Things Lead to Things: A Pep Talk
This advice comes in a thousand different flavors:
If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
The world is run by those who show up.
You have to spend money to make money.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Nothing comes from nothing.
In other words, whatever it is you are hoping for (writing a kick-ass essay, going on a date with a cutie-patootie, enjoying the bounty of your garden), your participation is required.
I heard this advice secondhand from a friend recently. We were commiserating about how being a writer can sometimes feel like shouting into the void. You send out submissions and wait weeks, even months on end, to hear back, and when you do, it’s almost always a form letter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It leaves one feeling rather powerless and a little glum.
My friend told me, then, the advice that someone had given her: things lead to things. So get out there. The serendipitous connection that ends with seeing your poem in print? That fabulous lecture that sparks an idea for your next screenplay? The at-long-last request from an agent to see the full manuscript? These ‘things’ are quite impossible unless you are out there doing something—following up on that off-handed remark about a new poetry anthology, attending lectures just for the heck of it, sending out queries one after another.
It turns out a lot of tried-and-true writing advice is, at its heart, a variation on this theme:
The most heart-touching, world-changing, or side-splitting of essays will touch no hearts, change no worlds, and split no sides if abandoned halfway through the first draft.
To write about things, you have to think about things. Curiosity is your friend.
Learn to write by writing.
As much as the writing life can feel a bit lonely—passive, even—it is really quite an action-packed existence. Writers show up and keep showing up. We may feel awkward as hell sending an email to that friend-of-a-friend who is also a writer, but the email gets sent, by gum. We may need to do some serious screwing up of the old courage before popping into a “hang-out space” at the conference, but in we go. We may be cranking out writing that is chaotic and formless, but it is material.
Because nothing comes from nothing. The unasked cannot be granted. Et cetera. If there’s going to be a poem, a play, an essay, a memoir, then someone has to show up, invest, take that single step onto the thousand-mile road. Someone has to do things that lead to things. And that ‘someone’ is you. Get to it.