1. Be miserable.
Writers are chronically unhappy people. If your disposition is a naturally sunny one, you should consider an alternative occupation. Tax accountant. Careers advisor at your local high school. Psychopath. If your view of the world tends more towards the lugubrious, welcome. Accentuate this part of yourself by wearing black; traverse your days like the letter S in a hood and Doc Marten boots. Sit on park benches and outside art galleries in sullen contemplation — like you’ve looked into the void and seen it wink come-hither. Like you’re pissed at being stuck in this two-dollar-shop existence, shuffling about in your meat suit — a vessel wholly unsuitable for the satellites of artistic brilliance orbiting the starry dome of your mind. Your writing should reflect this misery. Dolphins made of toffee and the miracle of childbirth are subjects strictly off limits. Instead, discuss the stark realities — the lump of flesh missing beneath the dolphin’s eye socket from an underwater street fight; the perineal tear caused by the ten-pound-two behemoth baby’s crowning head. If possible, have a full mental breakdown — the kind requiring medications whose names sound like chewing old licence plates with tinfoil teeth. Take a lengthy stay in an institution — preferably the kind where they ask you to sign over your power of attorney. Have them prop you in a battered old wingback in front of a tall window where you can watch the topiary animals roam the wide plains of lawn.
2. Develop a substance abuse problem.
All the best writers are addicted to something. If you’re not starting the day with a couple of bottles of Jack and a six pack or at the very least splashing a mugful of Baileys in your cornflakes, you’re never going to be a great writer. The best inspiration is ninety-proof and comes in a paper bag with the top twisted like a German pastry. Replace the bottles of shampoo in your shower with bottles of beer (the cheap stuff will do; it’s revolting at any temperature). You’ll do your best writing through a fug of whiskey after a forty-eight hour bender that leaves your head feeling like a bowling ball balanced on a knitting needle. Speaking of needles, there’s always that route. If you’re not struggling weekly to get good purchase in a Swiss-cheesed vein, you’re not living the life of a writer. If you’re lucky you’ll die young and someone will sell your unfinished manuscripts on eBay for a song. The story of how you were found bloated and alone, upside down on the piss-soaked floor of a crack den should cement you in the public memory.
3. Hate yourself and everything you write (including the things you haven’t written yet).
Self-loathing is the successful writer’s default position. Except, you’re not a writer at all, really. Just a sub-par humanoid masquerading as one. Take every available opportunity to make absolutely clear your hatred for what you have written. Describe how your bones vibrate, how you rattle the foundations of tall buildings with the current of disgust that runs through you. You can feel the hot acid taste of bile in your throat when you read the shit you’ve flung at the page or clawed onto your keyboard. Describe how you’ve seen better writing carved on the walls of a public lavatory. Package it up with a knowing laugh, a self-pitying chuckle. Oh the irony. You decided to be a writer but everything you pen is dirt. Less than dirt. Just chicken scratches on A4, double spaced. Despite being so prolifically awful, continue to assault the page and publishers’ in-trays with your offal-scented scribblings.
4. Don’t work very hard. At all.
Writing is not supposed to be hard work. You’ve written four lines of poetry today? Tomorrow, try three. If you feel the urge to write, put it off for a couple of hours. Sink some more liquor. Finish that carton of Marlboro Gold. Read the morning newspaper again (including the sports section which, let’s face it, you don’t give two shits about). Become enraged at their failure to wield the em dash correctly. Pry open a copy of Ulysses and tot up the frequency of each word; including ones like ‘the’ and ‘and.’ Have a mid-morning nap. Braid your hair. Unbraid it. Make freaky notes out of the pages of women’s magazines and send them to your neighbours (WE ARE DISCOVERED; FLEE IMMEDIATELY). Count the number of Smiths in the telephone directory. Recount them. Rub one out in the shower. Go to parties and family Christmases, tell your friends and relatives that writing is a cinch — that you don’t have to do anything (it won’t be hard to convince them). Tell them you spend most of your days horizontal in a pink bathrobe, scratching your underparts with a number two pencil and waiting for the writing to come.
Actually, there’s a fifth step
Ignore the previous four steps altogether. Write the tough stuff — write about the black, suffocating curtain of depression or that time your sister tried to let all the blood out of her arm with a piece of broken glass after some guy forced himself down her throat. Absolutely use writing as catharsis. Write the page black and blue with descriptions of trauma; that time you sliced your thumb open to the bone, or that time you decided to take on a truck and trailer in your Honda Civic. But don’t be deliberately unhappy. Don’t limit yourself to just the bleak details. Write the whole spectrum. Absolutely write about sunsets and rainbows and the swimming pool smell of new-borns. Write about that girl or guy you kinda like who challenges what you thought of as your ‘type’ and how the colours rush past whenever they’re around. But don’t be anywhere near as saccharine and boring as that. Find a new and surprising angle. Avoid antidepressants and tenures of any length in mental hospitals. Obviously, take the ADs if you need them (they often come with a whole cyclone of side-effects; useful fodder for writing), but do all you can to avoid total psychological atrophy; depression is not typically very productive. If listening to Vanilla Ice on repeat or leaving pink Care Bears™ in unlikely places around the house (inside the salad spinner, the vegetable drawer, behind the toilet cistern) is what keeps you sane, do it. Then write about how it feels to have hauled yourself out, the happiness you found; it deserves as much space on the page as your pain.
Except where doing so will lead to a breakdown, you should absolutely drink and experiment with drugs. You’re a writer; it’s your job to experience as much as possible and that includes getting lit and tripping balls. But don’t rely on substances for your material; there are plenty of other ways to find things to write about. Cycle down to your local industrial park at night, lever yourself over the chain-link fence, and climb to the top of the crane. Be present in the world. Go to cafés with a journal and record all the middle-class conversations; observe the Cold War tension between couples, the escalating crisis of the latté bowl crashing onto the saucer. On the subject of coffee, this is really the only substance you should be addicted to as a writer. Thundering back tequila might well be fun but your reader can only tolerate so many descriptions of the interior of the toilet. If you do manage to write anything of note when you finally emerge from your whiskey-cocoon, the potential cirrhosis of your liver or the exploded veins from all the needles you’ve been jamming will probably knock the shine off just a tad. This is worst-case-scenario stuff, of course, but you should learn from all the other writers and artists who died inordinately young; go, have fun, but slamming jet-fuel night after night after morning after night is not the path to a long career.
You should absolutely scan your writing with a critical eye. But don’t flat-out hate your work. Don’t write down or give voice to those thoughts you have that your writing is shit. You’ll only make them real. They’ll drop down on you like spiders from a car’s sun visor, and you’ll yank the wheel and wind up in a ditch. Put them in a box and shove it down the stairs. Being a self-loathing writer is so last century. Instead, take that euphoric feeling — that shot of confidence to the jugular when you’ve finished a piece — and fashion wings out of it.
Above all, you should work hard at writing. Don’t just sit back and wait for the magic to happen. Go looking for it and, when you find it, kick it hard in the back of the knees and drag it home with a pillowcase over its head. Perversely, the way to go looking for writing, the way to make it happen, is to get your backside on a chair and get it there often. Your arse and that seat should be intimately acquainted with the precise texture and terrain of each other’s surfaces. If you need Pisces to be rising over Saturn, the right barometric pressure, or a book of wallpaper samples to run your fingers over, you’re probably never going to succeed as a writer. Proper writers don’t whinge about not having the perfect conditions; they just get on with it. Most of them have real, busy lives to contend with. Baby’s wiped turd all over the curtains again. Girlfriend’s in a coma. You have a deadline in seventeen minutes. Worrying about having the right pair of writing slippers just wastes time, so be disciplined. Up at seven; at your desk by eight. Tell this to your rich bitch aunt when she passes you the Christmas ham and asks you what you do with your life. Tell her you work 24/7. It’s true. Writers never sleep.