Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Clare Beams' Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Clare Beams, author of We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books), offers and accepts some tips.

Ten Pieces of Writing Advice
(Addressed In No Small Part to Myself)

1. Be patient. I’m putting this one first, in case you have to learn it over and over, like I do. Publishing takes time. More importantly, writing well takes time. Creative work sets its own pace, almost always a slower one than you might set for it.

2. Keep working. I graduated from my MFA program in 2006, so my cohort of fellow students has now had a decade to make its way in the writing world. So far as I can tell, the only real difference between the group of people who are actively writing and the people who don’t seem to be is exactly that—they kept writing. (Though of course some of the people who’ve been quiet are just patiently incubating.) So far, it seems, those who’ve been writing and publishing aren’t always the ones who were the superstars of our program as students, or the ones who seemed to be the pets of our professors, who seemed to be cultivating invaluable literary networks. They’re just the ones who’ve kept writing, for years, and gotten better at it.

3. Forgive yourself, up to a point. #2 aside, life intervenes. It gives you new jobs, new babies, periods of terrible or wonderful upheaval. You might not manage to write during these times. Remember that not writing is not a crime, not a meanness, that you are not hurting anyone when you don’t write.

Just remember, too, that it’s waiting for you.

4. Write what only you can write. It’s wonderful to be inspired by what the people around you are doing. But what someone else is doing should never be what you are doing, not exactly. Figure out what only you can say (this takes time; see #1), and then keep trying to say it.

5. Find joy. Making time to write in the midst of life is not easy. It’s a lot harder if you’ve loaded writing up with so much freight that you can hardly bear to do it. If your current project is making you miserable, take a break and write something else that excites you, even if it doesn’t feel like your real work. Write something totally new, something that makes you remember why you loved writing to begin with.

And anyway, the real work is sneaky. It isn’t always what you think it is.

6. Be good to other people. This advice isn’t specific to writers—but no matter what happens with your writing, remember that you aren’t exempt from it. You may and should love your writing, and tend it, and carve out the time and attention it needs. But you should also try to remember that your writing is not a person.

7. Print things off. A practical tip that changed things for me—if you compose on a computer, print off your drafts long, long before they’re anything approaching ready, and then tear them up with a pen. You can tell yourself you’re just tinkering, which somehow lowers the stakes, even though you may actually be rewriting 90% of what’s on the page.

8. Trick yourself. Truly, whatever keeps you in the chair. Need to block off Internet distractions while you write? Block, block, block. Need to be able to dip into Facebook so you don’t panic and give up entirely? Facebook away, and then come back. Write only on the computer, or only longhand with a certain kind of pen. Refuse to allow yourself to get up, or roam around the house or the neighborhood and then return. Give yourself a word-count goal, or a length-of-time goal, or no goals at all. Just talk yourself into doing the work somehow.

9. Don’t overthink. There are exceptions to this one, I’m sure, but in general, don’t spend too much time crafting a grandiose scheme for what you’re writing before you actually write it. Grandiose schemes can only live in sentences.

10. Read. Read widely. Read to learn. Much more crucially, read to love—because reading this way is probably part of why you started writing in the first place.