Liz here, and so happy to welcome our wicked cool friend, Art Taylor back to the blog! He’s talking about our favorite subject – writing – and how all the work gets done. Take it away, Art!
My former teacher Alan Cheuse felt very strongly that writers needed to write every day and that they needed to focus on one project at a time.
The former bit of advice there got a boost in a recent Daily Beast essay by novelist and critic Stephen Hunter—and earned a flurry of controversy in the process, with other writers objecting to his arrogant tone and arguing against the all-or-nothing message right there in the headline: “Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Is that truly the only way to success?
Amidst some of that controversy, I have a confession: I’m a firm believer that writing every day makes you a better writer. Even checking in briefly on my own works-in-progress somehow keeps the machinery in my head moving throughout the day, whether I’m pen in hand or fingers to the keyboard or not.
But here’s another confession: Despite these best intentions, I don’t actually write every day.
And I can break Alan Cheuse’s second bit of advice too: Even when I do keep up a steady series of writing days, I’m not always working on the same project one day to the next.
How bad can my flitting from project to project get? Earlier this year (Friday, January 13, in fact, checking back over the Word doc), I woke up with the idea for a story, wrote a couple of pages, sketched out some key plot points, even figured out the final images, all before 9:03 a.m. (again checking the properties on that Word doc)…and then I immediately, entirely forgot about the whole thing. I cannot emphasize how complete my forgetfulness was here. It was only a couple of months later, looking through my computer, that I found a file I didn’t remember, opened it, and—surprise! Where the heck did that come from?
It’s easy to blame any number of factors for why my focus gets frazzled and why I don’t get more writing done, especially during the semester when my teaching schedule demands priority. Lesson prep for the class tomorrow can’t wait til the day after. Grading needs to be done quickly because the students are waiting for it (and often emailing about it). Meanwhile, since I’m not under contract anywhere, no one—sadly—is waiting so eagerly for my next bit of fiction.
I’m not alone. Many writers struggle to juggle day jobs, family responsibilities, and more. Best ambitions or intentions aside, we often end up writing when we can, even if that’s not every day. Does that mean we should quit?
As with many writers who teach, summer offers a different schedule for me—a chance to focus on my own work first.
I came out of this past semester’s classes with specific goals for summer break—among them finishing the drafts of several short stories in various stages of completion. So far, I’ve done well to stay focused, and late May/early June brought two acceptance emails—nice payoffs in the midst of this recent creative burst. Over the last week, an idea came to me for another anthology I’ve been invited to contribute to, and though I’ve been making slow progress, that beats no progress. I’m always a slow writer, but circling back to that earlier, contentious point: While there are many different approaches to creativity, even the smallest steps forward day by day will ultimately get you where you need to go.
But here’s the other issue: While I’m working on this story, it’s the other one—that one I’d briefly forgotten about—that I really intended to finish first (an earlier deadline!). Even more troubling, I really need to get both of them out of my head so I can turn attention to the novel idea that’s also banging around in there. After all, it’s coming up on two years now since my debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise, came out—and there’s no next novel even dimly on the horizon—so shouldn’t that take priority?
That was Alan Cheuse’s other bit of advice: One project at a time. And with a glance at my “small steps” metaphor two paragraphs back, a contrary perspective: how will you get where you need to go if you’re moving in different directions one day to the next?
In her essay “A Writing Habit” (from the excellent anthology Rule of Thumb), Lydia Davis takes a more optimistic view of all this, championing the benefits of having multiple projects underway at one time. Hit a stumbling block with one draft? Move to another where you might have fresher energy or fresher perspectives—especially if you’ve previously set this other project aside and can now see it more objectively. Have a sudden burst of inspiration for a third draft you’d put on a back burner? Bring it to the front! Make the most of that inspiration while it’s there.
Davis admits that this approach is chaotic and messy—words which speak to my own approach. But the key to navigating that chaos and mess is “patience”—patience to let stories develop in their own time, yes, but also patience in sticking with each of these projects in the long run, not simply moving on from those various drafts and never looking back. That’s where failure comes.
Some of my stories have come more easily than others. A few very urgent bits ofinspiration and a clear vision for where the story was going helped me to stay on track with writing “Parallel Play,” which was published in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning; it recently won the Agatha Award and is currently up for both the Anthony Award and the Thriller Award for Best Short Story as well. But then there’s “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” an earlier story that also earned some award attention…. The first draft of that story was finished in late April 2007—and then put aside for several years before I came back to it with any idea of what it needed and how to fix the many (many) problems with that first draft. It didn’t see print until 2013.
Patience, yes. Persistence, yes. But did I work every day of that six-year interval on “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants”? Not hardly. Truth be told, on some of those days over those years, I didn’t write a word at all.
Somehow, though, in the long run, I still seem to be getting things done.
Many writers out there, of course, and maybe an equally diverse number of writing processes—and I’m curious: Which piece of seemingly tried-and-true writing advice have you found least useful to your own work? Or to put a more positive spin on that question: Where have you gone your own way—against conventional wisdom—with successful results?
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine.
Great post, Art. I don’t write every day, but very nearly so. When I’m cranking out a first draft, I need to keep my head firmly in that one project. I hate it when page proofs from another series come in or editorial comments on yet another series. I have to drop the first draft, do the more immediate deadline work, and then dive back in. On the other hand, it can be so helpful to take a break from that first draft, even though I don’t like to. But I’ll tell you, when I had little boys at home and a full-time job, I did NOT write a book! A short story here and there fit much better into my over-full life.
Thanks for the first comment, Edith! And I think you’ve hit a couple of good points here. Especially given the number of books you’re writing—and congrats always!—keeping your head in the project is a must, and I found the same thing with my book. I do think that writing every day builds momentum and keeps that machinery running smoothly as I said. But at different stages of life: day job, kids, etc., yep, that requires a different schedule and process and maybe even output. What was the story with Raymond Carver—writing short stories because he could do them around family life? (I think he wrote some of his stories sitting out in the car, at least that’s what I remember.)
Whatever you’re doing, Art, keep it up–it’s working well for you! I really admire your gift for short stories–they’s not easy to write.
When I first started writing (all the way back in 2001) I was all over the place. I’d be working on a couple of things at the same time, and if the inspiration ran out for one, I’d just hop to another, or another. I should point out that none of these early efforts ever sold. I can’t write that way any more–I have to get my head into whatever book I’m working on and keep it there. As Edith said, sometimes other things like edits and deadlines (or life) get in the way, but my focus has to stay with the main book.
As for writing every day? I think you can stretch the concept of “writing.” If you’re working through plot points in your head while vacuuming the living room, that’s writing. If you’re watching people in the grocery store to see how they choose things, that’s writing. It’s all fodder for a book, sooner or later.
I agree totally, Sheila! I’d meant to add that in—what “writing every day” means. I mention “checking in briefly” above, by which I mean at the bare minimum making a note, rereading what you wrote the day before, correcting a line or two, or even (indeed) thinking while vacuuming. All of it keeps the process going—and then when you do have more time, the words and lines and scenes flow more easily.
But I’ve never been able to do the two hours a day minimum (set the timer!) or 750 words a day minimum—just never been workable for me. Maybe that’s the difference I’m talking about.
Ah, the Lydia Davis approach – “chaotic and messy” – that speaks to me!
I’ve found the “write what you know” rule to be particularly unhelpful and have adopted “write what you want to know” – so much more fun.
So much good food for thought here, Art. Thank you, and I can’t wait to read those new stories.
And Lydia Davis accomplishes a LOT, of course—should’ve emphasized that.
And yes to this other piece of writing advice—love your correction to it, so much more interesting!
I’d love to be organized (always drool when I read Edith’s “got this much done today” comments (and now I find she doesn’t write every day) and write every day – been saying that for four years, but I let life get in the way. I’m not even sure I can say I’m fully the Lydia Davis approach, but closer to it. I go in spurts tied to if I have another obligation. Right now, because I need to do something time consuming for a non-writing non-profit project, I’m trying to clear a few weeks by writing blogs in advance, arranging for guest bloggers for some of the days I would write during the next two months, finishing obligations I agreed to write, waiting on news that will tie me to another project… so, what happens, all of these ideas are racing through my head begging me to write or at least start them……..will I? Will you? I certainly hope so in your case because I love your work and am always eager to read more of it.
Hey, Debra — Thanks for the kind words on my work! And yes, agree that working in spurts can/should be strategic. Tara and I did a writing retreat in early January and doing another one in mid-August—and planned/planning very specific things for each week. In the meantime, other schedules to meet other deadlines—factoring in other duties along the way. It requires coordination and planning, no doubt. Organized chaos maybe?
Love this, Art! And I was so relieved when you disagreed with Stephan Hunter. I thought I was going to have to quit reading your post for a minute! My takeaway is that we all have different processes and most of them work. I bought a book on writing by a well known author. I got to the page where the author said something like: this is the only way you can write a book. I haven’t picked it back up. That said the best advice I heard is: sit your ass in the chair — that came from John Dufresne. It’s really the only way to get anything done.
Thanks, Sherry! And I know what you mean about writing advice that talks about the “only way.”
Your comment about Dufresne reminds me of something one of my old writing teachers, Angela Davis-Gardner, once said. Someone asked her about what you do when the muse just isn’t there. And Angela replied that indeed sometime the muse won’t come—but that you have to show up at your desk each day so that the muse will know where to find you.
Thanks for visiting the Wickeds today, Art and for writing such a thoughtful, provocative post.
I’d love to focus on one project at a time. That’s the way my brain works. But as Edith says, you’re working away on one thing and get page proofs for another. And I always seem to have a launch, requiring lots of blog posts and responding to comments, etc., a month or two before my deadline.
It’s just life. It’s no different than my day job where I’d be working away on a board presentation and someone would run in and yell, “The servers are down at Purdue!” Or, home where I’d want to clean the kitchen and a kid would run in and yell, “Rob fell off his bike and it’s bad!”
It’s life and even writers have to participate in it.
Great point here, Barbara. It’s easy to think of writing as somehow different from the real world, a real job (dare I say it?)—romanticizing it even as we try to demystify it. But it is a job—and you can break it down into bits and pieces, same as you would a project for a corporation. Thinking of teaching: I don’t do lesson prep every day, and I don’t grade every day, but I plot out over the course of a week or month or semester when I have to focus on each of those things to get a course to run properly. Same with writing, I think—those various components of the whole process. Thanks for chiming in!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years of reading and being friends with authors, it’s that there is no one rule. You’ve showed that again.
What an interesting post, Art! Thanks for visiting!
I am always leery of writing advice. It’s such a personal endeavor. I confess, I don’t write every day. For me, that seems to work really well. When I’m actively writing a first draft I set very high word count goals per day in order to be completely immersed in the story. On the days I’m not writing first draft I feel no compunction about turning my attention to research, daydreaming, or working on administrative tasks that are so often also writing related.
I think it’s wonderful to hear what works for other people because it can be inspiring. It can spark an interest in trying something you had never thought of before. I think it’s important, however, to follow your own true North as you find your way as a writer. The only thing that matters is that the way you work works for you.
Great post, Art! The writing advice I ignore is, “Get up early and write.” Lord knows I’ve tried–and I have written some interesting bits during early mornings–but it takes me so long to get going in the morning that I waste half my writing time drinking coffee while staring at the computer. I’m not necessarily a better writer later in the day, but I am more efficient.
I wish I could have the summer to write. I write only when I can–lately, it seems, only when there’s a deadline and I force myself to find two or three days for writing and editing. I’d love to write every day, but instead I write in spurts when there is time. I’ve put stories and story ideas aside for years. When I do eventually pick one up, the break (especially if it’s something done but in need of revision) seems to enable me the proper distance so that I can figure out how to fix any problems.
Ahhh. One project at a time. A luxury most people cannot afford. In working life, I had deadlines for multiple projects and the daily events that took place. Answerable to multiple bosses or “customers”(internal and external) for various projects, reports and tasks, one has to be flexible and able to prioritize schedules. One project at a time sounds like a wonderful fantasy! And possibly slightly stultifying!
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