Goldstein’s First Law

My uncle likes to declare laws. He’ll say, “Goldstein’s First Law is don’t believe everything you hear. Goldstein’s Second Law is don’t necessarily disbelieve it either.” Then he gives you a characteristically cheeky grin. My cousins also come up with laws. We are all named Goldstein, so Goldstein’s laws vary by the one who declares them. It’s all very confusing.

This Goldstein’s First Law of  Writing is “know thyself.” I tell my students they have to understand how they work in order to get words on the page. Don’t try to write at 5 am if you are a night owl. Don’t try to write an outline when you’re really a pantser (i.e., a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” or doesn’t figure out what she’s writing about until she is done, as per Joan Didion). You get the idea.

Sometimes, however, you are so caught up in the draft that you forget yourself. I spent two weeks at a writing residency in May. My co-resident Cathy observed that every time I said to her over breakfast that I hated my chapter, I turned a corner and had an epiphany by happy hour.

I texted her yesterday. “I hate chapter 3. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Yup,” she texted in response.

I hated chapter 3 all morning. I found myself looking for things on etsy and checking facebook ten times a minute. I couldn’t figure out where to work and drifted from porch to yard to table to couch. Anything but look at the page.

Then at noon I realized what I had been doing wrong. I moved a middle chunk to the end and fixed my major problem. The chapter is coming together. I live to fight write another day.

What are your patterns?

4 thoughts on “Goldstein’s First Law”

  1. I often find I don’t understand something (and by extension, myself) until I’ve written about it (generally in my journal). And I mostly can’t write any fiction unless I’ve made copious notes first. I don’t always use all of the notes in the work, but having that edifice of ideas gives me the confidence that I have something worth the effort.


  2. My pattern: spend first 90-120 minutes feeling all attempts at writing, all ideas, are pointless and worthless. Write 1 sentence. Take 20 minute nap. Write half paragraph. Fix elaborate snack. Begin writing again, and find 750 words somewhere. Make tea. Walk dog. Find another 750 or so, thinking, “This is brilliant!” Lay on couch. Get up to write. Eke out another paragraph. Groan. Read over last bit, saying out loud, “This is terrible!” Eat chocolate. Receive children off hot and fuming bus. Have book thoughts during the rest of the day that run down the drain during dishwashing.
    Oh, and things only go that well during longhand-legal pad with no computer access. Otherwise, the only words to count are angry FB posts.


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