Starting Over

Starting a new book is like learning to drive manual transmission: it’s all about getting into first gear. And even though a writer may have cruised along in fifth to the end of any number of novels before, each new one is like learning to drive all over again.

I’ve been jack-rabbiting, stalling, and crawling forward on a new book for some time, now. Mostly, I’ve been taking notes for my current project while I’ve rewritten and finished two other novels, one published and one currently with an agent. So now it’s time to take all those notes and ideas and relearn how to coordinate the clutch and the gear stick and get writing again.

            I have developed a process. First, I play computer Solitaire until I see spades in my dreams. Then I clean cupboards. Sometimes, I snap at my love ones, and other times I dissolve into tears. Eventually, I start walking. A hundred or so miles later, I overcome my resistance enough to sit down at my desk. That’s when I pull out my driver’s manual: Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, originally published in 1938, republished in 1987, and still filled with timeless advice.

For one, Ueland writes as if she’s talking to you personally, and when you’re locked in the solitude and – yes, loneliness, sometimes – of trying to channel an entire fictive world, it’s wonderfully comforting to have a down-to-earth companion by your side.

Next, Ueland believes everyone can write; she should know: she taught writing to all-comers for years, and gives examples of how good writing arises not from education or erudition, but from the writer’s inner truth and honesty – the world observed from her point of view. Ueland believes that everyone is talented and has something to say.

Ueland also says the imagination works slowly and should be given room to roam. “Resign yourself tranquilly to doing something slow and worthless for at least an hour.”  This alleviates some of my guilt and self-loathing about playing computer Solitaire.

Just like life happens while you’re making other plans, Ueland is a big believer that the “little bombs” of imagination burst while you’re doing other things, like “sewing, or carpentering, or whittling, or playing golf, or dreamily washing dishes.”

Ueland says, writing “is just talking on paper.” Long before Natalie Goldberg taught us about Writing Down The Bones, Ueland advocated  free-writing. Before Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way, Ueland instructed us to write daily without looking at what we had to say. Don’t get me wrong: Goldberg and Cameron have done us wonderful service, and encouragement to write bears reiteration. There is something especially encouraging, however, about this strong-minded, mid-Western woman from the last century speaking these plain truths.

With Ueland’s encouragement, I’ve been able to sit down again, find my voice, and start over. I’ve succeeded into first gear, and have just shifted into second: still moving slowly, but definitely moving forward and thinking about my characters and narrative so intently that the fate of my other novel hardly matters. For the moment, that book is finished. All that matters now is the one unrolling before me. As I gather speed and shift up, all I can do is keep my eyes on the road.

Even with experience, this is harder than it sounds. But I have learned that writing a novel is like a long car-ride. There may be breakdowns, detours, road construction, and accidents. But there may also be chance meetings, beautiful vistas, and unexpected adventures.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed. I could get lost; I may have to backtrack; I may even drive past my exit and have to delete pages and pages of text. This is okay. My experience has taught me faith in perseverance. It’s perseverance that fuels the novelist – eventually – to “The End.”

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website:

43 thoughts on “Starting Over

  1. Ueland’s book is one of my all-time favorites. In fact, it’s sitting on my desk within arm’s reach right now. I love her down-to-earth style. It’s so comforting, while at the same time delivers just the kick in the ass I need sometimes. Such a treasure. 🙂

    • Yes, “comforting” is it, isn’t it? She’s like a maiden aunt, or a mother’s friend – one of those older, wiser women who can push aside the small insecurities and show you what really matters.
      Thanks for writing,

  2. Very useful comments! I recognize all those characteristics! I am almost to the middle of novel #3; I really like the way #2 came out, and this is a sequel, perhaps 2nd in series of 3. My fear is that I won’t be able to find the magic I found in #3. Like you, I walk when I run out of ideas or motivation. I started walking 15 months ago at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 17 miles from my house. Three months later I saw something there which started me on #2, set in that very place. I went on over a hundred walks there while writing #2, pretty aggressive physically, most of the time alone. After I had been over the late mortgage payment, the lack of business in the pipeline, the drought, and every other imaginable problem in my mind, it would finally empty, and the characters would begin to emerge, and tell me more of the story. It was kind of a magical experience.

    • Walking! The greatest gift to a writer! Something about the rhythm of it, the fresh air, the chance to let your mind freewheel. It’s while I’m walking that I “hear voices.” My characters speak to me, or my narrator does.
      Thanks for writing – and good luck!

  3. I have been ordering the books you mentioned as I read your post! The line about giving imagination and creativity time to roam rellay struck a chord! Right now I’m at a breakdown with a short story I have, that might present itself as a novel and I have never driven a novel before-to stay in car terms 😉

    • Anja,
      I hope you’re finding the books I review here helpful. As for ending up in the breakdown lane: I know there are supposed to be mechanical fixes for things like cars and computers; in my experience, I’ve often discovered that just leaving them alone for a while inexplicably allows them to mend themselves. Sometimes putting a manuscript away for a while is beneficial. You return to it with new eyes.
      Thanks for writing,

  4. I’m not a professional writer. Be careful of long sentences. Proofread your material. Eliminate extra “the” “and” etc —when it is not needed. Reread sentence over and maybe rework it.

    At one time, many years ago, At 82 — I typed pages over and over, until I got what I wanted. I am fascinated by words, and use dictionary and/or computer.

    charles.charles.hicelebanonoh@ gmail
    No one can rightly criticize your writing—unless they pay for it.

    Do not pay anyone to print your work. You can do it yourself on computer, kindle, etc.

    I do not receive mail on wordpress because I have not paid for dot com.

  5. I just started reading Ueland for the second time, and it’s obvious why it’s on every writer’s reference shelf. I love her writing. She’s human, funny and comes at writing with such a winning attitude that you can’t help but believe you can do it, too. Even though you occasionally hit the outdated expression (“gives you the pip”), it’s a timeless work.

    • Yes, yes, yes! I love those outdated expressions – and the whole glimpse into the mid-Western lives of Ueland’s students. Makes the book very novelesque and human, don’t you think?
      Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  6. I haven’t read Ueland’s book but it sounds like a good one. I like the way you have compared the process of writing a new novel to a road trip–very accurate, I think. I will put that book on my list to read. Thanks.

  7. Thank you for the great advice/reminders. I love love love the part about allowing yourself to do something slow and useless for an hour. In this world, where I sometimes feel like I have a mac truck riding my tail and honking, its good to remember that.

    • Virginia Woolf advocated daydreaming. That Mac truck belongs on the interstate; I think you’re more likely to find your imagination on a back road.
      Thanks for writing,

  8. Thank you for your insight. I am seeing where road blocks and detours have helped me run out of gas to ignite my imagination. Lately I haven’t had time to free write, which after reading your post, I am realizing I really need to get back into the habit of getting lost putting words on paper.

    • Yes! “Getting lost” is so important in discovering both what’s central and what’s quirky in your world – and therefore what’s worth writing about. Thanks for writing, and good luck! Deborah.

  9. Someone dear to me is questioning their writing ability after being shot down pretty roughly by an editor, I’m going to forward your post to them. EVERYone has talent and something to say, Thank You – that’s what I’ve been trying to tell them!
    I hope this will encourage them to come out of discouragement and to keep trying. This was a fantastic post, you definitely have a follower here!

    • Ueland calls critics “haters” and writers “lovers.” She also refers to the poet William Blake throughout the book. He says, “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” (one of his Proverbs of Hell). I hope your friend can recovers her/his voice.
      Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  10. Really enjoyed this post. I’m just in the process of teaching my son to drive, and trying to put myself on the road as some kind of writer too – so it connects all the way around!
    Thank you.

    • Brave woman! Teaching my kids to drive was my all-time least favorite parenting task. But they’re all good drivers now, and I was going to get gray hair anyway. Best wishes for your journey by pen. And thanks for writing,

  11. Deborah, this entire post could be summed up for me in that one wonderful sentence: “Writing is just talking on paper.” For me, a speed typist, it is talking through my fingers on the keyboard. Love this post and so pleased with all your gleanings from Ueland!

    • Granbee,
      Like you, I love being able to keep up with my thoughts through my fingers. Do you ever deliberately slow yourself down with a pen? I do. It’s always lovely to read your comments to my posts. Thanks, Deborah.

  12. My mother gave me this book as a birthday gift, and I’ve loved it every since. It is so pure, nonjudgmental, and gentle. Writers are highly-sensitive souls, and I found Ueland’s tone to be deliberately caring, and I really appreciated that.

  13. Wow, you are so so right! I’m writing a book proposal for a school assignment, but seeing as I just graduated from university with my BA, I’m so used to writing academic papers that writing creatively has kind of gone by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done short bits that sort of just came to me at random and my fingers started typing whatever my brain had come up with… but actually FINISHING something is another thing entirely. And don’t even get me started on the writer’s block! It’s been kind of terrible…I spent the last three days reading cheesy fanfiction so to avoid writing my proposal… and now my deadline’s looking at me with a sneer. I have a feeling certain stresses in one’s life can also be partially responsible for creative blocks like this. Anyway, this blog entry helped me feel somewhat less guilty about ‘wasting time’ and reminds me that THINKING over the idea can be kind of a time consuming process…. along with ‘procrastinating’.

    • One of the things I like is that Ueland doesn’t just advocate what she calls “moodling” – but she seems to suggest that doing the laundry or some other useful household task is actually an important part of the writing cycle. So, if I don’t get any words down on the page (or into pixels), but I have hung out the wash, have I really been wasting my time?
      Thanks for writing – and good luck! Deborah.

    • Umm,
      You are absolutely correct: many of these writing classics have at their core the simple yet complex message: just write. Definitely write without your critic looking over your shoulder. The critic must be banished during the initial phase of letting the imagination run wild. S/he will have plenty of opportunity when it comes to shaping and honing your work.
      Thanks for writing – and good luck. Deborah.

  14. You appear unstable. Thank you. I feel normal now. 🙂
    I am on my first book. You are way ahead of me and every time I listen to or read another author’s thoughts on the process, what they go through, how they cope, or admit to their quirky little habits that move them to end point, it makes me feel sooooo much better!

    I do crytograms and jigsaw puzzles. When I’m doing them, I always repeat the same thing to myself, “Laura – if you can put these pieces together, you can do the same for your stories.” It’s mindless, but not-so-mindless.

  15. I am in the first gear. I try but i cannot just compile up the things. They are just scattered. I think i should try solatire first…haha… thanks for wonderful words…

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