Lately, there is a cottage industry booming for writing about writing, which was once considered a bit of a faux pas, a magician revealing his or her secrets. Writing was mystical performance art, done in clandestine back rooms, in dusty libraries with a pair of French doors that overlook an English garden, where robins hop from branch to ground, and you cultivate words. In my MFA program, writers were told to stop having their main characters be writers. It showed a distinct lack of imagination. Perhaps they should have all been steelworkers. Though none of us could have imagined what that job might look like.

But now as the importance of writing heads slightly further down public interests, tips cap to the quality of serialized television, writers have accepted that the only people interested in reading writing are either other writers or readers, who are merely aspiring writers who haven’t admitted it yet. Thus, the most interesting thing a writer can do now is give the reader, who is just another writer, a peek into their peculiar process. We are natural voyeurs, but every kind of sex is a few clicks away on the internet and, thus, less novel than the secrets of becoming the next Stephen King. Now writers can spend all day doing the very thing they’d like to, writing about the process of writing.

The craft essay, like many annoying aspects of life, taxes, marriage, driving, does come with stipulations. The writer must have a set of iron-clad rules, which have allowed them to reach Mount Olympus. The rules can be things like: allow yourself an hour of uninterrupted time at 5 am when the brain is sharp, or walk around with a small journal at all times, or rent a house in the south of France, or marry a wealthy and well-connected spouse, or don’t have any children. The rules are arbitrary, of course, but it’s essential to include them, often with the caveat that you know they are idiosyncratic, and yet, they have worked, shrug emoji. The only other alternative is not writing a craft essay, which would mean returning to the writing itself.

Philip Roth worked in the monastic tradition, locking himself in a shed from 9-5 each day, writing as though his life depended on it. Most writers though, at least those not writing to a deadline or as their sole source of income, spend a large amount of time doing anything but writing, gazing out the window at the green-breasted hummingbird dipping its beak into the bell-shaped flower, remembering that they need to pay a bill, and oh, how long has it been since they’ve swept under the couch, let alone the vast monolithic entity that is the Internet and “research” for an essay or novel.

Jonathan Franzen, once proclaimed the great American writer, writes with noise-canceling headphones, and he has a list of many other rules, but we’re not allowed to like Franzen anymore, so his writing advice is null and void. Margaret Atwood said you should write every day, which seems simple enough. However, it isn’t all that easy of a prescription to follow unless you are independently wealthy. Ray Bradbury says to write a thousand words a day, but maybe that only applies if you write sci-fi? Hemingway used to write for a few hours, then play tennis or swim in the afternoon. We are supposed to hate Hemingway now, but a lot of writers still seem reluctant, which means it’s probably at least okay to play tennis and swim. Alice Munro started her career after the children had gotten older, so maybe it’s okay to have kids, but not kids who remain in a perpetual state of youth. In short, you can use any of these rules if you’d like. Just remember, they aren’t hard and fast rules.

That said, I have some advice. But I don’t want to belabor things. Actually, I enjoy an excellent belaboring and would spend my life belaboring if not for the gears of capitalism. But that is dear reader, another essay.

Rules for Writing an Essay                          

  1. Get divorced. Realizing that in doing so, you have freed up vast stretches of time that weren’t previously yours, like walking from a dark room into a neighborhood of oaks swaying in the light. Sure, you’ll fill those hours with alcohol, coffee dates, a lover, but imagine what you could make of the time you’ll soon squander. Some people will say that writing about divorce is a bourgeois privilege. But one of the secrets of writing is that people are assholes. You should write about whatever you want, the way the wind makes caps on waves, the patterns of rain falling on a bend in the river, your father, your mother, trauma, systems of oppression, your politics, or the wrinkles on your dead grandmother’s neck. Your life is its own small and broken thing, which only you can examine properly.
  2. Always wake up before the children, or the cat, if you have one, scour the day for times when you are truly alone. Then waste that time by scrolling through dating apps, rants on Twitter, trying to identify, you swear for an essay, a type of small yellow bird you saw, or the year a particular invasive tree was introduced to the America’s, or searching for your credit card, which you’ve used lately for causes beyond your hedonistic pleasure. Your father, whom you’ve always been confused by, has taught you this in his old age, if capitalism is the driving force of your society, let some of your capital speak for that which you believe in. Write no more of your father and his stay in the skilled nursing facility. There is enough sadness gathering as clouds before a summer storm.
  3. Writing isn’t any more useful than any other thing in life, no matter how many quotes you read to the contrary. It’s just the peculiar thing to which you’ve attached meaning. Though since life has no meaning, this meaning you’ve attached is now significant. It’s a paradox, like the way the sky is clear but appears to be blue. Remember that walk you took with your daughter, now nine, when you explained this paradox. She said, what’s the best thing about being an adult? And when you paused to consider, on a paved path through a grove of beach trees, she said, are you thinking about all the bad parts like doing laundry and paying the bills? And you wonder, briefly, if you’re doing a poor job in showing her what it means to be alive. But you tell her that the best part about being an adult are the paradoxes, like the color of the sky and later, which I can’t quite explain in detail, the Israeli Palestinian situation, which you describe including bits of World War II, human nature, etc, to explain why it’s nice to be an adult, to be able to hold contrary things in mind, to mull them over. She says, “Daddy, I didn’t know you were so smart,” And your heart swells. Maybe this is the best thing about being an adult, at least at the moment, walking with your precocious daughter, up the hill in your cloth masks, passing a Friday together, in this, the loneliest season of your life since childhood.
  4. Tend to the children. If you don’t have them, imagine them as the great English essayist Charles Lamb did in Dream Children: A Reverie. Prepare them breakfast, ask after their days, dream children, like real children will be ripe with stories, bursting as a rhododendron with blooms come spring with stories about their days—the toys they’ve loved, YouTube videos of gamers and children you don’t know, thoughts they’ve had while idling in the bath, forgetting to dry, getting the whole damn floor wet. Soon, you will be bored, in a dream-like reverie, wishing another afternoon of your life away, wishing your children weren’t there, that they were just dreams, that you had the day all to yourself to squander as you pleased, walking, journaling, getting a bit tipsy with some friends and arguing politics, pushing the socialist state, until you retired to bed happy, slightly guilty, had you offended anyone, living the paradox of any adult life.
  5. Commit to something beyond yourself. These craft essays recommend discipline, and I do too. But I wouldn’t suggest a discipline to writing, but rather, discipline to the spiritual side of yourself. Clear the floor. Make some quiet minutes in your busy day to meditate on the meaning of your own unique and strange self. Tend to it, as one does a beloved garden so that your flourishing is a gift to your friends with whom you have long conversations via text, to your aging parents, with your real or imaginary children, to the suffering world. Write too. Write by hand at times, on the computer others.  Try to get to at least 100 words or a thousand. Your brain has 86 billion neurons. Go for that as a word count, building a series of bridges between each one, an insane latticework worthy of a Borges story.
  6. Some people will say that your writing should be political. Some will ask you to write closer to the bone, inhabit the personal, talk about what the sheets felt like as you lay in lover’s bed, watching a spider web blow in the light air conditioning, feeling the saddest you’ve ever felt in your life in the hazy midday light of that small room, where you thought, post-coitally, about the ruin you were making of your life. But that story is for you and your now departed lover. Do not share it with anyone. Some things need to be held close. Sometimes, you just need to discipline yourself to listening, to the art of discerning what stories are yours to tell.
  7. Write naked. Being naked will help you to realize your oneness with nature, the singular way you experience the world, a bee alighting on a flower, then drifting away, an ass cheek’s tender feeling on the couch cushion. What if I reminded you that I want to hear everything you have to say about your life, the morning commute of four-way stops, the ads you heard on Spotify, the way your boss said you were doing well on the project, tell me the crumbs of joy you’ve collected. Share them with me, as we lie in our small bed, one morsel after another, both of us naked now, eating joy in the dark.
  8. Go to a party with a pen in hand, as Henry James did. Apparently he could get an entire chapter from a single evening spent in society, their silly chatter setting off a current in his mind. It is nice to eat sumptuous food and drink good wine while practicing your craft. The problem with life, as I’ve often said, is that we are not Henry James. So let’s get drunk at the party instead, and say outlandish things about people who aren’t in favor of universalizing health care and making education free. If we overdo it, we’ll send out those regret-filled apology texts the next morning, which we can collect as a future essay about this moment in history: apology texts after drinking: a memoir.
  9.  And in the morning, you can hold one side of the sheet, and I’ll hold the other, and we’ll walk towards each other until the sides are joined, the first step toward forgiveness for the way we are in the world, for the way the world is to us.
  10. Think about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Theologians used to sit around considering this very problem. But fuck those patriarchs. Let’s think of those angels, dancing free as birds, light burning through their wings as they twisted and turned, folded their bodies into shapes unimaginable, invented every style of dance that you’ve seen in your life, angels, dancing forever, improvising on the head of a pin, one or thousands of them, just like us, those goddamn fiery angels, improvising our fiery lives. 
  11. Walk out into the fields at night, where fireflies pierce the darkness as tiny torches flickering on and off. Smell the slightly dank mud from where the water gathers in low places, reflects bits of the night sky, stars. Look up into the darkness at the canvas of light, the infinitude of other places your configuration of atoms could be. But they are meant to be here, breathing in the night air, bare feet brushing the grass, and everything suddenly singing to you for the first time in months. Later, you’ll retrace your muddy steps back to the harbor of the porch light, then on into the quiet study, where you’ve left the blank white pages of your journal. Set your pen to a quiet scratching, something to memorialize this moment you returned to the life you almost abandoned, the life of a writer.
  12. Write a thousand words a day, every day. Or perhaps ten thousand. Edit up to three pages, which can also count as a thousand words. Write at least five-hundred words, but they needn’t be contiguous. Instead, they just need to be a collection of words as stars used to be before we imagined them into shapes, bears, and hunters. After all, we are, but bits of matter spun from the dust of stars spinning madly around in an ever-expanding universe, holding tightly to the fragments of our days, the smallest things, a flower blooming, a vote cast, a child suddenly smiling, a late-night call from an old friend that helps to hold up the swaying architecture of our lives. Lean into the creaks this old house makes in the wind of your life, gather up what little joys you can. There is a knock at the door, loud and resounding. You stand in the entryway, heart beating loudly, wondering who it could be. But who else could it be, but you. You’ve been waiting for this moment forever, the moment of embracing whatever comes next, one word, a thousand, a million, a novel, a line of poetry, an entry into the ever-widening script of your one blessed life. Write them all to your future self, who gazes adoringly from the dusty library out into the garden beyond, where a soft rain has begun to fall.

© Andrew Bertaina
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Andrew’s interview]