07 Mar Three enemies of a writer
I didn’t produce many pages in my late teens and early twenties, but I spent an inordinate amount of time re-reading them. I marveled at their rhythm, their evocative images, their emotional weight. I would walk around in our family room reciting them once and again. I almost learned them by heart.
Even today, decades later, when I find one buried in a box, the words wash over me as familiar and comfortable as my threadbare favorite t-shirt.
I recently recognized my young writer self when I read these lines in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
“Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If he has read the pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.”
Enemy # 1: Lack of emotional distance
As a budding writer, I had such emotional closeness to the pieces I wrote, after reading them so often, that it was hard to accept criticism or undertake major revisions. My stories sounded perfect to my ears, like a beloved poem I had learned by heart as a child.
This resistance to rewriting clipped my wings. When somebody read my stories and had objections, instead of believing that they needed more work, and getting down to it, I shoved them in a drawer, never to be read — or criticized — again.
Last month I sent a personal essay to a writer friend to get her feedback. I realized then how far I’ve come.
She suggested, among other things, that I cut several paragraphs. I loved those paragraphs. They were well written and interesting. But in her opinion they distracted from the main story line. They hinted at other pieces that I might write in the future.
After thinking about it for a bit, I followed her advice. I quickly saw that she was right. With those lines cut, the piece was better. I felt very grateful to have somebody who helped me tighten the story.
I finally have achieved the emotional distance every writer needs to wrestle her writing to its best possible shape.
Now I do re-read and read aloud my stories, but not to excess, and not every step of the way. I don’t want them to become precious fossils, gathering dust on a high shelf. I want them to be live animals that breath and change. I know that only a slow metamorphosis will allow them to peak. As John Kenneth Galbraith says,
“I do not put that note of spontaneity that my critics like into anything but the fifth draft.”
Enemy # 2: Not protecting your writing time
I’ve had a zigzagging life. It has given me tons of material for stories, but also long stretches when writing took a back seat.
There were different reasons that weakened my devotion to the craft, but the number one excuse was always the same: I don’t have time to write.
I knew it wasn’t quite true, but I refused to accept it.
Most published authors don’t have the luxury to write full time. They hold jobs, raise kids, clean their houses and go grocery shopping, like the rest of us mortals, but they carve a writing time.
The bottom line is that, for many years, I didn’t prioritize writing, except in my dreams of being a best-selling author. It was easier to trick myself into believing that if only I had the time, I would be writing like crazy. This way I didn’t have to face the real reasons I was avoiding it: fear, lack of self-esteem, and a self-destructive impulse that has taken decades to curb. To be fair, another reason I didn’t write is that I threw myself passionately into whatever else I was doing.
Now I protect my writing time with all my might. As author Louise De Salvo says in The Art of Slow Writing:
“If you want to write, you have to give something up. Often, you have to give up a great deal.”
I’ve given up a plum corporate job to become a freelancer. I have a flexible schedule and more mental energy for the writing life. I’ve cancelled many expenses, from a gym membership and organic groceries to the occasional dinner out, evening movie or chiropractic treatment, so I spend less time making money and more time focusing on my craft. I’ve rented my home office and created a mini-office in my bedroom, to get a bit of extra income.
Some sacrifices are tougher than others, but when you make up your mind that writing is your priority, every single one of them is worth it.
Enemy # 3: Poor organization
I’m usually very organized, disciplined and hard working. But lately I have trouble keeping my multiple writing goals on track.
I feel like a kid in a candy store. I know two dollars can stretch only so much, but everything looks so appetizing that I keep shuffling from one foot to the other and going from container to container.
These are the shiny lollipops and sour gummy worms that beckon to me every day:
- The memoir I’m working on, which is now marinating mid-course while I think through its scope and structure.
- The blog posts about memoir and the writing craft .
- The blog posts about leadership that I publish in LinkedIn and in Medium.
- The literary personal essays that I write at a snail’s pace and submit to magazines and contests.
- The children’s book that I’ve been asked to co-write. I haven’t said yes yet, but I’m thinking about it.
Add to these “love” (=unpaid) projects, paid freelance work, essential to survive and rewarding on a personal level: helping other people write their memoirs or editing their books, writing articles for clients, translating and localizing content for a Hispanic audience, teaching, and working as a medical interpreter. With so much going on I sometimes feel overwhelmed, get disorganized and become ineffective, especially in terms of what writing project tackle next.
I think that once I get back to writing my memoir it will take precedence over every other (unpaid) writing project. In the meantime blogging and short personal essays flex my writing muscle and teach me about the craft.
That said, I do need to prioritize. I have to create a publishing calendar that allows me to meet my writing and career goals without going crazy. I’m working on it. I will let you know how it goes.
Do you face these three enemies of a writer?