The curious thing is, I actually kept those vows. I kept them for years. I still keep them. I have broken many promises in my life (including a marriage vow), but I have never broken that promise.
I even kept those vows through the chaos of my twenties—a time in my life when I was shamefully irresponsible in every other imaginable way. Yet despite all my immaturity and carelessness and recklessness, I still honored my vows to writing with the fealty of a holy pilgrim.
I wrote every day throughout my twenties. For a while, I had a boyfriend who was a musician, and he practiced every day. He played scales; I wrote small fictional scenes. It was the same idea—to keep your hand in your craft, to stay close to it. On bad days, when I felt no inspiration at all, I would set the kitchen timer for thirty minutes and make myself sit there and scribble something, anything. I had read an interview with John Updike where he said that some of the best novels you’ve ever read were written in an hour a day; I figured I could always carve out at least thirty minutes somewhere to dedicate myself to my work, no matter what else was going on or how badly I believed the work was going.
Generally speaking, the work did go badly, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I felt sometimes like I was trying to carve scrimshaw while wearing oven mitts. Everything took forever. I had no chops, no game. It could take me a whole year just to finish one tiny short story. Most of the time, all I was doing was imitating my favorite authors, anyhow. I went through a Hemingway stage (who doesn’t?), but I also went through a pretty serious Annie Proulx stage and a rather embarrassing Cormac McCarthy stage. But that’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.
For a while, I tried to write like a Southern gothic novelist, because I found that to be a far more exotic voice than my own New England sensibility. I was not an especially convincing Southern writer, of course, but that’s only because I’d never lived a day in the South. (A friend of mine who actually was from the South said to me in exasperation, after reading one of my stories, “You’ve got all these old men sittin’ around the porch eatin’ peanuts, and you ain’t never sat around a porch eatin’ peanuts in your life! You got some nerve, girl!” Oh, well. We try.)
None of it was easy, but that wasn’t the point. I had never asked writing to be easy; I had only asked writing to be interesting. And it was always interesting to me. Even when I couldn’t do it right, it was still interesting to me. It still interests me. Nothing has ever interested me more. That profound sense of interest kept me working, even as I had no tangible successes.
And slowly I improved.
It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: If I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead, I learned how to write.