David Milch on writing and God

“When you are not writing, you’re going to be sad. You are going to feel inadequate. You are going to feel untalented. You are going to feel incompetent. It’s crucially important to understand that the impulse to write is a reaching out to God.”

—David Milch, creator of Deadwood and so much more, in a presentation at the WGA Theater, 2001

WFMAD Day 5 – Suckitude plus Confusion


Let me expand on yesterday’s remarks about the suckitude that often pours onto the page in the early stage of a writing project.

I’m going to use the writing of WINTERGIRLS as an example.


When I was first fumbling around with the first draft, I knew that I wanted to write about what it feels like to be trapped in an eating disorder. That was all I knew. I did a lot of free writing –  letting words trickle down my arm and drip on the page. This is one of the first things I wrote, exactly as I wrote it:

“One graham cracker, broken into four pieces.

Sixteen grams of dry, yellow cheese.

Seven grapes.


What did that mean? I had no idea. I was at the Suckitude PLUS Confusion stage of First Draft Writing. Earlier in my writing career, I would have obsessed about those four lines and tried to squeeze them into dialog or develop a scene around them, or waste several hours rearranging them on the page like Christmas decorations on a tree.

But it was an ever-so-slightly wiser me who wrote those four lines. They felt like they were getting closer to the voice of the main character, but I knew that I wasn’t there yet. I kept writing. And then this popped out of my brain:

“They say, “Eat this Camille. Eat this please eat please just this please little bit.”


They are vultures stalking me, wings folded neatly behind them, pink throats studded with white hairs like porcupine quills, thick beaks built for tearing flesh.

They want to snatch a bite – from my calf, maybe, or the inside of my arm – tug the meat from the bone, rip it free and fly away with their treasure.

It is very hard to kill a vulture.”

Except for the fact that I still hadn’t nailed down the name of the main character, and that the last line was unnecessary chicken poo, this felt better. But there was a problem: I had absolutely no idea what it meant or what the heck was going on with the character as she whispered those words to me.

I was confused. And quite sure (again) that I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag. But I kept scribbling. A lot of what I wrote was awful and every once in a while a few lines would appear that felt real. Eventually, I had a bunch of pages that I called the first draft. Here is Page One:

Meh. Underwhelming, tho’ it has many of the elements that made it in the final book. I kept muttering to myself and writing. The second draft wasn’t much better than the first. But the third draft had some life in, enough so that when I reread it from start to finish, I could finally see the direction the story wanted to go. I scribbled all over that draft. See?

A lot of this material wound up moving to the second page in the final draft, but it was at this point – months and months after I started work on the project, that I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. Those lines about the graham cracker and dry cheese were thrown out. The section about being surrounded by stalking birds, hungry to eat her (I changed them from vultures to crows) wound up belonging on pages 264-265 in the final book – about 10 pages from the end of the story.

My point is this: judging your work early in the process or being afraid to write or quitting because you know what you’ve written is chicken poo, or you have no idea what any of it means is ridiculous. Part of the fun of writing is figuring out what it means. It is exciting and gratifying to revise chicken poo into strong storytelling.


Pablo Picasso said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”


Turn off your phone and television.

Today’s prompt:

Choose one of Picasso’s images to study. Write about the person that he painted in the image. Don’t try to make sense of what you write. Just listen to the still, small voice inside. Go weird, dear friends. Venture outside your comfort zone.

Scribble…. Scribble…. Scribble!!

WFMAD Day 4 – The Big Secret of Writing

I could get in a lot of trouble for this.

The Author’s Guild might send ninja zombies to my house. My agent might draw a line through my name in her Big Book. She’ll use my blood for ink. SCBWI will throw my membership card into the ocean. No one will return my calls.

But you guys are all putting your heart into WFMAD. I hear your stress, feel the twangy nerves that vibrate like overtightened cat guts on a battered violin. By now you are figuring out that simply writing for 15 minutes a day will not transform your writing or your life.

At least, it won’t transform those things quickly.

And you are doubting yourself. Your resolve is failing. There are so many other things to do: that job that pays you every week, or family that needs your love and the car needs an oil change or email has piled up or laundry or you need to exercise, and the dog’s nails have to be clipped and your coupons need organizing…

This is why I have to tell you the Secret.

(No, not the Secret Weapon, Sherlock. That’s for another post.)

The Secret of Writing is this: most of the time, your writing is going to suck. Nothing personal, don’t look at me like that. This pertains to ALL writers. Everywhere. And me. Especially me.

The writing that gets turned into a book is usually pretty good when it finally gets to the Magical Book Stage. That’s because the author has busted her butt to make it so. That first draft? It sucked. The second one? A little better, but not by much.

This means that most of the time an author is working on her book, she does so in the full knowledge that at that precise moment, it is pretty crappy. Not a comfortable feeling. But it’s one you can get used to, kind of the like the discomfort that comes when you are stretching your hamstrings. You know it won’t kill you, you wish it didn’t hurt, but it does, so you deal with it and keep stretching.

It is OK if what you write today is a steaming heap of chicken poo. Because this is not a test. It is your imagination sticking a shovel in the ground of your soul and trying to unearth something. If the shovel raises a couple of blisters, are you going to quit? I sure hope not. It is possible to have the voice in your head telling you that your writing sucks…. and IGNORE it. I do. Every day up until the point when the book I’ve worked on for months and months and months is finally ready to be published I hear that inner critic. Because until the very, very end, the book is kind of awful. Until I finish the work. Then it’s not so awful any more.

That’s when I write another book.

My Writing Process = First Draft of Inspiration and Suckitude divided by ((revision + craft)) x 6 drafts).

It’s OK if what you are writing today is not of the quality to be published tomorrow. It means you are human, which gives you permission to write about the human condition. You’ll make it better when you revise, trust me. Just keep writing.

Any questions?


David Almond once said in an interview “Don’t think about doing it or talk about doing it. Do it. Don’t think everything you write has to be good. It can’t be, so feel free to write rubbish. We all know that writing can be difficult, serious, burdensome, etc., but it is also a form of play. So enjoy yourself, and play: doodle and scribble, experiment with possibilities.”

Turn off your phone. Lock the door.

Today’s prompt:

1. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. Put them in front of you.

2. You are going to read a poem as fast as you can. You are not reading for meaning or enlightenment. You are trolling for words. (You’ll find a link to the poem I want you to use below.)

3. As you read the poem, write down 3 – 5 words or phrases in it that resonate inside you. I don’t care why you choose those words. But find the ones that make your antennae wiggle.

3a. If you can’t find at least 3 words on the first read-through, read it a second time, but you have to read it out loud. You’ll feel it when a word has some weight that your Muse wants you to explore.

4. Write for 15 minutes about those words. You can weave them into a story, stick them in a character’s mouth, or riff on the memories those words evoke in you.

Use this poem: “Completely Friday” by Luis García Montero, translated by Katie King.


WFMAD Day 3 – Taste the fiction

Day Three! Judging from your comments, some of you guys are pounding away at the keys…. some of you are having trouble finding your keyboard.

Remember. You have PERMISSION to write this month. Maybe I should change that. You are REQUIRED to write at least 15 minutes a day for the rest of the month. Does it make it easier if I turn it into a demand instead of a suggestion?

Steven King,  in On Writing, says “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” It’s the discomfort of that scary moment that keeps you from starting. As we say around the Forest, pull up your big-girl pants and get on with it.

To help you prepare to battle your fears, I filmed the following video in my Forest this weekend.

Enjoy the following Summer Moment of Zen as you settle in to write.


Turn off your phone. Disconnect from the Internet.

Today’s prompt: Writing in short chunks like 15 minute blocks can feel a bit awkward unless you are already deep in a project. I find that it helps a lot to start a piece of writing in a memory and let it roll from there into fiction.

When you are nice and relaxed from the sound of the rushing stream above (or you have returned from the bathroom because the sound of the water made you aware of a rather pressing need) take a moment to remember the breakfasts you ate in the summertime as a child. Was it a bowl of cold cereal eaten in front of cartoons? Pancakes at your grandfather’s house? Bug juice and toast at summer camp? Cold pizza with your big brother home from college? Your first cup of coffee as a teenager, trying to impress someone?

Write down the memory – quickly. Then add in as many details as your remember until you tap the memory dry.

THEN… add details that you can’t remember. Embellish. Put in the pattern of the curtains, or the grease on the window, or the lonesome sneaker on top of the refrigerator.

Bonus points: Have a fictional character walk up in the scene and join you. What will she eat? Why? How long is she staying? And why is she in conflict with the rest of the people in the scene? Show the conflict. Taste the eggs. Spill the juice.


WFMAD Day 2 – Why Not?

Yay! You did it!! Thank you SO MUCH for joining our band of merry scribblers and a special big thanks to everyone who commented here on the official blog, as well as on LJ and FaceBook. It was a thrill to hear how Day One went for you.

Well, how it went for most of you.

Today is traditionally the day I get email from people who heard about the WFMAD challenge late and are bummed they didn’t start on Day One. In keeping with our Pirate Code of Writing, I absolve thee. Start today. Start now. (Well, finish reading the blog entry, then start.)

One of the hardest truths about pursing an artistic dream is that it is wicked hard to make the time that artistic discipline requires.  It doesn’t matter how many how-to books you read, or writers’ blogs you follow, the best way to become a better writer is to write more. Preferably daily. That’s why I am cajoling you guys to do this Every Single Day. It is officially A Big Honking Deal to convince your brain that this is a habit you want to establish.

Read yesterday’s comments and get excited by what your fellow warrior writers wrote about their own paths.

Turn off your phone. Disconnect from the Internet.

Today’s prompt The easiest thing to do in the world is NOT to write. We are our own agents of sabotage and we are quite good at it. Write down all the things that get in the way of your writing time. Start by writing the incidents as a list. When you come across one of your acts of sabotage that is particularly vivid, write it out in detail. Once you have it written as a scene, insert the character of your Muse. How does She react to playing second fiddle to things like shampooing the dog or folding socks or the latest mind-numbing favorite TV show?