I do the bulk of my writing on a pretty strict 9 to 5 schedule. But nevertheless, writing is never simply a 9 to 5 job.
If you’re a writer, then you should always be writing.
That doesn’t mean that you’re constantly typing away. Writing is a two-fold process. There’s the time you spend at your desk, typing out your finished draft, but there are also all the moments that lead up to that, all the hours a story spends germinating in your mind, all the endless variations of beats you think your way through, all the inner dialogue you bounce around before you settle on a character’s voice. That’s the bulk of the job. That’s the heavy lifting. The actual act of putting pen to paper is the fun part. It’s all the mental gymnastics you have to go through to get to that point that’s the real work.
That’s why you have to do it every day, as much as possible. If you want to write for a living, you first have to live your life as a writer. That means you’re always writing. In your head. No matter where you are or what you’re doing. Ideas springboard out of life, out of something you’re watching, reading, overhearing.
You’re not truly a writer until you’ve had one of those moments where you suddenly stop whatever you’re doing and have to write something down before you forget it.
The first lessons I learned about writing came from watching my cousin, Gustav Hasford. Gus was a novelist and the first person I’d ever met who made a living from writing. And Gus was always writing. Gus lived to write. He always had a notebook handy, and if you ever spent much time with him, then you’d see him periodically stop what he was doing, pull out his notebook and jot something down. An idea that had just come to him out of the blue, perhaps. A question he’d suddenly thought of that he couldn’t answer. A line of dialogue he’d heard someone speak. If you ever said something interesting around Gus, he would write it down and tell you he was going to use it in a book someday without giving you credit. Such is the risk you run being friends with a writer, I suppose.
There’s no off switch for ideas. Or at least, there shouldn’t be. But creativity does have to be fed. It feeds on other ideas. On books and movies and music and art. It feeds on life. It feeds on the people you know. It feeds on your secrets and dreams. It feeds on everything you see or do, from the most outrageous and exciting to the most excruciatingly mundane.
I do my best thinking in the shower. I’ve written a whole bunch of comics in the shower. Or on walks around the neighborhood. Or sometimes simply while wandering about the house in a daze. Or in those last few hazy moments right before I drift off to sleep. While I’m sitting at my desk, typing out a script, I work in silence. I can’t listen to music or have a TV on. I lose my focus too easily. But when I’m beating out a story in my head, I love to listen to music. I build playlists for books I’m working on and think through the stories as I listen to them.
Nothing is ever written in a vacuum.
And if you don’t first learn how to write in your head, then you’ll never be able to write on paper.
The first story I ever sold for money was written at a strip club while getting a lap dance. I’ve written while watching movies. I’ve written in church (back when I still used to go to church) and in the seediest of bars. I’ve written at day jobs when I was supposed to be working on something else. I’ve written while making love, while crying over a football game, while watching people fight, while vomiting my guts out, while huddled in the basement with tornadoes overhead, while alone, while in a crowd of thousands, while hopelessly lost, while hallucinating, while humiliated, while on the verge of getting my ass kicked, while wanting to die, while the happiest I could ever possibly be, while pretending to listen to someone else talk, while taking a shit.
You can buy books to teach you how to structure a story or how to craft good characters. But as far as living like a writer, that you just have to figure out for yourself.
If you want to be a writer, then just be a writer. Be one every day, all day.
Worry about having something to say before you figure out how to say it.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.