When working on a novel, I write every day, 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM, following very strict routines: starting and finishing at the same time, and aiming to get a certain quota of work done. Over time I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to my rituals: When I take the first sip of coffee at 8:00 AM, my brain flips a switch and I’m in writing mode.
When I was revising…there were two nights…where I drank a little gin, listened to nineties hip-hop, and I danced as I wrote and rewrote. I broke night with my poems. In other words, you have to hang out with your book, especially if your book is becoming a living thing.
Victor Lavalle gave us a lot of practical advice in his workshop. The one I use the most often is: Take the best part of your story and move it to first page and start there. Challenge yourself to make the rest rise to the level of that.
I’m so interested in how the sight lines, soundscapes, flora and fauna of our childhoods shape us—how those earliest encounters with the land become part of our private, interior vocabularies of dream and thought. And I love novels and stories where geography shapes plot and gives rise to character. I think the question ‘What’s possible or impossible for this human personality in this landscape?’ is a good starting place for fiction.
“It’s a numbers game, folks. The more you try, the more you succeed. The less you try, the less you succeed. This is true for everything. If you write more, you will write better. If you think about line length more, you will think about line length better. If you submit more, you will publish more. If you submit better, you will publish better.”
—Camille T. Dungy, in “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2019)
When I find myself in the writing weeds, I have finally learned to pay attention to the warning signs: Stop. Go back. Do not push farther in. I resist the urge to soldier on, to muddle through, to fix a line here or there, to delete whole paragraphs that make no sense at that moment, to get to the end of the page….I give in. I nap. Conk out. Let sleep’s hammer fall. Writers write, we’re told endlessly. Yes, but writers must also stop….You only grow when you are lying down. Lie down—the body knits its own plots.
I’m writing a novel, and have been for over a decade. I’ve had periods of great productivity, days when one thousand-word quotas turn into four thousand words….But working on a singular project for years isn’t easy. Some days the writing rushes like the Rio Grande, and sometimes, weeks, months, or even years pass, and my pages don’t budge. Instead, they buck against my will. When those days arrive, I refuel my well, the headwaters supplying my creative stream. I visit historic archives and museums, galleries and art shows, movies and talks….
My writing practice tends to be pretty unpredictable, pretty sporadic, and is usually dictated by a particular image, observation, question, etc. seeming louder or more urgent than the general noise of the day—or than the night.
Another thing I like to do is find one theme in my previous writing that still has juice, that feels like it hasn’t been fully explored yet, and follow it into the rabbit hole. In a way, my second collection came about because of this method. I took one phrase from a poem in my first book, ‘cowboy theme park,’ and started collecting everything I could that seemed related to that idea. It was like finding a loose thread, tugging, and instead of everything unraveling, discovering that it was tied to a very interesting monster.
Terrance Hayes relayed the Thelonious Monk quote, ‘A genius is the one most like himself’….It truly resonated with me because…I think writing should be connected to the constant ever-evolving work of discovering, (re)imagining, and (re)claiming one’s own selfhood.