5 Things About Writing I Wish I’d Known 20 Years Ago (Part 2)

When I published my first novel eleven years ago, I thought I’d finish another one within a couple of years. That’s because I thought that, having written one novel, the next one would be easier. Which brings me to:

Writing Truth # 2: Writing a novel never gets easier.

My fourth was just as difficult, if not more so, than my first. My fifth, the one I’ve recently turned in, was just as difficult to write as the rest of them. Through long experience I’ve finally accepted the fact that writing a novel never gets easier.

As I mentioned in How to Write a Novel, there’s no magic formula for novel writing. Each novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world.

Each time I complete a novel (and by complete, I mean very specifically the moment that I receive word from my publisher that the novel in its current state is ready for publication), I tell myself that I don’t know how I’ll have the patience to do it again. But patience is beside the point. Because by then, invariably, I’ve already started another novel, a novel I cannot bear to abandon, a novel that promises to be everything the last novel wasn’t, a novel that surely, certainly, will not be as difficult to write as every one that came before it.

I know, I know, the definition of insanity and all that. Call me Homer Simpson.

Where is the hope, then, for novelists, if this thing we do never gets easier? I take comfort from the ice skaters. Yes, the ice skaters. And, if I may be so bold, the aerospace engineers. It doesn’t get easier because it shouldn’t. Who wants to go back to the salcal when you can do a triple lutz? Who wants to merely go into orbit when you can go to Mars?

This metaphor implies, of course, that each novel is more complex than the last. That isn’t necessarily true. But with each new novel, your skill set is larger—or should be. That’s because you should have learned something from the process of writing the last one. Your first novel will probably teach you a lot about timing. Hopefully, it will teach you about clarity. But what it will not teach you is what shape the next novel should take. Because the shape of the story changes.

If it never gets easier, why do we do it—again and again and again? Most of us do it because we love it, and because, though we live by imagination, our imagination fails us on one particular point: we simply cannot imagine a life without writing. While such a life might very well be worth living, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

I take inspiration from one of my favorite books, a novella by Lars Gustafsson, The Death of a Beekeeper.

“Kind readers,” Gustafsson begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.”

And so, strange beings that we are, we begin again. The next novel, the next story, the next essay. And while it never gets easier, for this writer at least, it never gets boring. Each time you begin a new novel, you inhabit a new world. Each time you finish—finding, as most of us do, that the book you have written falls far short of the idea of the book you had intended to write—there is the hope of the next one. Today, the salcal. Tomorrow, the triple lutz. Carry on.

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5 Truths About Writing I Wish I’d Known 20 Years Ago

Last week, I visited California College of the Arts to talk to the current crop of MFA candidates about writing and publishing. I taught at CCA for several years, several years ago, but somewhere along the line I quit teaching in order to spend more time writing. I always enjoyed teaching, though, and it was good to be back there, talking to students who are at the stage I was almost twenty years ago, and who have most of the same concerns that I had at that age.

I hadn’t really prepared anything for my talk, because when you’ve been writing for as long as I have, there’s nothing easier to talk about than writing. It’s like asking a chef to talk about food. Somewhere along the line, it comes naturally. More naturally, probably, than even the writing itself, which has its good days and its bad days. Some days, writing is like drinking water; it feels completely natural. Some days, it’s like drinking lighter fluid; it feels not only unnatural, but also painful.

I asked the students what they wanted to hear about. Were they interested in the publishing world? They were. I talked a bit about that—how it was when I was coming up, and how it’s changed, and why it’s still important to have both a trusted agent and a trusted reader. The conversation veered a bit, and I find myself sounding something like an old-timer, giving the “what I wish I’d known back then” talk. It wasn’t a talk I’d given before, but it just sort of started to roll off of my tongue, because what the students really wanted to know about was the writing life: how to do it, and how to sustain it, and if it was possible, and how.

The why, they didn’t really need to know, because if they did, they wouldn’t be pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. The why for any writer comes down to this: if you’re not writing, you’re not happy. Therefore, you write. Of course, that reasoning implies that writing will always make you happy. For many people, that’s not true at all. What I should say is: when you’re not writing, you’re not fulfilled. That’s better. Want to know if you are really and truly a writer? When you go long periods without writing, you feel a bit empty. When you write well, or at least productively, you feel fulfilled, and often, if you’re lucky, even happy.

Thank you for bearing with me. It’s been, I realize, a long and meandering path so far. But that’s what the writing life is like, and that’s why we’re lucky, and that’s the first thing I wish I’d known about writing twenty years ago: (click Read More to continue to WRITING TRUTH NUMBER 1) (more…)

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Stephen King on Writing, Grammar, & Work

Stephen King recently sat down with Jessica Lahey of The Atlantic Monthly to talk about teaching writing. King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of my favorite books on writing ever written. I love it for its accessibility, its wisdom, its lucidity, and its utter lack of pretension.

Lahey gained a new respect for the book when she used it to unlock her students’ resistance  while teaching writing in a residential drug and rehab program for teens.

At one point, Lahey asks King about the relevance of teaching grammar in classrooms. “Why bother to name the parts?” she asks, if someone “either absorbs the principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” Here is King’s response:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

I like the idea of demystifying writing, of naming the parts in order to make them less lofty and unattainable. The key here, though, is that we learn what we hear, and if we hear the wrong thing from an early age, we will have to retrain ourselves.

Read the entire interview, How Stephen King Teaches Writing.

Or get the book.

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Writers on Writing – Willa Cather on “Making It an Adventure”

In 1921, Willa Cather told an editor for the magazine Bookman that she only worked for two and a half to three hours each day. “If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die,” she said. “I make it an adventure every day.”

Like so many other writers, Cather preferred working in the morning when she was “fresh” and unencumbered by the day’s concerns. I always prefer working in the morning, too, although my intentions are far better than my practice. For me, the key is getting up early enough to give myself at least an hour before I switch to “mom” mode, which means getting up not a minute later than 5:00. I go to bed most nights believing I will be out of bed by 5:00 the next morning, and then I roll out of bed closer to 6:30 or 7:00, chastising myself and promising to do better tomorrow.

Today was one of those rare days when I happened to live up to my nightly vow. By 5:05 I was at my desk with my coffee, writing. By 6:30, I had written three and a half pages. Those three and a half pages felt more like 20; I felt triumphant, as if I had accomplished a great deal.

And it only took one and a half hours! Cather is on to something here. If you work in short spurts–two hours instead of five–every minute of it is more likely to feel like an adventure. If you can’t afford two hours, try one. If you can’t afford an hour, try thirty minutes. University of Nebraska Press has published a whole book of Cather’s insightful advice on writing, with the utterly unpretentious and spot-on title, Willa Cather on Writing.

Alice Munro, by the way, is a writer who accomplished much of her early success while juggling writing with motherhood. First, she wrote while her youngest child napped, and later, she wrote while her children were at school. Toni Morrison’s time was so limited as a single mother with a nine-to-five job that the time she did manage to find at the typewriter was rich with possibility. “By the time I get to the paper something’s there,” she said. “I can produce.”

No matter when you are able to make it to your writing desk, or your notebook, try to approach it as an adventure, not a chore. Merely having the privilege of an hour to write can be an adventure in itself.

This week, when you sit down to write, attempt to do it with a sense of enthusiasm for the hour that you have, the hour that will never repeat itself, this spectacular, beautiful, unique hour in which anything can happen.

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