Writing Advice From Lydia Millet
The Pulitzer finalist urges authors to never bore themselves and "be licked by holy fire."Lydia Millet was a Pulitzer finalist for her book Love in Infant Monkeys, and PW called her novel Mermaids in Paradise "a thrilling piece of fabulist fiction." Read on for Millet's writing tips.
These days I feel that finding time to write is more like purse-snatching than any other activity: I grab what I can get and run away with it. Often I do so furtively, hoping that no one trips me, grabs my ankle and hauls me in to visit the authorities.
That’s how it can be, sometimes, when you have a day job and a couple of kids to take care of as well as a fine tome to write. What follows are some habits that help me cope, and which I hope might help others in a similar position — i.e., not having infinite minutes or monies at their command. These tips are aimed at bucking the limits imposed by time as well as mental space.
1. Quantity before quality. Sure, you have standards, but you can’t always live up to them. When time is short, the first order of business is to put a large number of words on the page. Don’t be intimidated by the white void of screen or paper that hovers before your eyes. Later, sentences can be honed. Later, clarity can be achieved while perfection is studiously sought — or if not perfection, at least freedom from abject shame. But today is not the day for scruples. Today is the day for production. First make broad cuts across the cloth; perform the needlework at leisure.
2. Bore not thyself. An important commandment, IMV. If you find yourself slogging through a passage restlessly — your mind trudging stubbornly through the verbiage much as you might force your body onward through a barrage of dirty sleet, your head down, your shoulders hunched protectively, all bundled to keep warm — chances are this is not your best work. That rain of sludge is not your finest hour. Yes, you need to put words on the page, but to qualify for the page those words must always interest you. For if not you, then whom? Writing should not be a laborious construction of wall-climbing obstacle courses for those readers who one day walk the path of your prose, but a delicate and sparkling web designed to spring skyward as though weighted down only by the touch of yiddle fairies’ feet. If you find yourself on autopilot, halt. Delete-delete-delete, all the way back to the very line where last you cared. You, at least, should never have to wait to get to the good part.3. Suffer the fools gladly. And by fools, I just mean other people: we’re all fools together in this vale of tears. Should you find yourself beset by problems of procrastination — should you find yourself, for example, rising from your seat and puttering too much about the house, clearing surfaces, pouring the moldy water out of vases, opening junk mail as though it might contain a vital secret, or even not rising from your seat but “surfing” the “internet” instead of writing words — go where you can’t escape the task of work. Go to a public place, say a café or library, where the only distractions are those that will not turn you away from the physical platform of your words. In these public places, you’ll find you’re far more bound to your seat, and your notebook/laptop/etc., than at your home or in a private office. Here, people will look at you suspiciously if you attempt to putter. They may glimpse prurient or silly websites over your shoulder and judge you mercilessly, making the cruising of such pages a prospect less than usually pleasant. No: here, at your own table among the crowd of tables, the task is clear: write. The only distraction will be, from time to time, the sounds emitted through these strangers’ mouths, but those can be tuned out fairly effectively via the use of earbuds. I favor “polka radio” on Pandora. Believe you me, there’s not much ambient chatter a lively polka can’t drown out.
4. Prefer the new. I try to write the story I wish to read. I’ve found I’m most inspired when I suspect that what precisely I have in mind to make does not already exist, and this is the sole reason for the bother of its present creation. So I advise always aiming to write a book you haven’t had the opportunity to read, simply because you’ve never found it. Your hand should be a hand that trembles to make the new — or at least the new to you. This also means any true writer must also be a voracious reader. For what if you wrote a whole book, say a rollicking seaman’s tale of a deranged mariner chasing a white whale, found for it an intriguing title (say “Moby Dick”), then stumbled into another such object suddenly? Embarrassing.
5. Seek to be licked by holy fire. Of course, I use the terms “holy” and “fire” fairly loosely. One man’s holy is another woman’s sublime. If you’re doing creative work, that work should never feel trivial — even if what you’re doing is for hire or lightly intended. Even the mundane doesn’t have to be trivial. I’ve made the mistake (sadly, far more often than once) of writing a piece carelessly because it was a small piece, or a piece “just” for money, or a piece I didn’t want to be writing. Now I regret those pieces with a remorse that pierces. If you’re going to do a thing, do it fully, so that no writing you give the world misrepresents you — so that nothing you put out there is like a sad regift you couldn’t throw away and had to find a place for. I advise, if you’re stymied by a passage or paragraph or plot point — whether it’s for an assignment from the outside world or one that comes only from within — get up from wherever you’re sitting, walk outdoors, and do nothing but look at the sky for five minutes. Just stare at that thing. Then execute a small bow and go back in.