I've been writing and teaching fiction for almost twenty years now, and here is the most important thing I have to say about being a writer: You must write. You must write through the afternoon at your computer with the pot of Assam tea steaming on your desk when nothing comes to you for an hour, as the tea goes warm then tepid then cold, and you stare into the snowstorm whiteout of the computer screen in a snowstorm whiteout of panic. You must write through the more typical day, when there is no tea and no computer. Instead, you are stuck in traffic on your way to work. You scribble in your notebook with half a crayon you found on the car floor about the driver stopped at the red light next to you. (Man trims fingernails with nail clipper then eats clippings.) You must write that down, even knowing that many such evocative moments often become nothing more than a nearly illegible scribble among other scribbles in a notebook on a shelf. Make peace now, if you haven't, with the idea of waste: waste of those scribbles, waste of energy, ink, paper, time. (I once wrote a novel that wasted four years.) Also, make peace with boredom. You will draft yourself to sleep with your stick-figure characters and tired plots. You will need to spend many tedious hours verifying your use of lay versus lie and replacing your double hyphens with em dashes. Meanwhile, off the page, life gallops on. You must write through the wait for the call from the doctor about the biopsy, through the fight with the car insurance company, through the baby crying (no, pick up the baby!), through the misery of the news, through floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, furnace puff backs.
And sentences: you must write through many, many bad sentences ("The doctor's fingers moved down the chart like skis through snow," for example) and mistakes of story itself, as I did in those years with that novel, yanking it in the direction I thought it was supposed to go, rather than in the direction that it wanted to go. What they say is true: you must let the story lead. Sadly, though, even when you do, there are no guarantees against wrong turns and dead-ends. You will write drafts that you flip upside down, chop into pieces, spread out on tables and floors, tape to the wall, delete, and restart. Failure, I mean. Small failures of word and phrase, and failures so big and terrible that you are left, perhaps, as I was one summer afternoon, sobbing on a bench in a cemetery, in the rain, in dark glasses, because I had failed again in rewriting that novel. And I couldn't take it anymore.
When publication of a book comes— as it did for me after I'd burned the failed novel in a garbage can— you will have to write through that as well. (What a surprise! Does this ever get easy?!) You must write despite the conviction that you have said everything you ever had to say (and not well enough) and that your imagination is now a deflated, withered balloon. You must remember that the natural state of the balloon is deflation. You have had this problem before, many times. Take a deep breath and pick up the crayon from the floor of your car. Only in writing, writing anything you can— more scribbles, more possible failures— will the balloon start to fill. And then, miraculously, it will carry you away from your car or your desk or the doctor's waiting room or the supermarket line, higher, higher until you are heady from the lack of oxygen, from the sweet rush of possibility. The one percent of delight in those clouds will keep you going despite the other ninety-nine percent on the ground. I promise you so. But to get up there, you must write. No matter what.