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I used to reread Ann Patchett’s essay ‘The Getaway Car’ whenever I got discouraged. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about her stories about waitressing at TGI Fridays while working on her first novel. It’s also packed with practical writing advice that I take to heart: ‘Make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three.’
Sagirah Shahid offers some advice about listening/reading. I’m not sure if it’s the ‘best piece of writing advice’ I’ve ever gotten, but it certainly is wonderful, so I thought I’d share it: ‘Read widely, certainly across disciplines and absolutely beyond the United States and Europe and without a doubt within your own cultural traditions, but also listen to the album, the chapbook, the holy book—listen to that textbook that actually is not a textbook but is the person sitting right next to you on the bus ride home. There is a lesson there, that might also be a poem but you will never arrive to the poem if you aren’t listening.’
Writing is sacred to me. I set aside time each day to write, regardless of how busy I am. To avoid getting stuck, I work on several projects simultaneously: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translation. If the door to the English language is closed, I open it with my Vietnamese key by writing a scene in Vietnamese, then translating it into English.
“I have lived many lives. I have tried and failed at many things. I have won and lost much. I don’t know much, but I believe language lasts. In all its violence and tenderness, it lasts and lasts.”
—Natalie Diaz, in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2020)
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life…offers most of the best advice I have encountered, including: ‘You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks.’ And: ‘Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.’
I’ve been terrible at everything I’ve ever wanted to be good at—dating, tying my shoelaces, athletics, writing, driving, math, drawing, fashion, parenting—the first time I tried it. But years ago, my father, who’s a musician and public-school teacher, told me about how much better his music had gotten when he’d just made it a point to commit to doing it—with focus and intention—on a daily basis. Even when it’s terrible. Especially when it’s terrible. Intentional, focused practice: that’s it. Maybe some people are phenomenal enough to not need it, but for me there’s no shortcut. Not for anything.
Joan Didion said, ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’ The idea of beginning in not knowing is a comfort to me—there’s so much I don’t understand about the world and our human hearts.
Alexander Chee once said something like, When you put something that actually happened to you in a story, you have to privilege the needs of the story and not merely what happened. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I think about that all the time.
“Poetry is a space where we have the responsibility to acknowledge the power of language—all the violence it is capable of, all the tenderness it is holding, and our need to reach forward toward new language at the same time we are returning to older language, so we can carry one another best.”