I don’t feel like writing today. Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page. Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work. But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).
“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself. As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say. After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink. And what do I do? I grab a sponge and start scrubbing. “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors! I’ll just give them a quick polish. Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page. We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died. Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy. Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.
But despite popular mythology, we don’t need to be in the “mood” to write. As phenomenally productive writer Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood.” In his eleven commandments, Henry Miller created a no non-sense credo for himself, “If you can’t create, you can work.” Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, one of the most timeless books on the craft, offers similarly simple advice: if you want to write, write! Don’t wait for the mythical lightning bolt or the mysterious, mystical whisperings of the muse.
Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life. You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook. Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds. You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical. Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:
“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you. Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself. It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”
If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable. Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself. If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses. As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:
“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must! No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”
The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window. The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper. Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion. All that matters is we do it. Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:
“…write anything at all. Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed. However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”
Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes? Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done? For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long. Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers. But fifteen minutes is doable. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes. Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page. Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.
Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance. The result? We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.
Becoming a Writer is an invaluable addition to any writer’s library. The 1934 classic won’t teach you the technical aspects of how to create compelling characters or construct plots, but it will train you to sharpen your powers of observation, follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical. Want more nourishment for the writer’s soul? Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity. If you want more practical advice on the nuts and bolts of the craft, study Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of motif, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Ernest Hemingway on the appeal of telling almost the whole story.