Pen on Fire: Sample Chapter

“For me, writing something down was the only road out.”
—Anne Tyler, in Janet Sternburg, ed.,

Writing Like There’s No Tomorrow

It took a while for me to get going as a writer. It wasn’t until the beginning of my junior year at a private Vermont college that I knew I wanted to write, that I was desperate, actually, to be a writer. Once that knowledge took hold, there was no reconsidering my choice. I blazed along the writing path, writing hard, reading hard, making up for lost time. My advisers encouraged me. It was all good, all promising-no matter that writing was the biggest intellectual challenge of my life.

But when I graduated, the fact that I still had not transformed into Virginia Woolf or become a New Yorker writer sent me into a writer’s block as big as Grand Central Station. It lasted a year. Finally the truth sank in: Not writing wasn’t bringing me any closer to being like the writers I admired or to being published, and I so missed writing. I dove back in. There was no choice. I was a writer: I was miserable when I didn’t write, and I wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else. I had to write, come what may.

The deep desire to write is all you need to begin. Its power over you is bigger than the fear of rejection. Once you accept that you are a writer, you can overcome fear. I had to.

In every aspect of life, it’s easy to let fear influence our decisions. We stick with jobs we hate for fear of ending up in ones that are worse. We stay in emotionally or physically abusive relationships because we are afraid to leave. And we put off writing because there’s no time, we’re sure we’re no good, and who are we kidding, anyway? What makes me think I’ll ever make it? This way, the dream of being a writer remains just that-a dream.

Putting aside fears in love, in life, and in writing is the only way to have a shot at achieving any measure of success.

When crime novelist Andrew Vachss came on my show, he talked about never giving up. “Spectators don’t win fights, and the one fighting technique I have not seen fail yet is to just keep getting up. People shouldn’t be discouraged, because they can go from everybody saying that they would never be published and all of a sudden, it’s done. You never know. You’re punching a wall, punching a wall, your hands are bloody and broken, and then all of a sudden the wall’s down, not from any one punch but from the accumulated weight of all the punches. This is not a business for people who give up easily.”

Set Your Timer

Imagine a friend has come to you for help. She dreams of becoming a writer but is burdened by fears. She worries she has no talent and has nothing to say. Perhaps she worries she’s taking precious time away from her family to pursue her selfish desire to write.

For fifteen minutes, write to that friend and give her hope. Dispel each of her fears, one by one, so that when she is through talking with you and revealing her heart, she will be willing to try giving the writing life her best effort. Your words need to inspire her and help her through this difficult time.

Now, can you comfort yourself this way?

Imagine you are this person. Set the timer for fifteen minutes and, using your newfound outlook, write a letter to yourself about your plans and projects as a writer.

Be as specific as possible. What sorts of projects are you interested in? What would you like to write today? What is your ultimate goal? What is your most extravagant dream? Let what you jot down run the gamut from the most realistic project to the most outrageous imaginings. It’s okay to dream on paper. In fact, writing down your goals can be a vital step toward accomplishing them.

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