Some Advice on Writing and Life

photo by Victoria Ristenbatt
photo by Victoria Ristenbatt

So right about now, this book I’m writing is feeling a little bit like that mean kid who holds something like your notebook or your hat just out of reach while you jump at it over and over, thinking this time you’re going to grab hold and not let go. I’m feeling kind of blue about the fact that I’m not done. (Side note: If you are feeling kind of blue, listening to Kind of Blue may actually help, especially “Blue in Green.”) My self-imposed deadline of the end of March has come and gone, but I’m still not done. Every essay I plan to include has at least been started, but I’m still not done. Since beginning this journey, I’ve written fifty posts for this blog, I’ve published excerpts from my manuscript in Creative Nonfiction and The Chattahoochee Review and have one forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, I’ve read selections from it at several story nights in Chicago and I have one more slightly thrilling book-related announcement I’m not at liberty to make yet. I’ve learned a lot, I’m a better writer than I was when I started—

But. I’m. Still. Not. Done.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a writing conference in Poets and Writers that sounded kind of dreamy. It takes place at the Algonquin Hotel (among other spots) in Manhattan, surrounded by the ghosts of writers past; they only accept a handful of writers—and they hook you up with literary agents cherry picked to be a good fit for your particular manuscript. And though it costs beaucoup dollars, which I don’t currently have on hand, I applied anyway in case they had financial aid or scholarships or something like that. I was accepted and a few weeks later found myself on the phone with one of the program directors. Turns out they don’t offer any scholarships, but Scott offered me some advice. He’d given me a few notes on my first chapter, and then he asked me where I was in the process of writing this book and I told him it had really begun waaaay back in 2010 with the publication of this article and then began in earnest in 2011. I told him I couldn’t believe it was taking so long but that I’d been publishing a few pieces along the way and he said,

“You’re going to be successful whether you come to this conference or not, but you need to push yourself to write faster. All these publications are great and it’s not like they won’t mean anything down the line, but they mean more now.” Then he added, “Think of your writing like a roommate that you like a lot, he’s a really great guy, but he never pays the rent on time and you really fucking need him to pay the rent money on time. And write faster.”

It seems like a really good idea. The roommate metaphor is somewhat clever, charming even, but I don’t know how to write faster. More hours? More efficiently? I’m just not sure how to make that happen. This made me think about advice in general and writing advice specifically and how we determine whether it behooves us to heed the counsel being proffered. How do you know when you should take something to heart versus when it’s off track for you and your practice and maybe just going to make you crazy?

In researching another post for this blog, I stumbled across some advice online from science fiction fantasy author Rachel Aaron on how she manages to write 10,000 words a day. A day! She outlined her three-point strategy for achieving that level of prolificness (it’s a word; I looked it up). She outlines everything before she writes and she’s made note of how the time of day and length of time of a writing session impact her word count. I’m a terrible outliner. I’m a meanderer. But maybe I can learn something from her more disciplined approach.

From Jack Kerouac there’s the dictum I’ve mentioned here before to “be in love with your life” and from Hemingway to “write the truest sentence you know.” Those recommendations I’ve taken to heart.

Tom Spanbauer, from whom I took a class called “Dangerous Writing,” suggested when I was agonizing over a passage in a story I was writing, that just because the work didn’t feel good and the words weren’t flowing effortlessly out of me didn’t mean I was on the wrong track. That was a revelation. He also advocated taking risks in writing, heading into the difficult places. And I think that’s pretty good advice, too.

I often call to mind a famous Martha Graham quote, that relates to both my writing and teaching practice:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.


And when I’m feeling overwhelmed, Anne Lamott’s advice to take it bird by bird sticks in my head:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.                       
                           — from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


How about you? Any words of wisdom you turn to in your writing or your life?

7 thoughts on “Some Advice on Writing and Life

  1. Love the Martha Graham quote. I might borrow that for my writers’ group.

    I don’t have any great words of advice on writing. This is what I’ve learned in the past 18 months or so with my own writing:

    I need quiet to hear the words inside me.

    Writing is a process. I can write down the bones of a story quickly and easily, but I need to sit with it in order to polish it smooth and shiny. This takes time and can’t be rushed.

    Meeting with other writers on a regular basis keeps me motivated.


  2. Advice on speed / writing pace is pretty arbitrary b/c a book is a life and grows with its own chemistry in context. You can’t tell a tree to hurry the fuck up and grow but obviously we know what trees need / want to survive / thrive. I do think if you can make it to that conference you should do it! Do an Indiegogo or what-what. The book’s already out there. You’re breathing air into it, at your own pace.


    1. Wise and sustaining words, lady. Thank you. Your tree metaphor made me laugh and reminds me of that Talmudic quote about the angel and the blade of grass. The angel whispers grow, grow–probably without using any swear words.


  3. The writing process is long and waning. I’ve been writing my novel for over a year, and I’m nearing completion of the first draft–but, like you and your work, it’s still not done. I’ll be editing my work soon, but sometimes its overwhelming. I’m devoting all my spare time to writing, and somehow, it just doesn’t feel like enough? I’m even writing through the days when the words just seem to want to stubbornly stay stuck in my head. i really appreciate you conveying this frustration. So many writing blogs coach you about the writing process–it’s nice for once to see someone who’s also facing similar challenges. Hmm. . .some words of wisdom. . .


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