When we started the Writing Lab several years ago, one participant shared her dissertation director’s advice, “A page a day is a book a year.” I’ve repeated this many times, and was pleased to find it attributed by Advice to Writers to Richard Rhodes.
If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year. -RICHARD RHODES
You need not quit your day job in order to write your page-a-day. This is doable. Even in fifteen minutes a day (maybe a little more). It is worth noting, however, that simply writing a page a day will not magically produce a book.
This is a complex meditation — particularly as not every writer wishes to write a book, let alone “a book a year.” One may want to write for reasons too personal for publication. One may wish to write very, very slowly. I am happy to applaud either impulse. But if you want to write a book, what do you have to do besides write a page a day?
Decide what your book is. It’s basic advice: if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? Take some time with this. My friend Shawna twice a year takes a personal retreat and plans for the next stage of her work. Whether or not you can justify getting away, try spending a few hours making notes and planning your book. What is it about? What will you put into it? What will you leave out? Who will read it? Who will you thank on your acknowledgments page? What size will it be?
Push beyond your current habit. If you write longhand (as I do), then you must type up what you write. This is actually rather huge for me — I scribble a lot of poetry and very little of it gets typed up. As I have a goal to compile a new poetry manuscript this year, I seriously need to change this habit.
And there are so many very small habits (those things we take for granted) to tinker with. If you are thoroughly used to sitting in one place while you work (or don’t work), try a different chair. Move your desk from one corner of your office to another. Stand up at your tall kitchen counter (my sister has one of these and I do this when I work at her house). Take your notebook and go out somewhere to work. Shake things up.
Make it “official.” A very long time ago, I learned this from the writer and teacher Lois Hudson. She had a theory that when writers did their work and stored it exclusively in word-processing programs, in computers (no laptops back then, so far as I knew), we were no longer holding our books entire “in our heads.” She considered it to be of absolute necessity that pages be printed out and reread, as pages, and not as screens. “Too bad about the trees!” (This was sincere; she really did care about the trees.) Whether or not she was right (about any of this), I find that printing out the page and putting it in a notebook helps me to conceptualize my project as a book, a complete and important entity. Having a title page is the next obvious step in making a piece of writing feel official. A rough outline (or a more detailed one), even a table of contents, of sorts, can help you steadily move in the direction you need to go.
Don’t just imagine an audience — go in search of one. I have the Writing Lab where I share poetry, but I also have some trusted friends who are always willing to take a look at any on-going project. If you are new to this process of sharing your work, it helps to decide beforehand what sort of feedback you want. If you are at a stage where you’re not at all sure of yourself, ask for praise. You can ask what’s working, what your reader likes so far, what he or she would like to see more of — or anything else. (Just sit there, smiling and nodding. When I’m finished, say “Bravo!”)
Celebrate the small steps. As you know (if you read my blog), I read a lot of books of the Self Help variety. Many of the writers in this genre suggest giving oneself rewards. I always feel…a little paralyzed around this. I tell myself I can go to a movie or buy a new book or get a pedicure, if I’ll just ______________ (fill in the blank). But these things just don’t work. (If I want a book, I generally buy it whether or not I deserve it. Ditto for the others.) But while hanging out with my dog, Pabu, the other day, I realized that he is motivated by the eeniest, teeniest treats. A half a milk-bone, a really small, heart-shaped training treat, a good rub to his ears. I’m not that different. I want positive reinforcement, a “You go, girl!” A pat on the back. A foil star on the calendar.
If you want to write a book this year, I’m on your side.
By the way (speaking of audience), I will be reading with four other poets this Wednesday evening, 7 p.m. at Third Place Books, Ravenna. (Click on the link to find more information.)