Category: writer’s life

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.’

For me, often the origin of a new story or project begins with found documents. I have always been entranced by letters, journals, hastily jotted down reminders.

Make it a ritual. Bind writing to a daily non-writing activity so that you have a cue: the coffee, the Kix, the computer. The toothbrush, ten pets to the cat, the computer. Take the pressure off yourself to initiate writing and build it into an external sequence so you don’t have to ask yourself whether or when to begin. It’s decided in advance. The dishes, the gingersnap, the computer.

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.’

For a while I kept a notebook of three images from my day and made my writing students do the same. They could be images from the present or from the past: a red sneaker against a silver background on Philly’s El train, the look on my old cat’s face when he stuck his nose in my ear to wake me up, or whatever else came up that day. When I was empty sitting down to write at my desk, I could flip through this image catalogue and see what caught, what still felt alive.

When my motivation to write wanes, I listen to Stefan Rudnicki read George R. R. Martin’s story ‘The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.’…Something about hearing the recurrent description of a purple sun brings me back to my school years of reading fantasy, and suddenly it becomes easier for me to rebuild the motivation necessary to keep writing.

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.