I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale, like SparkNotes for a book that does not yet exist. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing.
I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice.
And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series—the basis for a new collection, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.
Neglect everything else.
It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Which is probably why so many of the writers I talk to seem preoccupied with time-management. “You probably have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing,” David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, told me. That can mean mustering the grit to let other responsibilities languish. As he put it in short: “Neglect everything else.”
Many authors need to put blinders on, finding ways to simplify their experience and reduce the number of potential distractions. That might mean consistently keeping a single two-hour window sacred, as Victor Lavalle does, morning time he safeguards against the demands of parenting and full-time teaching. For others, it means finding ways to ward off digital derailment. Mitchell does this by setting his homepage as the most boring thing he can think of: the Apple website.
Ultimately, the literary exercise is about finding ways to defend something fragile—the quiet mood in which the imagination flourishes. As Jonathan Franzen put it: “I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from.”
Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.
“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book. And Michael Chabon said that, once he stumbled on the first sentence of Wonder Boys, the rest of the novel was almost like taking dictation. “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived,” he said.
Follow the headlights.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the kind of writer who plans meticulously: Give yourself some leeway in the early drafts. Throw out all your plans and assumptions, and make room to surprise yourself.
Andre Dubus calls this following the headlights: it’s like driving a car down a dark, unfamiliar road, simply describing as things become visible under the beam. “What’s on the side of the road?” he asked. “What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is just to follow the headlights—that’s how the architecture is revealed.”
Dozens of writers have told me some version of the same story. “The writing I tend to think of as ‘good’ is good because it’s mysterious,” Aimee Bender said. “It tends to happen when I get out of the way—when I let go a little bit, I surprise myself.”
Sound it out.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. In the absence of a concrete plan, how to know when you’re headed in the right direction? For many writers I’ve spoken with, the answer seems to lie in the sound of the words.
“Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm,” the late Jim Harrison said. “It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.” George Saunders described a similar process, explaining that sound shows him where the energy is, revealing which aspects of the story are important, which lines to follow. It can help with revision, too. Many drafts in, when he can no longer see the work with fresh eyes, Jesse Ball told me that he turns to his ears. “Sound gives us clues about what is necessary and real,” he said. “When you read [your work] aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along.”
It’s supposed to be difficult.
One of the things that’s surprised me most is how much the process—even for best-selling and critically acclaimed writers—never seems to get any easier. Khaled Hosseini’s piece in Light the Dark is one especially poignant testament to this: material success doesn’t blunt the pain an author feels when the words just come up short.
But writers seem to be masters of deflecting existential despair, the malaise that takes hold in the middle of a taxing enterprise. I’ve covered this in more detail in an essay for The Atlantic, so one example in particular will suffice here: Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of “stubborn gladness,” a term she borrows from the poet Jack Gilbert. It’s a promise to take things in stride, to remain cheerfully engaged no matter how difficult things get. “My path as a writer became much more smooth,” she said, “when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”
Keep a totem.
Charles Dickens famously wrote with a series of porcelain figurines arranged across his desk, characters that kept him company as he toiled under punishing deadlines. It’s not as strange as it sounds: Many of the writers I talk to keep a totem—an object of special significance, whether it’s a small trinket or printed slogan—nearby as they work, something that serves as a source of inspiration or a barrier against despair.
Jane Smiley described pasting the phrase “Nobody asked you to write that novel” above her desk, an empowering reminder that creative hardships are voluntarily chosen. Mohsin Hamid keeps a Murakami passage taped to his printer—lines that link creativity and physical exercise, ones that encouraged him to build six-mile walks into his daily writing regimen. And Russell Banks keeps part of an old gravestone in his office, inscribed with the epitaph “Remember Death.” There’s nothing more inspiring than the awareness that time is short, and that the ultimate deadline is soon approaching.
Find the joy.
Ultimately, the writers I speak to seem committed to finding the joy within their work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. “One of the things that aids me, and which he helped teach me, is this: fundamentally, I do not believe in despair as a real aspect of the human condition,” says Ayana Mathis. “There is great confusion, there is great pain, there is suffering, all of those things, yes. But despair? I don’t believe in despair, and I don’t write from despair. I write from difficulty, absolutely. I write about people who are in great pain, who are desperate and sometimes even miserable. But despair, to me, means an absolute absence of hope. It is a nothing. There is always hope for betterment.”
But it’s not just leaving room for hope and levity on the page. It’s about retaining one’s own capacity to find joy within the process, making sure the work’s difficulty never fully squeezes out delight.
“The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything,” says Neil Gaiman in Light the Dark. “There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?”.
Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.