How to Write Your Book

(And by "your book" obviously I mean mine.*)

Start by not writing your book. There are soooooo many reasons not to…

  • Your brain is still fried from your last job, even though you left two months ago.

  • Plus, you have a bad case of “pandemic brain.”

  • No, really. It’s quite possible you’ve forgotten how to string words together, to form coherent thoughts and sentences.

  • After all these years — and two inspirational tattoos meant to convince you otherwise — you still don’t feel like you have permission to tell your story.

  • Also, honestly, lady? You’re really not that interesting.** I mean, seriously. Who the hell do you think you are???

  • There’s that whole business of the world possibly ending.

…Read some bad books to assure yourself that with even just minimal effort, yours has to turn out better than that crap

…Read some good books. (Reading is part of writing, isn’t it?) Try to be inspired by the good books, as opposed to, you know, getting so intimidated by the authors’ talent that you think, “Why even bother????” and throw in the towel…

…Find yourself so inspired by a good novel, you’re certain you should be writing fiction instead of a “memoir-in-essays” or whatever the hell you’re calling that thing you’re supposed to be working on…

…Worry about whether you can really afford the time you’ve allotted to write this book. Shouldn’t you just get another job? Like, right now? Tick tock. You’ve got some nice gigs, but what about a job?…

…Or maybe instead you should start your own thing. (Subscribers: SHOULD I START A THING?) You should start it now, shouldn’t you? (Maybe I will start a thing after my March 15th deadline…?) Writers email you daily*** lamenting how few places remain that publish long-form personal essays. It is definitely your job to fix that, pronto…

(^^^Anybody got any money they want to give me to start a thing [after March 15th]?)

…Realize you wasted $250 buying the domain MemoirJunkie.com because “junkie” is ableist language that dismisses the seriousness of heroin addiction. (Okay, but don’t waste time beating yourself up over this. Think schmuck tax and just let it go. You’ll come up with another — better, inoffensive — name when you are ready.)…

…Fret that by your March 15th deadline, no one will remember who you are anymore, or the work you were known for. Better keep posting on social media, and in this newsletter. Make sure you also engage with a lot of other people’s social media posts, so they don’t forget you exist…

…When you realize how much time you are wasting, tell yourself this installment of your newsletter counts as a writing exercise. Think, I’m keeping the machine oiled, reminding myself how to string words together, etc. Tell yourself it’s also free therapy…

…Come to think of it, shouldn’t you search for a new therapist? You’ve been meaning to since your old one closed her practice three years ago. Change your mind after becoming daunted by the prospect of unspooling your whooooole long backstory for one wrong therapist after another until you find the right one. I mean, that’s time you could be writing your book…

…Do not procrastinate by playing the piano music you still have memorized from your lessons when you were 10 on the sweet upright you are babysitting for a friend. Do not procrastinate by writing new songs on said upright, or by revisiting that old head trip of yours about how you should be playing the piano more.

…Do not procrastinate by: playing and singing along to old standards on the ukulele; baking cookies; pursuing Portuguese citizenship; researching your heritage on Ancestry (except as it pertains to that once essay in your book about your ancestors in Kingston from the 1860s to the 1920s); relitigating old arguments in your head; writing emails you tell yourself you won’t send, which relitigate old arguments; trying to suss out whether a friend is truly ignoring you and why; looking up old friends and boyfriends on social media and LinkedIn (except as it pertains to essays in your book about old boyfriends); worrying about other people’s relationships; etc. Just, do not procrastinate.

…Notice that you are having fun writing this newsletter installment. Remember that when you move past all the neurotic B.S. and let yourself get lost in the process, you actually enjoy writing…

…Re-read your book proposal. Not so bad, right? Recall why you wanted to do this in the first place…

…Be grateful you have this opportunity and this allotted time, which, by the way, you asked for, and have wanted for so long. (Okay, but don’t beat yourself up about not having been grateful enough until now. Seriously, you do not have time to descend down a shame spiral and then find your way back up and out.)…

…Remember you don’t believe memoirs and essay collections need to be about “interesting” lives** — that you actually prefer those by writers who have a talent for illuminating the universal and the mundane.

…Create a system for yourself with folders and essay-analysis sheets you invented, and a schedule, too. Maybe these are helpful. Maybe just the act of doing this for yourself feels helpful, providing you with a sense of order. Your Capricorn moon just loooooves order…

…Adhere to that system, or whatever it takes to get you to sit down and show up one day after another…

…When resistance rears its ugly head (like, a hundred times a day), remember your various hacks for conquering it. Like the Pomodoro Technique. Or author Jami Attenberg’s 1000WordsOfSummer accountability program and newsletter. (Bonus round August 10-16. And now there’s a Slack channel, too. PS Some of the content for this newsletter was generated during the first round, in the summer of 2018.)

…Get to work writing your shitty first draft. Aim low. Remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. You don’t need perfect right now, or even good. You just need your first draft to exist, so you have something to work with. And you need to have the daily feeling of accomplishment that helps carry you through to the next task, and through the next bouts of resistance.

…Maybe you should instead write a book about how to write a book? Nah? Okay, get back to writing the book you are so fortunate to have a contract for.


*With apologies to all the students and submitting writers whom I’ve discouraged from writing essays in the second person.

**See above: “Remember you don’t believe memoirs and essay collections need to be about “interesting” lives** …”

***Writers who have sent me email submissions for Catapult, where I am a contributing editor: I’m approaching that very slowly, and will only be doing that work occasionally, at least for now. I am not taking submissions. Writers who have emailed asking if I am available for hire, to edit long-form essays and books: I might be next spring, after my book is done. But not right now.