“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Angelica Baker, author of OUR LITTLE RACKET) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they possibly got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
Angelica Baker’s debut novel, OUR LITTLE RACKET, was published by Ecco in June 2017. She has written essays and reviews for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, The Rumpus, and Tin House’s “The Open Bar.” Her fiction has appeared in Violet and One Teen Story. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She currently teaches at Manhattanville College.
1. You should write every single day that you can…
During the year or so before I started writing my book, I solicited writing advice from every possible source. I was preparing for graduate school, starting to imagine what my writing life was going to look like once I’d been untethered from the “normal” confines of an office job, and I greedily sought out any potentially useful nugget of wisdom from every single writer I’d ever admired.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten (or at least flagrantly ignored) many of those maxims, but the one I find myself revisiting on an almost daily basis is this: it’s essential that you write every day because there’s no way to know, in advance, when inspiration is going to strike. Fruitful writing days, for me, often start out feeling almost exactly like useless writing days. If I’m not at my desk when a knotty problem works its way loose in my head, then there’s no chance that solution will ever make it onto the page.
2. …although if you don’t write every day, that’s fine!…
When I say that you should write every single day that you can, I mean that you should build up a habit, establish a routine, and make it feel as much like work—the kind of work where you have a boss who keeps you motivated and honest—as possible. But the unvarnished truth is that you won’t be able to write every day. Aside from days that were set aside for practical concerns, like making the money to pay my rent, there were many days during the four years I worked on my novel that were duds. Sometimes you fiddle with an open Word document for a few minutes before it becomes clear that your mind is sludge that particular day; sometimes, hopefully, you have an hour or so of productive note-taking or editing before you hit a wall. But always, always, there are days when nothing gets done, despite your best and most frantic intentions. And when you have a run of several days like that, despair can creep in. It begins to feel like you’re a delusional fraud, like you’ve let your brain go so soft that it will be impossible ever to whip it back into shape. That self-loathing begins to spiral, feeding on itself with every passing minute of non-writing.
I lost almost an entire year to a severe spiral like that; for months, it felt like I’d made zero progress on my novel. And then I gave some pages to a reader, and when we met for coffee to discuss them, she looked at me with sympathy and a little confusion as I described how useless these months of my life had been. But you are getting something done, she told me. These are obviously moving in the right direction. Why are you being so hard on yourself?
It’s hard to know when “taking the day off” from writing is self-indulgence and when it’s a smart way to avoid one of those spirals. But I’ve learned that I’m never going to be someone who writes every day, starting at nine o’clock on the dot and clocking out at five. My friend was right, when she intuited that I was inwardly berating myself and, as a result, stunting my own progress even further. She was right that I needed to be nicer to myself.
3. …but you should absolutely read every day.
And what’s the one thing that has, all my life, always made me feel better? Reading a book. So while I’ve learned that I’m not the kind of writer who can write every single day, I would be willing to bet that there hasn’t been a single day of my life when I’m not reading the fruits of someone else’s more successful labors. Ironically, reading a book I love almost never makes me feel jealous or petty, not even on my worst writing day. It reminds me of what it felt like to read when I was small, when the question of whether I’d finish writing a book was far less important to me than the question of which book I’d pick up next.
4. Be smart about who gets to read your writing and when you show it to them.
One of my biggest motivations in choosing to attend a graduate writing program was a desire to find a group of readers. My classmates are still doing this for me years later; whether it’s a quick read of a specific passage of my novel that was a struggle, or a deeper opinion on a draft of an essay that doesn’t really seem to be about anything yet, I rely on them on a regular basis (and return the favor whenever I’m asked).
But I knew them well by the time I trusted them to read my novel, and I learned the hard way that giving your work to someone you don’t yet have reason to trust can be a huge mistake. Negative criticism from a trusted reader can be useful because you know you can’t entirely discount his or her opinion. Negative criticism from someone whose tastes and critical eye are more mysterious to you doesn’t necessarily mean much; that person might be someone who would never, ever choose to pick up a book like yours in a bookstore. But here’s the catch: that doesn’t mean they can’t still hurt your feelings or make you doubt yourself. I’ve learned that I’m not yet tough enough—although I’m working on it!—to completely shrug off a nasty or ill-informed comment from anyone, even a reader I don’t necessarily respect. I’ve learned to protect myself, and more importantly my work, by choosing readers carefully.
5. Treat it like a job, even if people around you don’t.
Friends of mine who work in more linear fields have a hard time picturing exactly what it is I do during a day spent “writing.” This seems totally reasonable to me. It’s hard to explain to them exactly how the hours get filled, and I’d be humiliated if they could actually see my endless bouts of crying, pacing, flopping onto my bed in despair, and—yes—cruising through Twitter. But I’ve learned that this fuzziness from other people about what I do makes it all the more essential that I block off my writing time, treating it as something that cannot be interrupted. For years, I’ve worked multiple jobs to make my writing life possible, so there’s always going to be some juggling of schedules. But I try to establish my other commitments in advance and treat the time I plan to spend writing at home as somewhat inviolable. It’s not a free morning or afternoon that I’ll spend writing since I have nothing more pressing to do; it’s work, and I have to show up. There’s no one who would care if I didn’t.
6. Always start with something small.
It’s very rare that I sit down and dive directly into whatever project I hope to spend the day with. Generally, I begin with some sort of small writing or editing exercise that feels like it’s somewhere between “task” and “inspiration.” Sometimes, this can be a small thing I want to read instead, especially poetry. Whatever it is, it opens up the part of my brain that knows that it’s time to settle down, stop flitting from one Twitter link to the next, and work.
7. Don’t read the reviews!
It’s a bit of a cheat to include this on a list of things I’ve learned. It would be much more accurate to put it on a list of things I aspire to learn some time soon. I had a professor who told us once that she hadn’t read any reviews of her work since a particularly savage one for her second novel devastated her; she knew that there was no point. This makes logical sense to me. I understand completely that reading someone’s capsule review on Goodreads, in which my book is criticized because some of the characters in its pages aren’t good parents (according to the reviewer), is an activity that’s at best futile and at worst damaging. And yet, I’ve been reading reviews of my novel. I’ll probably keep reading them for now, much to my boyfriend’s dismay. But I hope, I really do hope, that I’m learning to ignore them.
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