Finding What Works for Your Writing

I’ve been writing for years—decades; let’s not call attention to how old I am, shall we?—and after all these years of writing I’m beginning to see what works for me in order to get actual, solid work done… and what doesn’t. There are many things that don’t help me write, that, in fact, hurt my writing, such as, in no particular order:

Setting word-count goals; Googling myself; innocently overhearing the word “Goodreads”; seeing ratings of my book in any kind of capacity, bad or good; talking about my ideas before writing them down; showing my first drafts to people who are not my husband, agent, or editor (i.e., people who have a true investment in making my work better); doing public events (I need a day to recover after); scrolling through everyone’s awesome book news on Twitter and Facebook and realizing I don’t have awesome news so am I doing something wrong? am I a disappointment an embarrassment should I stop writing should I crawl under my desk and live there forever (and other stupid depressing ridiculousness); comparing my output to other writers’; comparing my anything to anything at all; writing with the TV on; writing in close proximity to a comfy bed.

But it doesn’t help to only point out the negative and wallow in what’s keeping me from getting good words on the page. What does help is keeping an eye out—and heart open—for what *will* work. And not talking myself out of it.

Here’s what’s worked for me—and what I hope to continue in 2012, the year I have some Big Goals (and bigger dreams I won’t say aloud to anyone, but they exist, yes, shh):

Writing Dates

I used to be a solitary writer—I could never write beside other writers I knew, and I refused to try—and I think this was because I spent most of my hours at some very demanding day jobs, where I was constantly being interrupted by people, and so when I had those few precious hours to write, I needed to be alone and have no one talk to me. The silence fed me and helped ignite my words. But then something changed in the fall of 2009: I stopped working my full-time day job, and the time I had for writing ballooned out into bigger shapes than I ever had before. Suddenly there was too much silence. No one was interrupting me. In fact, no one was talking to me at all—and I began to feel alone and adrift in the world (and more dramatic, as you can see by this description). Now, I’m still keeping busy as a freelancer, but I can rearrange my hours as I see fit, so I usually save all the writing for the morning into midday, and the freelance work for the late afternoons and evenings. And this past year I discovered something that really works for me: going on writing dates with other writers, especially first thing in the morning. I’ve become a bit of a serial writing-dater. I meet different writer friends at different cafés on different days and write next to them. I have a writing group where we meet at a café usually, if we’re good, once a week and talk for forty-five minutes or so and then write. I’ve even traveled off my island to Brooklyn just to write with other writers! Somehow, being with other writers while they pound their keyboards close by keeps me pounding mine. Or being inspired to do so. Or maybe feel embarrassed if I’m not, so there could be a bit of a shame factor in this. Still, it’s the strangest thing: Me, a solitary person who is well known in my family for needing “alone time” voluntarily wanting to do the most intimate thing with someone next to me. And yet it works. So I’ll keep doing it.

Artist Colonies

An artist colony is such a magical idea: a place set aside that houses and feeds and takes care of artists who come for short stays to simply do some work. That’s it. (If you want to know more about colonies, here’s an old blog post I put up with pieces from other writers about colonies they’ve been to.) You must apply to get into a colony—and if you get in, most are free—so it’s not something you can plan for… it’s more something that you dream for. You apply and cross your fingers and hope. I’ve been lucky to be able to be a resident at a few colonies lately: I went to Yaddo in the spring of 2010, to MacDowell in the winter of 2011, and I’ll be headed to Djerassi this spring. I’m very lucky. I keep applying to these places, because I’ve seen how wildly amazing being at a colony is for my writing. I come away with work that stuns me, work I don’t think I could have done in my own distracting real life. There’s a definite, distinctive difference in my writing, so I think the sacrifice to go is worth it. (Sacrifice because it’s hard to be away from home, hard on E, and hard on me missing him, not to mention how it can be difficult to arrange four weeks away from my responsibilities.) I say four weeks because I’ve discovered this is the ideal amount time for me to spend at a colony: not too much, not too little, and very possible to get a massive amount of work done. Now that I know how well these colonies work for me and while I stare my deadlines in the face, I wish I could flit off to a colony when I most need it. (You have no idea how much I wish I could be at MacDowell or Yaddo right now while I face this revision deadline.) But all I can do is keep on applying, and hope to be able to arrange a colony stay every year or two or ten. I’ll keep crossing my fingers.

Downing the Internet

Oh, how obvious is this one. Yet I must put it on the list! Sometimes I get crafty, and bad, and I tell myself that I am a fully functioning adult who is perfectly capable of writing while the internet is on and available in the next window. Some days—days I’m crazily inspired and can’t keep my words from spilling out—this works out fine. But other days, most days, this is not the best of ways to go about writing. So, for the longest time, other writers were telling me about MacFreedom. I should try it, they told me. It will work! Why in the world would I need that ridiculous plugin? I thought to myself. Besides, you could just restart your computer and be back on the internet in no time, ha! I thought, already planning my demise. I made excuses, I rolled my eyes, I did not download the stupid thing. And then came the day when I secretly skulked off and downloaded MacFreedom. Guess what I’m going to say next? IT IS AMAZING. It’s like a firewall between me and the distracting rest of the universe, a physical barrier from me and my worst self. I put it on for 60-minute-long blocks and, often, once the hour is up, I find myself still writing, forgetting I even have the internet to go and goof off on in the other window. So yeah (writer friends, you were right). Other ways I sometimes down the internet to write is to walk far out of my way to a specific café that does not have wifi. I write there in the mornings, thankful that there’s no way to get online. This year I’d like to try to down the internet for whole weekends, but I may need superhero strength to accomplish this feat (also, if I down it for everyone, I could get arrested). We shall see.


Wait, what? Is this a typo? Didn’t I just include Twitter on my list of things that are bad for my writing? Well, yeah. Using Twitter to compare myself to other authors and belittle my accomplishments and lack of new book deal / foreign sales / movie deals / teaching gigs / conference panels and book events / accolades and kittens / etc. / etc. / etc. is absolutely ridiculous. Stupid. Immature. Utterly unhelpful. It’s also not helpful to use other writers’ word counts to make me feel worse about mine. But Twitter can actually make my writing go better… because it helps me feel connected to other writers. And when I see that they, too, are struggling, I feel less alone with my struggles. When I see that they are able to produce work when they’re up against the same wall I keep smacking my face against, a Wall of Doubt, a Wall of Fear, when I see them smash through these walls, I feel like I can force my way through mine. Maybe this goes back to how I feel so solitary now that I’m freelancing and writing instead of working full-time, but with Twitter I remember there is a whole world of other writers out there. And we’re all trying to write the best books we can and then, occasionally, we goof off a little together. Is that so wrong?

Walking Around the Block

I get my best ideas when I’m walking through the neighborhood. Washington Square Park has seen more of my lightbulb epiphanies than I can count, and the rhythmic noise of an express train on the subway tracks gets my imagination running to the point that I’ve occasionally considered riding the 2 train back and forth, up and down, with a notebook, to see what comes. It’s funny that doing something physical where I am actually not sitting in front of my laptop begging words to come will bring those words more often than not, but it’s true. So when things are bad, when things are rotten, when my words make me cringe, I’ve learned that the absolute best thing I can do for myself and for my words is to get actual physical distance from them. Not so much time apart but space between us. Like leave the laptop in the locker at my writing space and walk around the block. Just walk and think and not-write. I forget to do this sometimes. I sit and seethe and I forget that the one thing that can help is always out there: the city where I live, with its beautiful buildings and its cracked sidewalks and its gorgeous dark alleys and its layers of history (who has been kissed or killed in that alley—I don’t know!) and its hidden messages to me in the graffiti of strangers, and so I must remember how well this works for my writing. I should walk through my world more often and then return to my page.

Blogging and Not-Blogging

Over the years, I’ve found that keeping this blog has been a great way for me to warm up my typing fingers, as I know I’ve said before, and get my mind in shape for writing for the day. Sometimes I like to write a blog post about writing and while I’m in the midst of that I discover that talking about my writing process in this forum somehow cements a piece of the actual writing itself. I publish a post and then I’m off! On fire on the page. And just as much as blogging sometimes helps me get in gear for actual writing, sometimes it’s also the absolute last thing I should be doing. Because there are some things I can’t say so publicly here. For one, I’m superstitious and don’t want to talk too much about a novel-in-progress before it’s edited and complete. And for two, because I don’t want to put some of the negative things in my head out in the world, since in truth they’re fleeting. If I blog them here, they become more memorable, more permanent. So lately I’ve been “not-blogging”—I’ve been writing blog posts to the world that absolutely no one in the world ever sees. It’s like I have a phantom version of this blog on my laptop and its only reader is me. Sometimes it’s not important to publish these words and let you read them; sometimes it is enough just to have written them down. It’s cleansing. And I love stepping into my novel when I’m squeaky clean and brushed free of worries and angst and self-loathing and petty jealousies. I’m an open door then. And that’s when the most exciting and surprising parts of my novel will come through. So I blog to keep the door open. I blog to find my way in.

I’d love to know what works for your writing. What do you do that makes your writing better? What would you like to do more of? Let me know in the comments. Maybe some of us will want to try a hand at them, too!

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