Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter probably know that I’ve been reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of letters and advice from the Dear Sugar column on Rumpus.com. I came to hear about the book after reading WILD by Cheryl Strayed. It was one of my very favorite books in 2012, and when I went hunting for more of Cheryl’s work, I came across this little gem. Apparently, Cheryl was the anonymous advisor called Dear Sugar, and her heartfelt, shockingly honest and authentic responses to letters about everything from love to infidelity to cross-dressing to forgiveness have struck a chord with readers everywhere.
I didn’t buy the book until recently. I just didn’t really see myself as the advice-column-reading type, and especially not in book form, where I feared all the advice would blur together as a homogenous, trite instruction manual for life that would only work for people who were secretly robots without real feelings.
But the buzz continued to grow around the book (and a Kickstarter campaign to create an animated short), and I finally gave in and bought it. And you know what? Everyone is right. It’s lovely and beautiful and raw and real and frightening in its honesty.
One of my favorite letters came from a writer who couldn’t write. The person in question was so hung up on the writer she wanted to be — a writer who spoke to the deeply personal issues of women — that she wasn’t writing. Like, at all. And Sugar’s advice was pretty simple;
“So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
Unbeknownst to me (am I the only one who still writes “unbeknownst”?), the “Write like a motherfucker” refrain is a bit of a rallying cry for ink slingers everywhere (I have no idea if it originated here or somewhere else — perhaps a reader can enlighten me). There’s even a coffee mug (which I intend to purchase for myself asap).
The phrase conjured something vicseral in me. A feeling that nothing but the words mattered. That you put your head down and you don’t think too much about it and you don’t talk too much about it either. You just write. You get the words down and then you just keep going.
Why does this seem like an epiphany? Isn’t that what we writers do? The answer (at least for me, it seems) is a lot less clear.
I used to write like a motherfucker. I didn’t have an agent or an editor. My then-husband wouldn’t even read my stuff. I wrote from 9pm to 3am every night and then got up at 6am to get my kids to school. I thought about my book in the shower, when I was trying to sleep, when I was driving. I didn’t know anything about genre, about trend, about brand. I needed an escape. Writing was my heroin. I shot up every chance I got and fell into my chair in front of the computer in a glassy-eyed stupor with nothing but tea, coffee and Dove dark chocolate to sustain me. And I didn’t care. I was happy. Because I was writing like a motherfucker.
Things have been different since I sold the Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy in 2007. Not only for me, but for the industry as a whole. Once seen as a fringe element to the children’s section, YA has come into its own as a publishing juggernaut, capable of selling millions of books and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office on film adaptations. Adult writers are proudly trying their hand at YA, and everyone from your grandmother to your co-workers are reading it.
But frankly, that all makes to harder to write like a motherfucker.
Advice abounds; write the book you want to read (great, except that doesn’t mean it will sell), don’t write to the market (great, except if editors really aren’t looking at fantasy, they really aren’t looking at fantasy, and while you may be the one in a million who gets through, it’s a gamble), don’t worry about genre (great, except every writer I know has a book that didn’t sell, not because the book wasn’t good, but because publishers didn’t know how to market it). It all sounds good. Hell, it all is good. But if you’re like me and you’re earning your living writing, if you’re like me and you are a single mother and the sole breadwinner for your family, you don’t have the luxury to take all of that advice. Sometimes you just have to SELL A BOOK. That’s the reality in an industry that still clings to its roots as a gentleman’s business, where only the wealthy or happily destitute could afford to write as a vocation. No one wants to say it, but for many of us, it’s a cold, hard fact that our choices about what to write next are informed by the fact that we need to sell another book, and not every book will sell, even after you’ve been published (unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling or Neil Gaiman or James Patterson).
All of which is hard to reconcile with the inspiring advice to write like a motherfucker. Even while I was trying to figure out what, precisely, the phrase means, I was energized.
“Write like a motherfucker?”
“Yes! That sounds awesome! I want to write like a motherfucker! Writing like a motherfucker is what’s been missing in my life!”
I can almost hear the Rocky theme playing in the background now. Or maybe Lose Yourself by Eminem.
But how to blend the practical parts of writing as a profession, as a long term career, with the single-minded focus necessary to write like a motherfucker? Is it possible to do both? To make choices based on your short- and long-term career goals and still write with the kind of passion and immersion and dedication and discipline that is writing like a motherfucker?
Yes. After a lot of thought, that’s my conclusion. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
To me, writing like a motherfucker means to be wholly focused and determined to write. Not just to write RIGHT NOW, but to keep writing. To write a hundred books, poems, essays, articles. Whatever it takes. To keep the act of writing and thinking about writing and loving writing and being determined TO WRITE as a focus, above fear and self-doubt and all of the other voices in our heads that keep us from writing like a motherfucker. Those voices don’t serve us in our quest. They only limit us, paralyze us.
Of course, decisions have to be made. Priorities have to be set. But most of the writers I know aren’t short on ideas — just the time to execute them, and sometimes, the knowledge that it’s the RIGHT idea at the right time. There will be front end brain work. This is when you aren’t writing like a motherfucker. You’re thinking like a human being, weighing your options, deciding whether to write the book of your heart NOW (you almost always should, if you’re lucky enough to have one at the moment) or put it off in favor of something your agent tells you had a better chance of selling. And for the record, a great agent is almost always right about these things (mine has been anyway).
But once you’ve let the wheels turn, once the dust has settled and you’ve decided, “THIS is what I’m going to write next!”, THEN it’s time to write like a motherfucker. Then there is no room for second guessing. No room for comparing your WIP to another book you love and/or hope to emulate. No room to agonize over every word, every comma.
Then it’s time to WRITE. Get the words down without censoring yourself. Trust yourself enough to believe that the words that flow from the truest part of yourself will resonate with readers. That they come from a place of such honesty and such authenticity that THEY ARE THE WORDS THAT ARE MEANT TO TAKE UP PRECIOUS SPACE ON THE PAPER. Stop thinking so hard about it. You can do that in revisions. Instead, let the story manifest without thought to the future, to who will be reading it, to whether your grandmother will be offended that you used “fuck” twenty-four times or your teenagers will be embarrassed that you wrote a smoking’ sex scene.
THAT is writing like a motherfucker. I need to do it more often. How about you?