52 Steps to Becoming a Writer

  1. Learn to read. Do it a lot. Hide from the world inside a book. Dream of writing one when you grow up, or at least becoming a librarian.
  2. Receive your first diary. It has a lock and key. It might have pink hearts on it. Hide it under your mattress so no one will find it. Fill a dozen pages with lists of birthday presents, what you ate, and who you played with. Perfect your handwriting. Replace dots over i’s with small hearts. Lose the key.
  3. Pour adolescent angst on the page like your sister, whose diary you read once. Use cheap notebooks, nothing intimidating. Write about heartache, dreams, loneliness, crushes, how immature people are, whether people like you or not, about being depressed or ecstatic, and nothing in between. Include inspirational quotes. Never show it to anyone.
  4. Read all of Anais Nin’s published diaries. Start using flowery prose and secret poetry. Try to be truthful. Worry it will be found, so maybe not all the truth. Fill it with aching, longing laments. Complain about your difficult parents. How they never let you do what you want. How they warn you against rape, but don’t talk about making love. Worry.

Journals from 1970, 15 years old. The earnestness…

  1. Show your journal to your first boyfriend. Cry with him about the truth, but commit to truth, and love him because he is truthful. Keep writing but be more careful so you don’t hurt his feelings. Write him long longing letters, a la Anais.
  2. Break up with your boyfriend. Write out your agony, suspicions, self-doubt, self-hate, recriminations, anger, depression, and your own shameful actions.
  3. Take a creative writing class in college. Write a short story about a young fisherman you slept with. Listen to your classmates’ critique that it sounded like The Old Man and the Sea, which you never read but lied and said you had so you don’t look stupid, after which they accuse you of lifting your style from it. Feel confused and stop writing. Watch your voice disappear.
  4. Travel, journaling obsessively, delving deep into inner and outer experiences. Learn about yourself. Find your voice. Write your way through Europe with an equally journal obsessed friend. Share a little. Find new strength in writing.
  5. Take a William Faulkner class from a dreamy red-headed professor who knows everything and opens new worlds to you. Fantasize about writing a novel. Don’t dare try. You’re not Faulkner.
  6. Write letters to your next boyfriend, the one you will marry, long letters of yearning while you’re far apart. Explain the things you cannot say aloud. Describe your life. Receive equally elaborate letters. Discover you are soulmates. Love writing.
  7. Get married. Stop journaling because now he is the journal, and you don’t want the separation. Have children, create a home, build a career, a life. Stop writing completely because there’s no time. Wonder about it occasionally when not exhausted.
  8. Once the children can feed themselves and leave you alone for a few minutes, start writing again. Treasure these moments that ease a life that is busy, challenging, full, confusing, and hard fucking work. Wonder where your inner self went, the introvert, the writer, the one who has become lowest priority.
Writing using Natalie Goldberg's writing rules.
1994: My first time trying to write to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones rules.
  1. Start a newsletter for your homeschooling community, outwardly to help organize, but secretly because you want to write. Get appreciation, thanks, and compliments. Think, I could be a writer! Keep going.
  2. Quit your job to try to be a writer. Move a drafting table into the tiny laundry room of your tiny house, crammed in with the washer and dryer, but relishing the door that closes. Add a tiny bookshelf for your bibles: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. The children play just outside the door. Hunker down, try to focus.
  3. Tell people you’re a writer. They ask, what do you write? Have you been published? You don’t know how to answer. Your mother buys you an expensive leather portfolio. It lies unused, you don’t feel worthy.
  4. Discover Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Develop a daily writing habit, clearing your head with “morning pages” so you can get to the real writing, whatever that is. Keep losing and finding this habit.
  5. Go on silent retreats. Write. Or journal. You don’t know the difference, only that it keeps you sane.
  6. Fail at making money at writing. Take in a baby because they sleep while you write. The mother stiffs you and leaves town. Get a job. Writing stops.
  7. Send an essay to a statewide homeschooling newsletter. Be astonished at their edits, the mistakes and lack of clarity you hadn’t noticed. Work with another editor and publish in a national magazine. Be thrilled. Do it again for another editor. Edit and edit until you despair. Finally it’s printed. Feel both encouraged and daunted, unsure about future publishing.
  8. Become editor of that small state newsletter, and write editorials and essays. Discover that deadlines help. Also an audience, opportunity, and freedom. That you need an editor yourself. That the essay form is your jam.
  9. Consider collecting your essays into a book. Edit, get overwhelmed, stymied, lose interest, file it away. Revisit occasionally. The critic in your head won’t shut up.
  10. The kids leave home. Think about becoming a writer.
  11. Tentatively join a class with a teacher who is a gruff character out of a noir film, but has a published book. Read aloud with a quavering voice. Listen to other writers better and worse than you. Grasp at praise, quake at critique. The teacher’s barely decipherable edits help. Feel overwhelmed, lose heart, decide you can’t do this.
  12. Take a journalism class because maybe there’s money to be made as a journalist. Decide there are too many rules and tricks. It feels artificial.
  13. Expand your collection of how-to-write books. Study the lessons: you can do this; everyone has a story to tell; create better daily habits; butt in chair.
Some of my favorite writing books.
Reading about writing is a writer’s favorite form of procrastination.
  1. Develop a kid’s writing class using Natalie Goldberg’s writing rules: Keep your hand moving. Lose control. Be specific. Feel free to write the worst junk in the world. Don’t cross out or worry about spelling or grammar. Continue under all circumstances. While you can’t adhere to these rules yourself, the kids’ excitement is thrilling.
  2. Try NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, with a goal of 50,000 words in one month. Succeed in the word count, hate what you write.
  3. Change careers to webmaster and newsletter editor. Fake it til you make it. Make everyone else look good. Edit their terrible writing. Write copy for them. Discover no one reads anymore; it’s all about photos. Find satisfaction in moving shapes and words around on the screen. Discover you love working from home in your pajamas. Forget about your own writing.
  4. Retire. Move 1000 miles away from your community of 32 years. Leave old habits and worn out ideas. Ponder what brings you joy, what makes you curious. Remember writing. Wonder what that could look like. Start journaling again.
  5. Take a memoir class with a teacher who exudes calm, and has a published book. Climb the rickety stairs to a room full of couches. Feel writerly. Bring an old essay to work on. Listen to people better and worse than you. Listen to feedback and edits. Get overwhelmed. Quit.
  6. Join NaNoWriMo again. Succeed writing 50,000 words again. Hate what you wrote.
  7. Re-start intermittent journaling. Join 750words.com to create a daily habit, with virtual badges for non-stop writing, most words, most days in a row. It works for you. Think you can keep it up on your own and quit.
50 years of paper journals
Unearthed journals going back 50 years. Use them to learn your mind. Quickly get overwhelmed. The question remains: read, use somehow, burn, leave behind as someone else’s problem?
  1. Continue to keep your writing to yourself. Fear criticism, appearing dumb, being vulnerable.
  2. Post short essays on social media. Feel relatable. Get bolder. 
  3. Start a blog to have a writing forum and to get over yourself. Try not to be tossed away by success or lack thereof. Write about fear.
  4. Write a blog obituary for lyricist Robert Hunter and get thousands of hits for your Deadhead memories. Nothing else reaches that level of interest before or since. Try to decide if it matters. Wonder why you are doing this.
  5. Try not to care about likes, comments, subscribers, and followers. Care and then don’t care. Keep on either way. Try to hone your writing skills. Share your blog with trepidation.
  6. Enroll in an online Natalie Goldberg class. Feel electrified and terrified. Meet people from around the world. Form online writing groups with them. Host a group yourself. Appreciate no critique, only “thank you.” Build a safe place to write and read aloud. Write every day. Build your spine.
  7. Embody Goldberg’s rules over time. Write the worst junk or write well but keep your hand moving. Learn to listen deeply. Hear how everyone has a story. Learn that writing is a practice, like meditation. Learn about observation. Learn about detail. Learn to write about what’s in front of you. Delve into memory. Go for the jugular. Write till the water runs clear.
  8. Write in cafes, bookstores, in the woods, by the river. See how it changes how you write.
A Shot in the Dark at Cacao
A shot of espresso in dark rich drinking chocolate at Cacao, the perfect cafe for rainy day writing
  1. Endure and embrace pandemic and quarantine in your writing.
  2. Deepen learning and friendships in online writing groups. Savor these connections as in-person contacts disappear. Learn more about writing by listening.
  3. Try a songwriting class. Experience abject fear. Try to get over yourself. Write about it.
  4. Read more books about writing. Listen to writers’ podcasts and interviews. Be inspired.
  5. “Monkey Mind” tells you that your writing is crap. Hear your father’s voice. Acknowledge it, try to hear the nurturing voice that spurs you on instead. Strive toward improving only because it makes you happy, satisfies some inner itch.
  6. Stay quarantined mostly indoors, write more than ever, lose focus, get overwhelmed, start again. Feel the flow.
  7. Keep writing whether anyone reads it or not, likes it or not, comments or not. Hesitantly accept the lack of feedback, rewards, recognition. But like it when it comes.
  8. Let writing do writing. Write as if you won’t share it, then share it anyway. Learn to be brave again. And again.
A list of writing prompts.
Make a list of writing prompts based on things you hear, see, or think of. Write for 10 minutes, or 20, or an hour, GO!
  1. Get closer to the truth in free writes. Make it better later.
  2. When you aren’t writing,write in your head. Collect snippets on scraps of paper, paragraphs recorded on your phone.
  3. Find the edge, tumble over it. Find the juice, immerse in it. Embrace the ugly, describe the beautiful, meditate on the ineffable.
  4. Finally understand that what makes you a writer is that you can’t not write.
Write outdoors.
Doesn’t that bench just call to you? “Sit here. Write awhile. You’ll feel better.”

18 thoughts on “52 Steps to Becoming a Writer

  1. Oh, this is just fabulous !

    I was that girl with those diaries. I have the notebooks full of joy and angst. I’ve shared the doubt, the lack of space, the lack of time. I understand the door that closes and the snippets written on anything resembling paper nearby. I have a phone full of messages to myself. I look to others for help, feedback, emotional support. I feel adrift without a group of women to share with, but I ram on. I’m a writer too. I ride those waves right along with you. So grateful your voice is so strong, and that through everything, you persisted. Thanks for sharing this. 

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this so, so, so much. We really must meet. We have a lot in common (including a back slant writing phase and webmaster/newsletter editor stints and NaNoWriMo and a pink diary with hearts and a key) and much not in common (like I didn’t know I wanted to write way back in the day and I hate writing from prompts even though I facilitated a writing group using prompt writing because writers are supposed to love that shit; I do love your list of prompts though, and wish I’d had them last year). Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ll get together, but we won’t do any writing prompts! I love having a kindred spirit not too far away. The path here overlaps with others in unexpected ways, that’s for sure. So glad I found you. Thanks for being here.


  3. I couldn’t decide which of the 52 ways, reasons or steps to becomibg a writer best spoke to me but I kept coming back to number 48 and enjoyed seeing a list of prompts in your own handwriting. Perhaps I (we) will be the recipient of some of those prompts…any that you follow would bring delight! So write on!! We are waiting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the best thing (essay in pieces?) I’ve read in a long time. TOTALLY relatable. Funny. True. Real. Painful. Yes! Yes! Yes! I love all of this. I think this piece would be so appreciated by other writers. You’ve captured how I feel, where I’ve been with writing, and the great unknown for all of us. Truly awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Cheryl. At 1749 words it doesn’t make it to the Brevity threshold, in fact brevity is a goal I’ve never quite got a handle on in general. The writers I’ve shared this with have been enthusiastic, so I’ll venture out of my comfort zone… Thanks for the encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. gahhhhh this is SOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOD!!!!!!! A card deck of how to become a writer. So super powerful and honest and zero fluff. love love love. All I can say is thank god for #28 and you are an incredible person love every step and love you xo

    Liked by 1 person

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