It sometimes seems that the more people want to write, the more they tie themselves up in knots. As a college professor observing smart students in writing classes of both fiction and nonfiction, I know that people who take such courses respect writing. You don’t need to convince them of its worth, only of its possibility. So I set them exercises—on plot, dialogue, setting—of no particular value except to get them writing. Then the longer piece comes, and if they stall, I tell them, “When in doubt, begin your piece with ‘when.’ This will push you into narrative.” That advice has helped many. The other advice I often have to give is “Bash it out.” I urge people to get something on paper and then work it. I tell them “Writers need words on a page to edit the way sculptors need stone, clay, or wood to carve or mold. You have to spew out your own material before you can shape it. So bash it out.”
The first piece I ever wrote for publication was a review for The Harvard Crimson of an undergraduate magazine. The immensity of my task naturally confounded me, and hours before my piece was due I told my editor I couldn’t do it. He said, “You have to.” So I did. His “you have to” along with the assurance of Mary Bunting, then president of Radcliffe, that each of us had at least one book in us, was essential to mobilizing me as a writer.
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