10 tips for writing (both about yourself and in general)

One of my favorite (and simultaneously most hated) qualities of pre-school-aged children is their tendency to be unintentionally blunt.


Over the past year, my daughter and her little parliament of classmates have called me out on being bald, wearing the same clothes every day and “having claws” (read: grossly unclipped toenails). More than a few have asked me why my belly is bigger than their daddies’ bellies. I’m forced to admit the truth: while their daddies run incredibly long distances for fun — a pastime I will never understand — my hobbies include lying on the couch, lying on the reclining chair, lying in bed and working out schematics for the model log cabin I’m planning to build with all the leftover hotdogs from my son’s birthday party.

Earlier this week, the apple of my eye point-blankedly told me I didn’t have a job. I said that wasn’t true, that I was a writer, to which she responded: “no, I mean a real job.” So I printed her a copy of my curriculum vitae. I still don’t think she was impressed — even after I let her check my references.

But it made me think. And I mean stop pondering the feasibility of frankfurter bun roofing panels for a second and really think. Was my daughter on to something? After all, she was right about the toenails.

Do I have a job? Can you call it a job if you do it in your pajamas (and, every once in a while, less than pajamas)? What if you get paid — as I once did (pretty well, too, actually) — to write jokes for Michael Winslow, the noises guy from “Police Academy?”?

Here’s the answer I came up with: who cares? The IRS considers what I do a job, and that’s all that really matters. Plus, I’ve spent the last 15 years doing it, at the expense of almost every other career I’ve started and subsequently quit to get back to writing (or unemployment, as I said, depending on your point of view).

Like it or lump it, I don’t know how to do anything else. But I do know a thing or two about stringing together words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into pages that illicit a reader’s response and, most months, pay the mortgage.

Anyway, I was recently asked to share some of this dubious expertise with students in a high school memoir writing class — an excellent experience, in all seriousness; those kids produced some surprisingly excellent writing.

Pertinent to all of this, I thought I’d share the ten tips I offered on writing about yourself and in general. You know, if you want to take advice from a guy who moved out of New York to become a professional writer:

1. Everyone has a story to tell; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to tell it. That might not be through writing at all. Sometimes, the best way is with music, or painting, or molecular gastronomy. However, since I know nothing about molecular gastronomy…

2. When you’re writing, just keep writing and don’t stop writing, ever. I’m not saying wear a diaper, but you know, if you’ve got an hour to write, spend that whole hour adding words to the page. Editing comes later, and that’s a whole other batch of tips.

3. Don’t drink and write. There’s a time and place for drinking — when you’re 21 for instance, and even then, not while you’re writing. In fact, be careful of anything you make part of your writing process. It took me 10 years to quit smoking cigarettes and on a heavy writing day, I still drink a good 300 ounces of coffee. Seriously, half my daily calorie intake comes through half n’ half. Don’t even ask what my Splenda habit’s like.

4. If you can’t beat it, work around it. There’s always a way around it — creative problem solving goes a long way to establishing “voice.”

5. The world has plenty of writers already, but it only has one “you.” Your experiences, Your perceptions of the life you lead and the world you live in — that’s the rest of what goes into “voice.” Also a trademark punctuation mark — mine’s the “dash;” I also like semi-colons.

6. Allow yourself the luxury of a crappy first draft. No one will ever see it but you (except maybe your wife, but honestly, it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before — and, she’s seen a lot worse).

7. Don’t set out to make your living as a writer. I learned that the hard way. Write because you love it, not because you’re trying to feed your family with it. In order to get good enough to actually earn money, you need to be able to try and fail and try and fail, and that’s frustrating enough from a creative standpoint, let alone if you’re trying to bring home the bacon or, for vegetarians, the tofu-based bacon substitute.

8. Show, don’t tell. Except graphic sex scenes. Those are next to impossible to write well, and believe me, I’ve tried.

9. Appeal to as many of the five senses as possible. More than any other artistic discipline writing is uniquely able to conjure sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. I wrote a short story once in which a jilted wife takes revenge on her ex-husband by stuffing sushi in all the curtain rods of the house leaving him to search in vain for the source of the worsening stench… Anyway, I’ll never forget what my MFA thesis advisor said: “Geoff, your writing smells.” To this day, that’s nicest compliment anyone’s paid me.

10. It’s a lot easier to make people laugh than to make them cry. The trick is doing both. When and if you master it, please teach me.

• “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff’s work, including the story about the sushi curtain rods, at www.geoffkirsch.com.


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