There’s pressure and it isn’t always pretty. But that doesn’t mean your work should be featured on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs show, right up there with “Custom Meat Processor” and “Mealworm Farmer.”

Okay, it’s time for full disclosure, although you already know what I’m about to say: When I say “you,” I’m also talking to “me,” because I need to sit down and write like hell this weekend, and I want to prevent myself from grabbing onto any excuse. I cannot permit myself to listen to an inner voice saying “If only I had a Macbook Air” or “If only I didn’t have so many students this semester” or (most insidious) “If only I had more time….” I waste a lot of time wishing I had more time.

So, dear readers, what do you think you need in order to write—and what do you really need in order to write? Has anything changed during your writing life? Do you find yourself needing more, wanting less, or longing for something altogether different?

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