When I was twenty-two, I used to sit around a lot, not-writing. Or more accurately I used to lay around, because there were mornings that turned into afternoons when the weight of all the things I wanted to write about the way I saw the world got so heavy that it felt like a thousand-pound cat curled up on my chest, making it impossible to get out of bed. I did not have a job at the time, which made matters much worse, because when you have infinite free time you always think you’ll spend it doing all the things you never have time to do when you are busy (like: writing), but instead you spend your time thinking about the enormity of all of those things, inflating them like a cat-shaped parade float balloon that’s filled with cement instead of air, and before you know it it’s nighttime again, and you have not drawn the curtains today, and you have not written a thing.
At the time, a book I was reading was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, which is a book that everybody should read when they are twenty-two or twenty-three, because its opening paragraph contains one of the truest sentences ever written about being that age: "[A]s you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honor and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the word like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment, and somewhat more significant than any one else he knows." There is something wonderful about the way he fits all of that information and contradiction within the bounds of one elegantly drooled sentence, like a bubble that should have popped but, miraculously, didn’t. I wrote it down on a piece of paper somewhere just to admire its shape.
There is a character in The Beautiful and Damned named Gloria, who keeps a “Line-A-Day diary.” She is not a writer, nor is she really one of those characters to aspire to be like; she is an early, somewhat shallow sketch of Zelda, and he’d write much better Zeldas in later books. But something about the concept of this “Line-A-Day diary” clicked with me. What if I just committed to writing one sentence a day? Would that cure the agony of not-writing? Would I feel better when I put my head on the pillow every night, knowing I’d at least written something? Would I wake up every morning and boing out of bed and draw the curtains and say, Let the fucking sunshine in? Yes to all of these things. The transformation, at least in my memory, was immediate. That week I bought a small, fat, red notebook, and sometimes feel like I owe my career to this pretty flat fictional character named Gloria because — fuck kale chips and an ill-fated Pilates phase and that week last winter when I was going to get really into vitamins, but didn’t — keeping a Line-A-Day diary is the healthiest thing I have done for myself in the past three years.
Every once in a while someone will ask me for advice about becoming a writer, and when this happens I always clam up. I am bad at giving advice, I usually say, because the path I took to get to what I am doing now feels haphazard and irregular and full of lucky accidents. But this is not true, or maybe more accurately that haphazardness is true for everybody. I am starting to think that the best advice — the only advice, maybe — you can give comes out of your own haphazard, irregular, lucky, accidental experience. As I mentioned yesterday, I am reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar advice columns from The Rumpus. And it is a staggeringly powerful book. Each column dispenses this very personal, very usable advice that you can pocket and take with you, but each one is also like a prose poem, structured so brilliantly and artfully and purposefully. I can actually count on one hand the books that have made me cry in my life, but I finish pretty much every one of these pieces in that weird, startled trance-state where you’ve been crying but didn’t realize it until the tears are starting to liquefy your vision. My whole body feels rattled after finishing the really good ones, and I usually need to walk them off.
Probably the most famous Dear Sugar piece is Column #48, “Write Like A Motherfucker.” In it, Sugar gives advice to a then-twenty-six year-old writer named Elissa Bassist on how to get over her own blockage and anxieties. “I know it’s hard to write, darling,” she says to her at one point. “But it’s harder not to.”
If that sentence rattles something inside you, then my advice to you is to make like Gloria and keep a Line-A-Day diary. Write one sentence a day. It can be anything — a quote or an observation from your workday or a one-sentence-short story or a very plain summary of what you did that day. Play with the drooly elasticity of sentences; experiment with colons and semicolons and run-ons and grammatical inaccuracies. If you are going through something that makes it difficult to write even one sentence, just write the date, or a period with no words before it, or maybe just the word, “Nothing.” About halfway through my notebook something terrible happened and all I could write for two and a half weeks was, “Not yet.” “Not yet.” “Not yet.”, and looking back at that page now says more to me about what grief actually feels like than any sort of flowery description of how I was feeling during that time. Also, don’t show the notebook to anybody. Hide it somewhere more original than under the bed, because if someone’s looking for your Line-A-Day diary of course they’re going to start there. One of the worst effects the internet has on writers, I think anyway, is that it instills this belief that you need to share or post or tweet every single sentence that pops into your head. I cannot express how valuable it is to still hold yourself to writing things that you are not going to show anybody.
I am writing all of this on a cosmically important occasion: after today there will be no more blank lines in the red notebook, and I’ll have to buy another one. There is a yellowing sticker on the back that says it cost $6.99, but over the course of three years it has become one of the most valuable things I’ve got; it’s the sort of thing I’d risk burning my hand off to save in a fire. In it there’s so much I would have forgotten if I hadn’t written it down, so many sentences and feelings that are embarrassing to me now, so many banalities, so many people who’ve stayed or gone, so much stupid and wonderful life. But even more valuable is what’s between the lines. If you would have asked me on the first few pages what I did I would have said, “Nothing,” probably, and then flip a little farther and I’d say, “I work in a bakery,” farther still and, “Um, I write stuff at night and work in a bakery during the day,” and then, “I write stuff, sometimes,” and now I am finally at that point where, when people ask, I say, “I’m a writer.” But the truth is that I have been one for a while, since I realized that not-writing is harder than writing and the best way to cure not-writing is to write something every day.