The Writer’s Essential Tool: Self-Inventory

Steve Almond | September 2013


Whenever I speak to a group of writing students, or aspiring writers, or people who are just preparing to make the potentially humiliating decision to become aspiring writers, I get asked two questions.

The first is how I go about writing – what my process is. The second is how I survive as a writer. That is: how I make writing a sustainable pursuit.

When it comes to my “process” I usually tell people that I try to write in the morning, because that’s when I’m most attentive and because I believe the process of dreaming is a form of storytelling, and—mostly—because I am a sad, anxious creature who is almost entirely ruled by guilt and must therefore do my penance at the keyboard as quickly as possible after rising. As for making writing sustainable, I tell people that, to the greatest extent possible, I try to uncouple artistic creation from financial expectation.

But these answers always come with a big, obnoxious caveat, which boils down to: This is just how I do things, folks.

And thus, my answers, while perhaps illuminating in small ways, really don’t matter.

What matters is what will work for them.

And thus the best answer I can give to these questions—and virtually any other one involving how to stay at the keyboard—is to learn the fine art of self-inventory.

This means that you need to be able to take a good hard look at who you are and how you move through the world, what your strengths and your weaknesses are, and your dreams and fears.

When it comes to your writing process, for instance, you need to ask yourself some very basic questions:

What time of day do I write best? Am I most focused in the morning? Afternoon? Late at night?

Where do I work best? In a quiet setting? In a bustling coffee shop? What sort of lighting is most conducive?

Does it help to write on an empty stomach? Filled to the brim with coffee?

And in what mood?

I realize these questions might seem a little new agey, but creativity itself is kind of new agey. It’s not something you can command. It’s more like something you have to summon, or conjure.

I once heard Aimee Bender give essentially the same advice about process. She asked her audience to identify the single piece of work about which they were proudest, and to try to replicate the circumstances under which it was composed. At the time, I considered this mental exercise simplistic. Over the years, it’s come to make more and more sense to me.

But this list of questions raises a whole new issue, which is how to organize your life. The bottom line is that, as a writer (or any kind of artist) you must be your own boss.

Which leads me to my second self-inventory…

As unpleasant as this may be to admit, time really does equal money. Part of your job as a writer is to figure out how to buy yourself time—meaning quality time—at the keyboard. So consider these questions:

What’s my financial situation? Do I have assets? Debts?

What are my marketable skills? How can I make money most efficiently?

What are the material needs and desires of my lifestyle? Am I the sort of person who can survive on Ramen noodles and live in a shoebox apartment in a small Midwestern town where the rents are low? Or do I need to live in a big city, and in a larger space? How much do I need certain creature comforts, such as takeout food or new clothes?

Are there other people dependent on my earning power (children, partners, ex-partners, aging parents)? And what sort of emotional responsibilities do I have, or do I hope to have?

I realize these questions sound sort of brutal and reductive, but if you’re really going to stick with writing over the long-term, you can’t lie to yourself about who you are and what you want out of life.

Even if you’re single now, you may want to get married and have kids someday. Don’t fool yourself—that’s going to have an effect on your writing life, big time. (Trust me on this. My wife and I just welcomed our third child to the fold.)

That doesn’t mean family should be pitted against your creative ambitions. But it does mean that they’re both huge demands on your time and attention and they need to be acknowledged and honored and balanced.

Most important: don’t lie to yourself about this stuff. You’ll wind up in a state of suffering. And contrary to the romantic notions we carry around about artists, suffering does not produce great art. It generally produces more suffering.

The truth is, despite how it can seem at the AWP conference, or within our own little literary communities, writing exists on the fringes of our culture, which is mostly focused on buying and selling and plugging into visual media.

If you’re going to have even a chance of producing great work, you must take charge of your circumstances. And that begins not by trying to replicate the approach of your literary heroes, but by acknowledging the truth of your own life, and carving out within it the necessary space to start trying.


Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection God Bless America.

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