In the late 1950s, Jack Kerouac typed out a list of thirty points describing his writing practice in a piece titled “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials.” Some of it makes solid sense — “4. Be in love with yr life” — others are a kind of enjoyable nonsense – “11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest.”
Following this tradition, I humbly offer my own thirty points for prose. I have gathered these thoughts from mentors, fellow writers and my own disjointed thinking. Many of these ideas have been better worded by wiser writers than me, but I’ve avoided quoting. If you’re interested, look to the words of Rilke, Lew Welch, Thomas Merton, Kerouac, Dagoberto Gilb and Tim O’Brien, to name a few.
2. Don’t think. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Type so hard you bruise the screen.
3. Now think.
4. Revise. Revise. Revise. Cut. Cut. Cut. Rewrite. It is the sweat of craft.
5. Don’t always know what your images mean.
6. Do always know what your sentences mean.
8. Writing takes time. Don’t find the time to write. Make the time. If necessary, abandon sleep, people, television and drink.
9. Treat writing like a hobby and you will receive nothing but the fruits of a hobby. It’s a vocation. Honor it as such.
10. Don’t say you’re trying to be a writer. If you’re writing then you are a writer. Publication is nice, but has nothing to do with the definition.
11. Love rejection. In letters, in criticism, in sales. Rejection is evidence you are in the game. If you’re striking out, it means you got up to bat.
12. Drink and talk with those that write and create, but never mistake talking about writing for actual writing.
13. Love solitude.
14. Celebrate arrogance. You’re calling yourself a writer, for godsake. Embrace it.
15. A person can only read so many words in a lifetime. Your reader is choosing to read you instead of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Whitman. Humbly honor that and give them the best of your soul.
16. Do not write from answers. Write from questions. Discover more questions. Our work is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it.
17. The craft of the sentence is important. But a perfectly crafted sentence with no passion is a well-dressed corpse.
18. For a writer, the Internet is more dangerous than whisky.
19. Whisky is pretty dangerous, too.
20. Write what you know is bullshit. Reach beyond what you know, grasp for what is beyond your reach.
21. The best fiction is magnificent failures. So fail magnificently.
22. If your story isn’t worth telling a stranger in a bar, it’s not worth writing.
24. Laugh out loud at your own written words. Even in public… Especially in public.
25. If you discover nothing while writing, don’t expect your reader to.
26. Dream onto the page. I mean dream in every sense of the word. Wishing. Fantasizing. And the unconscious game of your unthought thoughts bubbling into fragmented memories and shaping a narrative with elements of your life, but in a completely unexpected order and relationship.
27. Live well. If your life is dull, it will seep into your pages like a stench. Take long walks. Get lost. Read. Read. Look foolish. Kiss people on the mouth.
28. If you write because you believe the world needs you, you’ll soon discover we don’t. If you write because you are so naturally talented you must, you’ll soon discover you are not. If you write for money… I’m chuckling at you. None of these reasons will sustain you. Listen. Are you called to write? Then write.
29. You are going to die. So are all your readers. Let this inform every story you write.
30. Writing is both holy and meaningless. That’s all the pressure and freedom you need.