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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The past two weeks as I’ve been on winter break, I’ve been busily developing a half-online introductory creative writing course for the college where I work. I’ve been spending a good eight hours a day working on the course for the majority of the break, and it has, unfortunately, eaten into my writing time, which I had been so excitedly waiting for as the fall quarter drew to a close. Still, developing the course has been an interesting and useful experience.

As I’ve been preparing lessons and activities to introduce students for the first time to the craft and process of creative writing, I’ve been revisiting the basics myself, which has actually been extremely helpful. I’ve been stressing the importance of revision and suggesting concrete revision methods (like retyping the entire draft or doing several small revisions, each focusing on one specific layer of the text). To help students understand the creative writing process, I’ve compiled quotes from various famous authors talking about how writing is a lot of work, how first drafts are usually terrible, and how writing is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

It isn’t exactly that I forgot these basic truths, but somewhere along the line I began holding myself to an impossibly high standard. I suppose it came from my image of my creative writing career as a ladder, which I’ve been slowly climbing up, one rung at a time. Now that I’ve signed my first book contract (my book, by the way, will be released on January 15th—the countdown begins!), I’ve been feeling this immense amount of pressure to somehow move another rung up—the next step, I guess I’ve always assumed, would be to land an agent—but not only does that next rung up the ladder still seem hopelessly out of reach, I’m afraid that I won’t even be able to remain on the current rung for long.

The result has been that I’ve been seized with a sort of debilitating fear. Or perhaps that’s too strong. I was writing for about an hour a day during the fall quarter, and the only reason I’ve hardly been writing at all during the break is because I’ve been so busy with other things (this winter break, oddly enough, has kept me busier than I usually am when school is in session). Still, I’ve felt as though my writing life has been at a standstill, and whatever work I have accomplished since I signed that book contract almost six months ago has felt, well, for lack of a better word, bad. I’ve been feeling like a very bad writer, and I’ve been worrying, I may as well say it out loud (or I should say, type it out . . . inky?), that I will never be able to produce anything as good as the stories in this one book, my first, which would also, then, inevitably be my last.

But what I realized while preparing the online lessons is that most of my final drafts are being published in my book. Which means that right now, every time I sit down to work on a short story, I’m working on a fairly early draft. It all seems like bad writing to me—and it is—but so were the early drafts of every single one of the stories in Peter Never Came. It took a lot of time, hard work, and feedback from others to get them to the point they’re at now, and just because I have a published book out there now doesn’t mean that my first drafts are suddenly going to be perfect, or that the writing process is going to get any easier or less messy.

Most of the quotes I’ve come across from successful writers indicate that writing never becomes easy. Writers never reach a point where their first drafts are solid gold; writers never become skilled enough that they no longer need feedback, or that they no longer need to spend countless hours agonizing over each new draft.

Or, to put it far more concisely and eloquently, I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Mann, in my favorite of the quotes I came across when preparing my lessons: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Writer Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, of the Three P’s of Post-Montana MFA blog, responded to my goal question from a few weeks back in her own blog post. Her take on the issue of goals is fascinating and very true, and I highly recommend you have a look.

And now for something only slightly different: it’s a complete cliché to talk about someone—especially a female someone—finding that first grey hair and being thrown into a state of reflection about his or her life and what little time remains of it. Yet it happens all the time, and it’s precisely what’s been happening to me, in an extended sort of way, for the past few years.

I have exactly one grey hair—one, at least, that I’m aware of. It made its dramatic entrance about a year and a half ago, when I was visiting my parents in sunny San Diego. My parents, my husband, and I were on a walk, and I guess the sunlight hit my hair just right and my mom—who is much taller than I—caught a glimpse of that meddlesome grey hair. She pointed it out to me, and I laughed it off and tried not to panic, and then, for a while, forgot about its existence.

Every now and again since then, I’ve caught sight of it in the mirror and wondered if I should pull it out. It seems if I have one grey hair, more will follow soon, and pulling it out won’t really change anything. It won’t, after all, make me any younger. A few weeks ago, I got a haircut, and the lady once again brought the grey hair to my attention. I laughed and said, “Yep,” like it was no big deal, and secretly wondered if I’m wrong to think it seems like kind of a rude thing to point out to a complete stranger.

I’ll be turning thirty in a few weeks. Thirty. Fairly young to be going grey, if you ask me. The grey hair, really, doesn’t mean I don’t have much time left. I’m pretty healthy; I exercise and count calories; I don’t think I’m going to die at an unreasonably young age—I probably still have at least another thirty years in me, and probably many more.

Yet another thirty or forty, even fifty years doesn’t actually sound like all that much, when I really think about it.

It took me the first thirty to get my first book published. I’m sure the books that follow it will come more and more quickly and easily, but still, the fact remains that the amount of time I have to actually write all the things I want to write does have a concrete boundary. Thirty or forty or fifty more years is a lot of time, but it is not an infinite amount of time. My time will eventually run out, and whatever projects I haven’t gotten to by then will simply die along with me.

This all seems terribly grim, and I don’t mean it to. I’m not actually depressed or anything like that. Instead, I’m eager. To write this stuff now, while I still can. As of right now, I have plans for two more story collections, four novels, and six children’s books. Those are just the ones I already have ideas for. Who knows how many more will come to me over my remaining years? It seems fair to guess that I won’t get to everything before I die, so the best I can hope for is to get to as many as I can. But the only way that’s going to happen is if I (to quote that awful Nike slogan) just do it.

And so today I suppose I’m thinking about goals in a slightly different way. My goal, right now, is to finish the current draft of the novel that was my MFA thesis, so that I can finish the second draft of my next novel, so that I can write however many more drafts will be necessary until that novel is finished, so that I can write the first draft of whatever novel will come after it, and so on and so on. Until my time runs out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I talked last time about how I think I’m in need of a change to my system of writing goals, and I asked for feedback on how each of you stay motivated and set goals. Your responses were fascinating and have made me completely rethink the way I look at goal setting.

Many of the people who responded talked about the importance of freedom in writing, of not trying to force yourself into a work-like routine. Others talked about setting project-based rather than time or word-based goals, and a related topic: the value of deadlines. Some of you also addressed the importance of flexibility and of not getting down on yourself when you’re simply too busy to write much—for those of us who teach, for example, perhaps we shouldn’t push ourselves too hard when school is in session, and instead, hit it hard during the winter and summer breaks. 

For one thing, learning how the rest of you are handling your own writing goals and routines makes me feel much better about those times when, for whatever reason, I don’t write as much as I think I should. Maybe the key words there are “I think.” Maybe the truth is, there is no “should” when it comes to writing.

Your responses have also made me rethink my idea of setting time-based goals. I still like the idea of writing for two or three hours a day, but the truth is, the individual projects are what matter, not the amount of time you put into them. If I throw an hour or two of my day away because I was really trying to force it, but ended up just staring at the computer—typing a sentence, then deleting it, then retyping it, then deleting it again—was that really time well spent? Yes, I met my goal, but did I really accomplish anything? Should I, instead, have just not worried about writing that day and told myself that as long as I finish X draft by Y deadline, it doesn’t really matter if I work at all today.

Over the years I’ve learned a fair amount about how I work and what tends to work best for me, and I know that I can’t go lengthy periods without writing. I get depressed when I don’t write, if nothing else, but also, I rely heavily on momentum. So I know that I need to pick goals that will effectively keep me going at a steady pace. A missed day or even week now and again isn’t a big deal, but taking a whole month—or months—off from writing simply would not work for me. 

However, I think project-based goals, which rely on deadlines for respective aspects of a project—specific chapters or drafts completed by specific dates—would effectively keep my momentum going, without the regrettable side-effect of making me feel down on myself when I don’t make the goal on any given day or making me feel guilty about doing anything other than writing—reading, grading papers, spending time with friends or my husband . . .

So I’m going to set a new sort of goal for myself for the remainder of the year. During the break, in addition to developing a half-online creative writing course for the college where I work, I’m going to focus on completing yet another revision of my MFA thesis. I’ve had a handful of partial and full manuscript requests from agents, and while the feedback has always been encouraging, I have a pretty good idea of why it keeps getting rejected. I’m going to use the idea of imposing a deadline to motivate me—I want to have this current revision ready to go by the end of the winter break, so I can submit it to the AWP novel contest in January. I’ll also work on short stories and my newer novel as the desire hits, but my overall goal will be to finish this new draft of my older novel.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I’m thinking, again, about goals, and I’d like to get some input from you if you have a second. So here’s the thing: I think goals are extremely important. I’ve talked about this before (in my old blog). I know every writer has his or her own process, but I think it’s the writers who have worked out when and how often they should write (even if they don’t always stick to it) that end up becoming the most successful. Even though writing is rewarding, even though it’s fun and we do it because we enjoy it, the truth is, many of us wouldn’t do it anywhere near enough if we didn’t force ourselves to.

But how much is enough? That’s the real question. How much does a writer need to write per day, or per week, or per month, per year? There isn’t any set in stone answer to that question—the answer, of course, will vary from writer to writer, case to case. And that, I think, is where the trouble arises. Since there can be no concrete commandment—thou shalt write for at least two hours a day—many writers, I believe, at least at the early stages of their careers, struggle with the issue of how much they should be writing.

Some writers err on the side of overdoing it, buying into the idea that if you want writing to be your job, you should treat it like a job and write for eight hours a day. These people lock themselves away from the rest of the world and push their brains to the breaking point, and they end up having very little to write about because part of writing must come from other things—from reading, from interacting with other people, from having genuine experiences that can inform your texts.

Others, though, go to the opposite extreme, seeing writing as an art and therefore something that you must be inspired to do. These people rarely write at all. They may get lucky and pump out something good on the occasion that they actually produce anything at all, but it doesn’t matter—they don’t produce enough work to ever be very successful.

For those of us who would prefer to fall somewhere in the middle of the writing spectrum, the question remains: how much is enough? How much should we be writing?

I’ve often talked about how I have the ultimate goal (partially, I’ll admit, inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from Outliers) of writing for an average of three hours a day. I was able to hit that goal for months at a time in grad school, although I was never able to keep it up for an entire year, and, after I graduated and entered into the real world of teaching three or four classes at a time, I’ve been struggling to keep up with an hour a day average. For the past couple of months, though, I’ve easily been logging an average of an hour a day, and I’ve decided it’s time to push myself a bit harder.

So here’s what I want to know from you: what’s your writing goal? How often do you write and how much do you push yourself to produce? How do you gauge your activity (weekly? monthly?), and do you log time or words? Let’s all pool our experiences, okay? I want to hear from you.