Mary Heaton Vorse once smartly observed, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” I couldn’t agree more. But that said, inspiration is still important—and sometimes we find it in the least likely place.
For me, that place is Amelia Earhart. I have a framed portrait of her above my desk, and I look to her from time to time when I need a dose of inspiration. Earhart wasn’t only the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she was a strong-willed, daring individual and a cultural icon. So here I present to you six things Amelia Earhart has taught me about the writing life.
- Don’t listen to what other people say.*
This was certainly true for Earhart—a woman who threw convention to the wind. She was a woman working to set records in a male-dominated industry, a woman who didn’t care—or at least didn’t listen—to those who criticized her for not conforming to the traditional roles set for women in the 1920s and 30s.
This is true for writers, too—and I’m surprised by how many of my students’ perceptions of their own work or self-worth in writing comes from something someone else has told them at some point—maybe an English teacher from high school or a peer during a long-ago workshop. I failed high-school English, so might say. Or, my life’s just not that interesting to write about, other say. Or maybe it’s the devil on your shoulder telling you that you could never write something good enough. Don’t listen to this.
Amelia Earhart says, “The most effective way to do it is to do it,” and I think she’s right. If you have something to say, say it. If you have something you want to write, write it.
* Though, students, you should listen to the sage advice of your professors. J
- Pay your dues.
Many people know that Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, but I was surprised to learn that on that first trans-Atlantic flight she was actually just a passenger. Earhart herself claimed she was little more than luggage on her first flight. Earhart didn’t become a world-renowned aviatrix overnight—even she knew she had to pay her dues, work hard for her successes. I think we have a tendency to think that success comes easy for the successful. This is rarely the case.
The same holds true for writers. So many times we get caught up in wanting to produce the most profound, accomplished, polished piece of work the first time we sit down to write. And it’s this unrealistic desire for perfection that stunts even the best-intentioned writers among us. Sometimes when we sit down to write, we write…crap. We write something sloppy. Our characters won’t do what we want them to do; we’re bored with what we’re writing; we can’t get the scene or the memory just right. But we’re paying our dues every time we sit down to write something.
Writer and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell might refer to this as the 10,000 hour rule. He claims that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to become an expert at anything. This might be depressing news for some—10,000 hours converted into a 40 hour work-week would put you at almost five years of writing, if you took it on as your full-time job. I don’t know that I believe in the 10,000 hour rule for becoming an expert, but I do believe that the most successful writers are those willing to pay their dues, those who write every day, those who understand that habit is every bit as important as inspiration.
- Worry Less.
Amelia Earhart once said: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.” Earhart was certainly a woman who set high goals for herself—she wanted to accomplish what others before her hadn’t. Behind every one of her successes, though, was a series of failures. It’s how she rebounded from those failures that mattered.
Earhart’s daring spirit can serve as a model to writers, of course. She once said: “Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying….” In general, I think writers can use this sound advice: write more, worry less. Worry less, write more. Enjoy the writing process as its own reward.
- Always have a map.
Clearly, this was a misstep for Amelia Earhart, as some claim an inaccurate map led to her ultimate demise.
Writers must have maps, too—and I don’t simply mean outlines. I mean a general idea about the direction of their writing projects and/or an idea about their writing goals. If you don’t know why you’re writing or what you wish to say, how can you expect your reader to know these things?
- Be willing to go down with the plane.
Nobody knows just how willing Amelia Earhart was in those final moments as her plane went down in 1937—but she was certainly aware of the risks of her trans-global flight. She did it anyway. She was driven by her passions and most would agree that she died doing what she loved. She once said: “Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”
I apply this general logic to writers only in a metaphorical sense. If you’re not writing about something that holds your passion, you’re not going to care, really care. And I’m talking the kind of care that rubs off on your readers with contagion. Be willing to go down with the plane. Don’t waste time writing what you think you should write or what is popular. Write about what matters to you. Write something that you’d stick with, even if it veered off course. Take risks in your writing. Take some chances, even if it might embarrass you if your parents ever read it.
- Have fun.
Earhart once said, “Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.” For her, the benefits outweighed the risks. At the end of the day, she just really, really loved to fly.
If you want to be a writer—it needs to be worth the price for you. You have to love it. You have to love playing with language and creating new world. You have to have fun with it. Life is short, and writing is a lifestyle. Stop caring so much what you should be doing or should be writing. Write what you want to write, if that’s what you want. And if you don’t enjoy it, or don’t enjoy it enough—do something else: pick up the guitar, learn to juggle, became a master saucier. Or, better yet, take a flying lesson.