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Pep Talk from Daniel José Older

photo of Daniel Jose Older

Dear Writer,

My favorite advice of all time for writing (and life) comes from a poem by Antonio Machado: “Caminante no hay camino / se hace camino al andar.”

It means, “Walker, there is no path / the path is made by walking.”

This is a perfectly concise way of saying: Kill your heroes, machete chop the barriers you’ve created in your mind, be brave and ridiculous and absolutely you in your journey to the page and beyond.

In that sense, it’s sort of the anti-writing-advice writing advice, holding up the truth that we all will have very different approaches to this messy endeavor; we all have our own paths, our own version of what it means to “make it”. And while it’s true: a lot of the “how to write” formulas they give us can be simplistic and reductive, there is merit in simply saying out loud what has worked and what has sent us crashing and burning—if nothing else because comparing notes is fun!

I’ve come to love and find shelter in the ritual of writing. The days I just sit and try to knock out words in a hurry are usually the days I stare at the screen blankly the longest. But when I slow down, ease into that transition, the process becomes a part of the ritual, the space itself seems to open up to the possibilities of what may happen, rather than the stress of what hasn’t.

Sometimes, after I’ve taken my seat and made a cup of coffee but before I begin writing, I’ll make myself listen to a whole song. It can be any song, but what’s important is that you’re not doing anything but listening and maybe dancing a little or sipping your coffee—enjoying the moment. This allows you to settle in, transition from world to word, from the everyday mundane crap to the realm of creativity.

Check in with yourself. I’ve recently started keeping a writing journal and it’s been a huge blessing to my whole process. First of all, if the first thing you write when you sit down is something no one else will ever see; it eases you into the flow of putting words on the page.

Most importantly though, keeping track of how things are going with your project makes you introspective about your own process, and that is a skill that will carry you far. How are we to make the road by walking if we don’t look down every once in a while and check our stride, our pace, our rhythm. Not only does every writer have their own flow, it’s a flow that changes over the course of our writing lives. I use the journal to keep track of plot points, ideas I’ve loved or scrapped, the evolution of my thinking on the piece, various arcs and possibilities. It becomes a running commentary on process and craft, the story of the story.

If the only blank page you’ve ever stared down is one that’s got a deadline attached to it, it’s easy to develop a singularly stressful relationship to that emptiness. But if you start to connect with yourself via the written word, that page becomes a friend, a confidante. You get to be playful, joyous, courageous.

Writing begins with forgiveness. Let go of the shame about how long it’s been since you last wrote, the clenching fear that you’re not a good enough writer, the doubts over whether or not you can get it done. Sure, the nagging demons will come creeping back, but set them aside anyway, and then set them aside again when they do. Concoct a hot beverage, play a beautiful song, look inward, and then begin.

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