“Write your heart out.“
Joyce Carol Oates cited this quote several times during a talk at Stanford. You could certainly say she’s followed Bernard’s advice: she’s written close to 100 novels, novellas, poetry collections, and children’s books. How does she do it? She never starts with a story idea in mind. Instead, she always begins with characters and a setting that she treats like a character with its own personality.
When it comes to getting to know your characters, Joyce had some juicy advice: Start by creating two characters, then have them talk to each other on paper and just listen. If you do this for a short time, she says, nothing much will happen. But if you stay with it for two hours, you’ll have something you can use.
Staying with it, that’s key says Joyce. That’s what seasoned writers do and what inexperienced writers can’t or won’t do. Whenever Joyce starts a new novel, the first six weeks of writing is like hell and she’s miserable. Nothing seems to be coming together and it’s very frustrating. While a novice might simply quit at that point, Joyce observes, a seasoned veteran knows enough to push past the discomfort and discouragement and keep writing until something valuable emerges from all the seeming confusion.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Serious writers stay with their work through thick and thin; novices can’t take the heat and quit before they really get started. Every day when we write, we face the same choice: do we wrestle with the page or do we surrender to it? Do we keep working over that paragraph until it sparkles or do we just go with what we’ve got? Do we work through that thorny revision or look for something easier to work on? Do we push ourselves to grow or stay where we are? Let’s be seasoned veterans. Let’s ask ourselves this question at the end of every work session: Did I write my heart out?