I love books on writing by actual writers. They tend to be less writing advice and more about being a writer, being the sort of person who makes things up in your head and then writes them down. They tend to be idiosyncratic, individual, and of course beautifully written.
Recently I bought four:
Those are The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (from which this blog post takes its name — I was going to call it simply “My Writing Life,” but realized this is the third blog post I’ve written on that topic), Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. The Writing Life looks a little wrinkled because I had already read it when I took that picture, and honestly, the only time I have to read for pleasure right now is at the end of the day, in the bubble bath I take each evening. The bubble bath is a necessity: it helps with the back problems I’ve had ever since, as an associate at a law firm, I was told to revise the same contract over and over again, twelve hours a day, for a week.
I really enjoyed The Writing Life — Dillard’s writing is beautiful, and I loved hearing about how another writer does it . . . But what struck me most was the fundamental difference between her writing life and mine. She described writing as a kind of special agony — there were days of not being able to get anything down, nights of writing in a frenzy fueled by coffee and cigarettes. Writing was described as something special, elusive, sort of like a spirit that is sometimes there, sometimes not. And it was done in writing cabins on remote islands, or empty offices on university campuses — places that were not at home, that were remote, set apart. It sounded rather wonderful, and also rather awful, in both senses of the term. At least it filled with me awe, and also a sort of dread. Yes, some of it sounded . . . dreadful.
And also completely different from my writing life. So I thought I would write a post about my writing life, because all writers are different: the things Dillard needs, the things that fuel her creativity, are different from what I need and what fuel mine.
Here’s what my writing life looks like. Take an average Wednesday. I wake up, eat breakfast, exercise, shower, get dressed. Then I prepare to teach my classes. I teach a class, eat lunch, and teach two more classes. Then I come home and do the other work required for my teaching: grade papers, respond to student emails. But in addition to my undergraduate teaching, I also teach MFA students, so I have manuscripts to comment on, maybe a conference call. Most of my day is taken up with teaching. Somewhere along the way I usually get the ordinary tasks of living, such as grocery shopping and laundry, done. Days when I’m not teaching classes, I’m catching up on grading, commenting, emailing. Or holding office hours. When do I actually write? At night, after dinner, when all the other work is done. Sometimes I have so many other things to do that the writing doesn’t start until after midnight, which is bad — because I usually need to perform the next day, to make sense in front of a classroom of undergraduates, so I really do need to sleep.
Here are the things I can’t afford, financially and otherwise. I can’t afford to fly to small cabins on remote islands, because I have a job. I can’t afford procrastination or writer’s block, because if I don’t get writing done in the time I have, it doesn’t get done. There’s no other time for it. I can’t afford to wait until the spirit comes: it needs to come when I sit down to write. I can’t afford for writing to be agony, and it’s not: writing is usually the best part of my day. I think, now at last I get to sit down and write!
I think my life has trained me to write the way journalists are trained to write: I need to produce on time, by a deadline. And for me, that’s been good. At least I think it’s been good. It may be that to write as well as Dillard, you have to go through her kind of agony and isolation. You may need to write on a remote island, chopping your own wood for fuel. I don’t know. I may never write as well as she does, for that reason or another. All I can do is write my own material, create a writing life that enables me to write what I’m capable of writing.
I recently read an essay by Daniel José Older called “Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong” that I liked very much. In it, he argues that we do not, in fact, need to write every day. What most often stops us from writing is a sense of shame, and the dictum to write every day can produce a sense of shame that actually stops us from writing. I think he’s absolutely right that shame stops us from writing, and he’s probably right that for a lot of people, the shame of not writing every day can derail writing at all.
After reading his article, I looked back on my own writing advice, because I had once said, and am still quoted as saying, “Write all the time. I believe in writing every day, at least a thousand words a day. We have a strange idea about writing: that it can be done, and done well, without a great deal of effort. Dancers practice every day, musicians practice every day, even when they are at the peak of their careers — especially then. Somehow, we don’t take writing as seriously. But writing — writing wonderfully — takes just as much dedication.” I mean, it’s up on Goodreads under “quotations from Theodora Goss”! While I do not mean to add to the load of shame any writer has to bear — there is already so much shame around — I do actually believe that for me, this is both true and necessary. (A caveat: in that thousand words, I count ALL writing. Including the writing I do while grading papers. I believe all writing teaches you to do all the other kinds of writing — it all counts as practice. So today, by writing this blog post, I’ve already done my 1000 words.)
Reject any writing advice that doesn’t work for you. I’ve rejected plenty. But for me it doesn’t work to treat my writing as a special spirit with which I am infused, nor does it work to forgive myself when I don’t do it. It works best when I think of writing as both my pleasure and my job. It’s something I get to do at the end of the day, but it’s also something I need to do, the way I need to exercise. Why do I think of it that way? Well, to be perfectly honest, because I want to be a good writer, and I also want to be a working writing. The only way for me to get better as a writer is to write, to keep thinking and learning about my writing. To practice deliberately. And the only way for me to be a working writer is to produce, usually on deadline. When you don’t produce, when you don’t have writing coming out, people tend to forget about you . . . It’s so easy to fall into the “whatever happened to” category. I know, I’ve been there — after I had finished my doctoral dissertation (which was still writing! just not published writing), a friend of mine told me, “I was wondering where you had gone.”
Now I have two novels coming out, in 2017 and 2018, one of which I still need to write. That wouldn’t have happened without a lot of butt in chair. The chair is drawn up to my writing desk, which is in a corner of my apartment. No island, no isolation. I write after a full day of doing other work. I write because I want to, but also because I’m a working writer, and that’s what working writers do. I would not skip a day, any more than I would skip a day of exercise. Both have become habits. Because I know that’s the only way my writing will actually get done . . .
And this is me, grading papers. Seriously, grading papers is excellent training for being a writer! There is no better training for writing clearly and succinctly than writing paper comments that students will hopefully understand . . .