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.