Today’s guest author, Ethel Rohan, has just released her third book and first novel, The Weight of Him, which Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child author Eowyn Ivey calls “poignant and inspiring.” An essayist and award-winning short story writer, Ethel work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Raised in Ireland, she lives in San Francisco. – Meg
Visitors to my website often reach out by email or social media, particularly in response to this statement on my About page: When she writes, she’s stolen away. Some simply want to let me know that they like the strange turn of phrase. Most others are fellow writers in the early stages of their careers longing to be similarly transported. They complain they feel anything but entranced while they write, though, and worry they’re not doing it right. They fear the work will always be difficult and will never bring the mysterious, dream-like reward I and so many other writers claim to enjoy. How do you do it? I’m asked. How do you escape your thinking mind and slip inside your sub-conscious? The best answer I can offer: You write yourself into it.
In the most recent email of this kind an emerging writer asked if I’d always felt stolen away in my writing or if that state of grace was something that came later in my career. She felt wistful to write herself into the same fugue, something that has eluded her thus far. As best I can recall (I have few childhood memories), I felt that sense of disappearing into the writing when I was a girl. Later, as a teen, I was for sure swept up by storytelling and it—like reading—proved to be a wonderful form of escapism and entertainment. Fast forward to young adulthood and beyond, I abandoned writing and turned instead to such pursuits as love, work, emigration, marriage, and motherhood. I returned to writing in my early thirties, determined to stop burying my neglected passion and to instead fully dedicate myself to crafting the best stories I could.
A creature of habit, from the outset I showed up every day to write. A daily writing practice may seem like a luxury to some—not everyone has the time and financial freedom to apply themselves to their craft with such rigid regularity—but I think it’s less about privilege and more about prioritizing. I stopped watching TV entirely and instead used that time to write. Every. Single. Day. I set a goal of 100 words, a mind trick that got me into my writing chair every morning. Just 100 words, I told myself. Invariably I wrote an average of 1,000 to 2,500 words daily. More importantly, I formed a writing habit that became as routine and vital as eating. What was slower to return was that sublime sense while writing of being caught up and carried away.
I was writing daily for a few weeks, and was deep into answering in story the pressing questions of the fictional world I’d created, deeper still into getting to know my characters and their wants, needs and obstacles (what we want and need are often different), when I looked at the clock and realized almost three hours had passed, and seemingly within minutes. That’s how thoroughly make-believe had carried me away and it was the most humbling and wonderful of experiences. I would go so far as to say it felt sacred. I truly did not know where those hours had gone. It was as if I had journeyed somewhere entirely outside of reality. I get the same sense of the holy whenever I’m surprised in my writing.
I don’t plot or outline my work. I simply start with some spark—a phrase, character, object, or place—and I write word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, scene-by- scene. I start with questions and ignorance and I write myself into answers and knowingness. There is little more rewarding than those times when I write out of myself and onto the page these unexpected moments that utterly surprise me. Those are the times when I know my thinking mind has stepped aside and my sub-conscious is at work—a clear channel that brings to life something pure and true and wonderfully startling. This sense of otherworldliness and pay off is what makes all the rest of the grind, doubt, angst, and paralysis worth it.
So write every chance you get make. Write your way through the struggle—
both yours and the story’s—and into the amazing. Time and again, the greatest thief of all is right there beyond the next word, waiting just for you to fly to her. – Ethel