I love that moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Elizabeth Swan standing there, even as she is being taken hostage, citing the pirates’ code like an attorney standing on the firm ground of the law, only to be greeted with that knowing gleam in Barbosa’s eyes. He knows what she doesn’t. He’s the ship’s captain, and, while he may give a respectful nod to the code, when the hull meets the surf, even the code is just shifting sand beneath the weight of his authority. The code, along with the crew, bows to him.
There is a hazard in learning to be a writer. It is the danger of taking good advice. Because, quite often, that great tip or daily ritual guaranteed to make you a better writer turns out to be no guarantee at all. All writers are different, and the habits that improve us as writers are as diverse our stories. No two are quite alike. The more experience we have, the less likely this is to trip us up, but none of us are ever fully immune to that siren call of being better or more productive.
If only we organized our morning routine just so. If only we would write in the quiet stillness of deep night. If only we drank more coffee. Less coffee. Exercised first. Wrote standing up.
On and on the rituals go and we adhere to them the way a baseball player clings to those lucky, stinky socks he refuses to wash. But we must learn to be discerning.
Experiment. Try new things. Of course.
And then let go of the things that did not serve us. Keep only what works for us.
There are so many classes and workshops where a writer and teacher acknowledges that there are many paths in writing, and you must simply explore and find what works for you. Then they invite you into their process. Beautiful.
There are many more who will teach sincerely and adamantly that this – theirs – is the path. The path. And then they invite you to walk it, even if it feels more like a tightrope than a path.
I once attempted to follow in the footsteps of a writer who insisted they could not read other people’s books and write their own at the same time. It is positively shameful how long I attempted to continue with this nonsense considering that I am very much a book-a-holic. When I finally let it go, I discovered that reading amazing books while writing was, to me, a great source of inspiration. It improved not only my productivity, but the quality of my work.
Do not keep what doesn’t serve you. You are not beholden to another author’s code. Like Barbosa, you are the authority over your own work and your own process. You are responsible for incorporating and using what works for you and letting go of what doesn’t.
But if you are feeling lost and directionless in a sea of how’s and when’s and wherefore’s, let me offer this. Just a start. In listening to and observing the codes, habits, and practices of other successful writers, I have found only three common habits among the ones that made it. Perhaps you will notice others, but I think these three are as close to hard and fast rules as you’ll find in our business.
1. Write regularly.
2. Finish the story.
3. Revise decisively.
And this last one is just mine. I stole it from Lewis Carroll. You’re welcome to it, but only if it serves you.
“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”