“Hi, Sean,” the message began, “please tell me, how do you come up with something to write about? I write a column for my school paper, and I don’t have any ideas. I am 13, my mom has breast cancer, and it’s been crazy lately at my house. I like to write, but I always come up blank and never have any new ideas. Thanks.”
Dear Kid, I’m going to let you in on a secret about professional writers. None of us have any new ideas. Moreover, you don’t need ideas to be a writer. You don’t even need to hav gud gramer. I am a prime example.
I think the problem is, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Pressure will constipate you, my friend. Pressure is the government cheese of the literary world.
In school, we are all exposed to a lot of good books, with the exception of “Lord of the Flies.” Our English teachers are constantly exposing us to classic literature, and this can be intimidating to young writers.
“How am I ever going to write anything like THAT?” young writers often immediately ask themselves after reading the ceremonious hell that is “Moby Dick.”
The short answer is, you won’t. You will never write the next “Moby Dick.” And you wouldn’t want to because—don’t tell anyone I said this—“Moby Dick” is the worst book ever written.
If you want to know what it’s like to be a professional writer, it’s simple: Go milk a cow.
Bear with me while I explain.
I grew up around country people. My uncle had dairy cows. One time I lived with my uncle for a summer. I had no choice but to live with my uncle during this particular summer because I had recently been accused of setting off a cherry bomb in the girl’s restroom toilet at the Methodist church during VBS. I was innocent, of course.
While living at my uncle’s house, I had to do farm chores. One of my chores was learning to milk cows.
The first thing you learn when milking a cow is that you have to be calm when you approach all cows. You need a mild manner when dealing with a 1,300-pound Holstein who has bowel movements bigger than you.
My uncle reminded me of this as he ushered me toward an animal that was roughly the size of the Jefferson Memorial.
“No sudden movements,” said my uncle, “or Barbara will kill you.”
Barbara mooed at me. She was about as excited at the prospect of getting milked by a 10-year-old boy as she would have been about having unanesthetized surgery.
So there I was. Holding an empty bucket. It was cold. The air smelled of hay and manure. Barbara was looking at me with big eyes. She was groaning.
I’ll never forget my uncle gave me some advice before I started. He said, “Don’t concentrate on filling up the bucket, the bucket will take care of itself. Just get a good squeeze on the teat.”
I gripped the teats. I yanked and pulled. When I finally got it right, a stream of milk shot from Barbara’s udder and made a high-pitched noise in the bucket. I was thrilled.
My uncle just looked at me and smiled. He said, “Great work. Now do that six million times.”
My morning lasted approximately as long as law school, and I never filled the bucket more than halfway. When I finished, I was exhausted, my hands hurt, my back was sore, and I had lost the will to go on.
This is writing.
So the best advice I have is this: Don’t think too much about writing the best piece of literature ever. Don’t worry about having good ideas. Don’t think about impressing anyone.
Just sit on your tiny stool. Warm up your hands. Be calm. Be diligent. Be honest. And concentrate on getting a good squeeze on the udder. Before you know it, boom, there’s your column.
Stay in touch, friend. Your mother is in my prayers.
Linda Halfpop - January 26, 2023 6:41 am
Sean, you make me laugh out loud in a pure guffaw! I’m Italian married to a German 14 years now. We live in a small town in Iowa, population 722… I think it’s a thriving metropolis. Hubby has stage 4 rectal cancer diagnosed 2 years ago. He’s on chemo every 2 weeks. Still has his hair, but thinning…it’s long, he won’t cut it. Says it’s his badge ( he’s an ex Marine) I tell him he looks like an old testament prophet…he likes that. I had to quit my job as a paraeducator for special Ed students. I now do all the chores alone…cleaning the bathroom 3X a day because of his accidents and washing dishes all day because we don’t have a dishwasher. I love the hell out of this man. He took care of me when I had back surgery 5 years ago. I’ve got 2 rods in my back so going to the cellar to do wash takes all week it seems. Thanks for listening…keep making me laugh, I love it!
Jan - March 21, 2023 10:22 pm
Bless you Linda!
Debbie Kyser - January 26, 2023 6:48 am
I liked you before, but now love you after saying “Moby Dick” was the worst book ever written. I concur and suffered through this just to say I’d completed this “Classic.”
Susie - January 26, 2023 3:49 pm
Proud to say I never read Moby Dick. Lol
Tim - January 26, 2023 8:23 am
“Call me Ismael”…
Moby Dick would’ve been a funnier read if Herman Melville had started of with,
“My name is Ismael”, instead, because then it could’ve gone more like,
“My name is Earl”.
Although, I don’t think that they had laugh tracks 165 years ago, so not so sure how the “National Harpoon” scenes would’ve went over.
Cm - January 26, 2023 8:34 am
Another good one among many more good ones!
Dolores - January 26, 2023 11:14 am
To the upcoming writer, be observant of ordinary people and ordinary life. You’ll find those two things don’t exist. And you’re probably discovering that about now as your Mom deals with her current battle.
All young folks would benefit from keeping a journal. It requires you think back on your day and process what happened: the good, the bad, the funny and so on. Did you make good or bad choices? Did you learn anything new? What made you laugh? You only have to write a few sentences or perhaps a paragraph. Don’t worry if some days there’s nothing to write.
Like Sean says, mundane tasks are great times for thinking. Maybe you mow the lawn as I do. That’s a great time to think. Do you walk the dog? If it’s safe, take a walk and think. Daydream.
In order to write you have to stay inside your head a lot. Not just thinking; it means being a good listener. Don’t talk so much, you miss a lot if you do. Let your words flow out on paper. Make time to write even if it means getting up a little early. You’ll find there’s a best time of day to write (for you). The thesaurus is your friend.
Writing for your school column is a great start. People love to talk about themselves. Ask to ‘interview’ folks, just tell them you’re an aspiring writer needing practice. People like to help more than you think. Don’t gossip about your subjects or judge: they can remain anonymous if they wish. Sometimes the quiet ones, the ones no one notices have the best stories. Observe and listen.
Please know many of the readers of Sean’s column are praying for your Mom’s complete recovery.
Susie - January 26, 2023 3:52 pm
Wonderful advise for this young writer, Delores. Thank you from me.
Jeanne - January 26, 2023 11:43 am
Many writers and standup comedians tell stories about life’s experiences! Be like Sean and Andy Andrews…be a Noticer!
Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 26, 2023 12:34 pm
Dear Sean, I too am an aspiring writer, and I understand this kid’s frustration. I love reading and I love talking and can write ok as long as I have something to write about But just to sit down and produce something from scratch, not so easy. I would give her this piece of advice: 90% of being successful at anything is just showing up and giving it your all. When I was in training for my job, I would watch people higher up the ladder and think, “Wow, how can they do that? How do they have the nerve to do that?”. But, you just keep showing up every day and following the program, and one day you’re sitting there doing it. With everybody on the team, only player is named Bryce Young. Most of the players are guys who just went out there and gave it their all. And guess what? Most of them are purty good too. For whatever team you pull for!
Go get ’em kid” Make it happen for yourself.
Beverly - January 26, 2023 12:45 pm
I love these posts!
Amanda ALLEN - January 26, 2023 1:15 pm
This may be the best essay I’ve ever read about writing! Plus, it’s hilarious!
mccutchen52 - January 26, 2023 2:08 pm
The book that got me reading, which I never liked to do, was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. My teacher first said “No” because of the size of the book but she took a second look when I told her the author and approved the book. After I read the book and turned in a book report she told me she didn’t know the small library in our school had that book. Everyone wanted to read it after that.
Karen - January 26, 2023 2:14 pm
My good friend has always told me about your stories. She sent me the one about how much your wife loves and takes care of your blind dog. I started subscribing after I read it. Now, it’s what I look forward to reading every morning. Thank you!
Jerryln London - January 26, 2023 2:23 pm
susanmac123 - January 26, 2023 3:31 pm
Now that is a beautiful piece of writing and wonderful advice for writers. Bravo!
Susie - January 26, 2023 3:47 pm
Great analogy, Sean. You’ve got a million of ’em.
Angela E - January 26, 2023 4:11 pm
My grandmother always said to ‘write what you know’. So write about your mom or what you are feeling. Good writing comes from the heart. P.S. Prayer always helps too.
Stacey Wallace - January 26, 2023 4:48 pm
Praying for this young man’s Mama. Sean, you amaze me. You write and publish every day. I only write a restaurant review column for a weekly paper every other week. There’s no way I could write a different column every day. You do an amazing job. Thanks so much for starting my husband’s and my day off right 24/7. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.
Clay Corvin - January 26, 2023 5:00 pm
You brother are a gift from the Lord. I love, love, love your writing style and your wonderful stories.
George Robert Leach - January 26, 2023 5:57 pm
Great advice. If you don’t mind I’ll take it too. Dear Sean, ewe rite gud!
Judith - January 26, 2023 8:00 pm
Oh my goodness, another hilarious post. Thank you Sean. I never read Moby Dick, but my daughter and I spent several days listening to it via libravox. The reader was awesome, some are torturous! It was this story about all kinds of whales and ocean stuff that wasn’t anything like the really great movie we watched with the same title starring Patrick Stewart. So we were both, my daughter and I, greatly confused when listening to this very lengthy and horribly boring book about anything but what we remembered the movie to be. I’m so glad they didn’t include all the other information in the movie! My brother told me one time I should write a book. I told him I had no idea where to start, he said, “page one!”
catladymac - January 26, 2023 8:46 pm
Moby Dick i NOT the worst book ever written. Read anything by James Fenimore Cooper if you doubt this.
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