The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Having Something to Say and Saying It

06/04/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

My friend, Eric Bryan, recently pointed out that I re-post a lot of articles about writing on social media, articles with tips from how to structure your writing time to overcoming self-doubt to plotting your novel, but rarely do these essays touch on perhaps the most important aspect of the writing life: having something to say.

It's a point well taken. While having something to say might seem like a given for a writer, it's a given that's sometimes bypassed, especially by those who are more in love with the idea of being a writer and being published than actually writing. And, frankly, it's easy for even the geekiest of us writing geeks to get swept up by latest "five secrets to writing a bestseller" article on our Facebook feed and forget that the best articles and writing guidebooks in the world won't help us if we don't have something to say. Or if we aren't loyal to what we have to say.

I see this sometimes in academia: Scholars who stop writing because they find they don't have that much to say about their field or they didn't have that much to say to begin with. At institutions where a lot of emphasis for promotion -- for better or for worse -- is placed on publication, this leads to a great deal of frustration. The good news is it's not hard to re-discover what you want to say; you just have to do some digging.

I also see it in writers who get blocked, who hit a writing wall, especially young writers, because they're second guessing themselves, or not being loyal to what they want to say. They're not writing that memoir they've been wanting to write because they've heard memoir is passé unless you're a celebrity, or they've shelved that post-apocalyptic novel because they've heard no one is buying post-apocalyptic novels any more. They're stuck; they're not writing because, paralyzed by the whims of the market, they don't know what to write.

First, guessing trends or even thinking about the market at this point can be a dangerous move. For practical reasons, if zombie novels start to trend and you jump on the bandwagon, by the time, you finish your book and pitch it to agents, the market will be saturated with them. Too late for you. You really have to write what you need to write about, say what you need to say, and let the chips fall where they will. Over time you will accumulate a body of work, some of which you will publish regardless of industry trends, because it's writing that came from your heart, from what you needed to say.

Case in point: My friend, Robin Becker, wrote a fantastic zombie novel, Brains, because that was the novel she felt called to write at the time. She wasn't thinking about the market. But after she finished and polished it and added it to her considerable body of work, guess what had just started to trend? The rest is history.

Thomas Mann famously said, "A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for most people." For the most part, I think this is true, or at least it's true when we're laboring to get the words just right, to make something from nothing. Imagine how hard it is when our hearts are not in it.

The good news is your heart probably is in it, 100 percent. You probably have a lot to say. You just have to give yourself permission to say it. No words written are ever lost. Even if you end up putting those first few novels in a drawer, they will serve, even accelerate, your growth as a writer.

But most importantly, giving yourself permission to write what you need to write will, eventually, lead you to the next thing you need to write. Maybe not right away -- sometimes after you finish a big project you need to let the well fill up -- but soon enough.

That's how it works.

One more case in point. My son is a beginning cellist with aspirations to make it a career. He recently met with another cellist in the region, Stephen Feldman, -- who has since become his teacher -- for advice on how to begin this long path. One of the things Dr. Feldman stressed was that my son needed to be pursuing music for the love of doing it, for the love of expressing himself through this instrument -- not for the money, or for the accolades, or the visions of glory because none of those things -- even if he was one of the lucky few who were fortunate to attain them -- would ultimately sustain him for the long haul.

As I sat and listened, I knew I had brought my son to the right person. It was the same advice I would give an aspiring writer.

Some of what you write may see publication. Some of it won't. But you can't think of that when you're doing it, when you're getting it down, when it's just you and the instrument.

But you must have something to say. And you must give yourself permission to say it.