Donald Ray Pollock's The Heavenly Table is one of the most delightfully twisted novels of the year, a terror ride through an early 20th century hillbilly hellscape that puts the family of a swindled, good-hearted farmer on a collision course with three brothers on a crime spree. Pollock, whose previous novel, The Devil All the Time, was named one of the 10 best books of 2011, shares five writing tips.
When I decided to learn how to write, I didn’t know any writers, or anything about how to get started. I was forty-five and had worked at the same paper mill in a small town in southern Ohio for twenty-seven years at that point. However, thanks to a program the mill had that helped with tuition for employees who wanted to go to college part-time, I did have a degree in English. Plus, I loved to read. I determined to devote at least five years to writing, and worked at it almost every day. By the time I turned fifty, I had published five or six stories in small literary magazines. Granted, this doesn’t seem like much, but over time, I slowly discovered that it was what I wanted to do; and that’s always a good thing, actually, the very best thing, knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, no matter how hard or frustrating it might be, and writing is, more often than not, pretty damn hard and pretty damn frustrating. Still, I wasted a lot of time in the beginning, and with that in mind, here, mainly for the benefit of beginners, are the major things I’ve learned about writing:
1. Have patience. I think learning to write is like learning to play a musical instrument, which, I’ve heard said, takes at least five to ten years of daily practice. Even then, the learning never stops. A guitarist or a pianist might be considered a genius, but he can always get better, and the same goes for writing. At first, everything I wrote was terrible, and a lot of days it still is, and I’ve been at it for fifteen years now; and there will be many days when I want to give up, when I can’t come up with a single decent sentence, when vacuuming the carpets seems like a better use of my time, but I need to stick it out because those are the days that determine if I want it badly enough. Also, once you begin sending your work out, be prepared for rejection. I received at least 150 rejections the first six years I was writing. Just remember that most magazines get hundreds, some even thousands, of submissions each year, and they have room for only a few pieces. Don’t take it personally, just stick with it.
2. Type out other people's stuff. I had been flailing about for maybe eighteen months with no idea of what I was doing when I read an interview with a writer who mentioned that she used to type out other people’s work on occasion. I decided to try it, and I ended up copying approximately 75 short stories, one per week, on an IBM typewriter. Perhaps because I’m not a very good reader, typing out, say, a short story by Barry Hannah or Denis Johnson or Amy Hempel or Flannery O’Connor, got me so much closer to the work, helped me to see better how they did, for example, dialogue, or made transitions, or split up their paragraphs, on and on. Try it with a couple of your favorite stories, and then, if you don’t think you’re getting anything out of it, heck, you can always stop. I believe it was Hunter S. Thompson who said he typed out The Great Gatsby because he wanted to see what it felt like to write a great book.
3. Keep a regular schedule. Think of writing as a job, or, at least a part-time job. Don’t wait around for inspiration to strike. That will usually happen only if you’re already sitting at the desk. Even if you can only squeeze in fifteen or thirty minutes a day, do it. I think the inability to stick with a schedule, along with being impatient, are the two big things that kill most aspiring writers.
4. Always be reading. Frankly, if you don’t love to read, you probably have little hope of making it as a writer. I realize this might sound silly to anyone reading PW, but I’ve met a lot of people who swear they want to write but who seldom pick up a book. And read a lot outside your favorite genre. I aim for two books a week, and one of them is usually some sort of non-fiction. Even at that rate, I can expect to read only five or six thousand books in my lifetime, which, when you consider how many are published each year, isn’t a lot.
5. Work in a place with no internet or phone. Because I have this overwhelming desire to start looking up useless information anytime I get around a search engine, I write in a converted garden shed behind my house on a computer that isn’t hooked up to the internet. And though I now own a cellphone (I recently broke down and bought one for travel), it stays in the house when I go to work.
Of course, most of what I’ve said you’ve probably already heard, but there is no magical formula to learning how to write. In the end, it really does boil down to reading and writing as much as one can. I truly believe, however, that people who want to write can if they want it badly enough and are willing to sit quietly in a room and do the work. Many will realize that, after doing it for a year or two, it’s just not for them, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but for those of you who really, really want it, I can promise you that if you sit there long enough, something wonderful will happen, and it will probably be the best feeling you will ever experience.