The Only Thing I Know About Writing is That I Don’t Know

NavigatorI have two mantras when it comes to writing. One is intentional. The other one…well, let’s just say I’ve said it to myself so many times, it’s an honorary mantra.

1: Make it happen. (This is me struggling to wake up extra early to write, realizing the world doesn’t care if I do or I don’t. It’s solely up to me.)

2: I hope I can pull this off.

Now that I think of it, I probably recite #2 more often than I care to admit. When I’m about to start a completely new draft of a story. When I get revision notes from my agent or editor. When I get more revision notes from my agent or editor. When I think of CHASING THE SUN actually being published. (That thought process goes something like: Yay! It’s going to be published and out there and people will read it! Then, OMG. It’s going to be published and out there and people will read it.)

Because the thing about writing a book and then getting it published is that there’s just so much we don’t know:

  • Not where our ideas come from to begin with. (Can we officially put this question on a “do-not-ask” list at book readings? Because I have a feeling if any of us actually knew where ideas came from, we could make millions charging entrance fees.)
  • Not if a good idea will turn out to be a great (or not-so-great) idea. It’s kind of a wait-and-see endeavor. And by wait-and-see, I mean write it out and see what develops. You may be surprised.
  • We also don’t know, when faced with the massive task of revisions and rewrites, whether changes will actually make the story better or cause it to crumble like a Jenga puzzle.
  • And we definitely do not know (though our mothers are absolutely convinced) that our books will become huge successes once published.

So why bother with it all? If writing and publishing a book is essentially a huge leap of faith, a terrifying journey into the unknown during which we may repeatedly boink into failure (as Lori so perfectly described yesterday) then why risk it?

I suppose it’s because we’re all adventurers at heart. Because life would be boring if we knew all the answers anyway. Because at least before we set sail we can draw ourselves a map and fool ourselves into thinking there’s a plan when really, the best part is discovering something beyond our wildest imaginations. Because we learn so much about ourselves and from others during the journey.

And because every time I tell myself I hope I can pull this off there’s another part of me that wants to come back to that moment and say Yes! Now what next?

What’s your mantra? What do you still not know about writing?

Author: Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at

17 Replies to “The Only Thing I Know About Writing is That I Don’t Know”

  1. This is sooooo good, Natalia! I especially like (and can relate to this today): “And by wait-and-see, I mean write it out and see what develops. You may be surprised.” It’s one of the things I absolutely love most (and am equally terrified by) about writing fiction: you just never know. As you say, we’re adventurers at heart.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I can DEFINITELY see why you’d relate to it. I can’t think of many writers who are as adventurous as you on the page, writing in so many different genres and topics!

  2. Funny, I think you and I may be kindred spirits–your mantras are mine and I would definitely call myself an adventurer at heart. Now to put this boat into reverse because I just boinked against some funkiness in the draft of my WIP. And onward!

    1. I propose your mantra should have the word “boink” in it. Like, “if at first you boink into a rough spot, try, try again.”

  3. I don’t have a specific mantra, but here are a few that sum up my general thoughts:
    * Do you prefer holding a cardboard sign? Then get going!
    * Do you prefer a dead-end reception job? Then get going!
    and last but not least
    * Exactly WHEN is the next class reunion?

    1. These are excellent! They should most definitely be written on a Post-It and stuck on my desk. LOL. I love that you never fail to make me laugh, Lori.

  4. I love your mantras!!

    “Make it work” is a big one for me – as is “just keep swimming” (for obvious reasons, if you’ve seen my fish…). Ultimately, though, I think you’ve got it right – it’s all about keeping one foot going in front of the other, and one word in front of the other, as long as it takes to achieve the goal.

  5. So interesting the “I hope I can pull this off” mantra. Yep – I think that every time I begin a new project – whether freelance or fiction, and somewhere, deep inside, I know I can. It just may take more work than I originally anticipated, but I know it’s in there somewhere.

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