ARTS & CULTURE

How To Think Like A Writer

05/15/2014 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2014
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Writing isn't easy. In fact, it can be painfully difficult. Why? Because it's thinking, but on paper. "To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough.

Many great writers, including Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, have said that their purpose for putting words on paper is to find clarity with their thoughts, and have described the process of writing as one of becoming familiar with their own minds.

“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively," Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a 1958 letter. "For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order."

If you're a writer, then you're likely both devoted to your craft and eternally frustrated by it -- and even the most talented writers could use guidance from the greats on how to hone their powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing. Take a cue from the likes of Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and William Faulkner to get into your "writer's mind" and produce your best work.

Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits of great writers that might inspire you to think like a writer -- and to develop a writing practice that optimizes your creativity.

Study the greats.

Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway's novels in full, just to absorb the words -- he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.

Observe everything.

Marina Keegan, a brilliant young writer, died tragically just five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University. Her final essay for The Yale Daily News, "The Opposite Of Loneliness," went viral and attracted over 1 million views the week after it was published.

In her too-short career, Keegan mastered the art of observation -- perhaps a writer's greatest asset. Keegan wrote in her application to a first-person writing class at Yale:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That's what I call it. I'll admit it's become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter's hand gestures, to my cab driver's eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

Daydream.

joan didion

Daydreaming may get a bad rap -- but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, "Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?"

Write from your own truth.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez advised young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know.

"If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told," García Márquez said. "It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination."

Make writing your top priority.

henry miller

Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else.

"Write first and always," advises Miller. "Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards."

Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.

Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, "It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”

But for the writing to come, you may have to nudge it along by finding a consistent source of inspiration. Stein says her best ideas came to her while she was driving around in her car looking at cows. She would write for only 30 minutes a day, driving around a farm and stopping at different cows until she found the one that most fit her mood.

Know what you're getting yourself into.

Want to live the writer's life? Great. But make sure you're not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Find space for solitude.

zadie smith

Zadie Smith wrote in a list of rules for writers, "Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is."

Particularly, Smith noted, the place where you write must be one of solitude. "Protect the time and space in which you write," Smith writes. "Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you."

Psychoanalyze yourself.

If you're stumped for writing material or unsure of whether you have enough life experience to draw from, try taking a little walk down memory lane. As Flannery O'Connor put it, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.

When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it's easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there's only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

In her book of advice on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains that writers have to learn to take their projects one baby step at a time. The Traveling Mercies author writes:

My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

And with your novel-in-progress or next big feature? Take it bird by bird.

Compete against only yourself.

william faulkner

William Faulkner described the artist as a "creature driven by demons," perpetually dissatisfied with his own work. While this dissatisfaction is to a certain degree inevitable (and productive), it can be kept in check by refusing to compare your work to that of others.

"[The writer] must never be satisfied with what he does," Faulker told The Paris Review in 1956. "It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself."

Just do it.

Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: "Read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."

And do it with joy.

As Joyce Carol Oates advised in rules number 1 and 10 on her list of rules for writers (disseminated via Twitter), "Write your heart out."

Amen to that.

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