Writing tips from down the road, part 1

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Cliche? Yes. Still gonna use it? Yes.

A couple weeks ago, I started reading Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book about the craft of writing, and, as the title suggests, some of the overlap that has with life. It’s a wonderful book full of beautiful analogies and insight, especially if you are a writer (or want to understand what it’s like to be one), and as I continue in this transitional season, I’ve been looking back on many of the lessons that I have learned on my writing journey. I wound up coming up with a lot, so I’m going to split this into two parts, but feel free to enjoy the first half below.

  1. Be humble. No matter how much you think you know about “your story,” no matter how much work you’ve put in, if people point problems out to you, there’s probably truth in it, whether because you haven’t written what they need or because you have and it doesn’t work. Examine what people tell you, ask yourself if it’s really true, and to what degree if it is. Never assume your audience is stupid or just “doesn’t get it.” Be humble enough to accept critique and that you don’t know everything, even about your own book. Furthermore, be humble in dealing with others. Don’t bash your work (see point 2), but do remember to give space to those around you. Humility brings perspective and clarity about how our work relates to others, and though it might hurt at first, it is important.
  2. Remember that your work matters. There is value in what you do. If not because of any great profundity or humor or beauty (yet), then at least because of the work you’ve put into it. Now, whether or not that will ever translate into commercial success or not is another matter (if that’s even your goal), but that is also, in a very real sense, irrelevant. So what if you don’t become the next J.K. Rowling? You’ve still written something personal, something only you could make, and that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.
  3. Get connected. Writing can be a lonely task, and not having anyone to share your work (or passions) with, can be suffocating and discouraging. Community is vital. Get writing friends because they will comfort and cheer you in your despair and convince you that what you do and think and see is not some secret insanity. Get and love and appreciate non-writing friends, because they may often be those who read, those who pull you back from your various edges and inspire you, and even if they don’t, God still loves them anyway, as should you. Good places to pick up the former are conferences, authors’ events, libraries, book stores and critique groups. Good places to pick up the latter are pretty much anywhere else.
  4. Be teachable. No matter how much you know about writing, there’s always more to learn. Whether it means reading blogs or books about writing, going to conferences, going to school, or anything else, always keep your eyes and ears out for opportunities to learn, and when you find them, appreciate them. Pride will try very hard to get in the way of this, but if you can be humble enough to accept there’s always more to learn–and that you can learn it from anyone–you’ll be surprised how much farther you’ll go and how much more fun you’ll have along the way. Bonus tip: Don’t be afraid that reading about the processes of others will screw up your own. That fear kept me away from a lot of resources for a long time, and I don’t doubt I’d be much farther down this path and suffered less had I realized this earlier on.
  5. Come up for air. Because of the often solitary nature of our work (and often of writers in general) it’s easy to get caught up in our own works, thoughts and emotions, whether to the neglect of our friends and family, to the greed and consumption of pride, or to the gaping maw of loneliness. These, of course, are poison, and just like Wisconsinites who need their brilliant summers to survive the cold bleakness of winter, so also writers need the outside world in order to feed their inner. Writing time is precious and must be protected, but make sure you save time for more important things as well. Spend time with family and friends, get some if you don’t have any, and spend time away from your work. Besides the obvious benefits of keeping you out of the tumbling abyss of your own imagination (or neuroses), it will also stretch and grow you as a person, keep you healthy, and inspire you later.
  6. Require accountability. Procrastination is one of the greatest enemies of the writer. “Research” in the middle of a chapter, housework, exercise, all of these things will cry to you in the middle of your work, to say nothing of books, friends, family, Facebook and other ephemera. This, though to be expected, must be fought, and besides your own failing will, your contacts and community are and will be priceless in fighting those distractions. Set goals for yourself, tell others what those goals are, and ask them to help you keep them or follow up. That’s not to say that they are responsible for you writing or what you do with it (or even that they will do what you ask, and that’s fine), but even just being a group that’s in agreement can be invaluable. This, in my experience, is particularly useful in the case of critique groups and other writers, because very little will make you sit down and write like knowing that others expect you to do so or the dread of the question “How is your writing going?” if in fact you know that it hasn’t been going at all and are running slim on excuses. This is not to say you should write for fear of shame or condemnation, that is never a good place from which to do anything, but it does help to know that people are interested enough in you or your work to ask and that they might be disappointed if you fail to reach the full potential of which their very interest proves they believe you capable.

That’s all I’ll hit you with for right now, but expect another group of these probably in early April. Also, if you have any tips you’d give to people about writing or life (or thoughts, additions or comments on mine), feel free to share them below. I’d love to hear them.

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