Inside the Practice: Writing
– (noun) the activity or work of writing books, poems, stories, etc.
What do you practice?
How long have you been practicing it?
Since I was a kid.
I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t really start till about 10 years ago. Before that I was doing journalism and essays, building up to being less afraid of trying to write stories.
Has it always been a consistent practice?
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I used to think a regular writing practice was writing one thing every 2 weeks or something.
It’s really intimidating. Particularly when you don’t believe that the things going on inside of you don’t have any merit or could be valuable to somebody else. Which is, you know, in it’s way it’s own kind of narcissism. You think of yourself as exceptional, “I’m not like everybody else…they’re not gonna understand.” You don’t value it either. It’s very self-involved in a really negative way. But that was just being young, and you know dealing with crap.
It still scares the hell out of me, but now I care about it so much — I mean I always have — but I know how to get over some of that stuff. I still feel scared but it’s just noticing, “Oh, here’s this fear thing, but I’m gonna write anyways”.
I still have trouble with it, so I try to read a ton. I had the flu recently for a week and it was right when I had planned on doing a revision of a novel. Instead I just read. I think I read 7 books that week. I mean I was out of my mind with a fever but it was helpful to be doing something.
I’ll never forget one of my professors said, “Yeah for some reason I can’t — I’m having trouble writing. But I’m reading so that counts right?” And I was like, “It DOES?”
I mean, you can’t get carried away with that but it kinda does count.
How does reading count? What do you think you take away from it?
It’s funny, you’ll be a class with some fancy writer or whatever, and a student will ask, “So how do you get better?” And they say, “Well you know classes like this are good, workshopping is good, talking to people is good…but pretty much just read a lot.” And everybody’s, I mean, you hear it over and over after 10 years of studying. It becomes this refrain.
One is: write despite the fear and as much as you can.
And the other one is: read all the time.
What was the turning point for you? When did those refrains become something that you actually put into practice?
There was this one point…I think it was the first year I was writing. Like I said, I’d only write like once a week, and after finishing something I’d be like, “Oohhh that was so hard!” and stumble away from my gigantic Macintosh.
But I think Charles D’Ambrosio said something about — he wrote one of my favorite short stories — I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking, “This guy knows the thing. He’s going to tell me how to do it, you know, how do you write a good story.” And he said,
“Yeah well, you know, I usually do about 20–30 drafts of every story.”
And at the time I made that face that you’re making now, the “Oh, no…that’s….that’s a lot. Oh my god. Hard.” If sitting down for an hour and a half and working on a story feels like hell…27 drafts? I think he said 27 drafts specifically referring to one story. I was like “What the fuck? 27…no.”
And then I realized, slowly, you know, after doing 5 drafts of the thing and thinking, “Wow, this is so much better.” And then, 15 drafts. And now, I just finished a story that I’ve been writing for at least 5 years and I thought it was finished at least 4 times. But this time I finished it and thought, “Whoa that..I am done. I think that’s the thing.” I’m sure that 10 years from now I’ll look at it and think, “Why didn’t I change that?”
And it’s still not right but I understand that 27 drafts is actually a really great thing. If you’re that committed to a story and you like it that much and you want to go through it that many times…it’s going to be pretty solid by the time you get through it.
It’s what it takes.
It takes that kind of revisiting…it is a kind of practicing. You’re practicing writing a story over and over.
Does revisiting ever become tiresome? How does it feel when you are “practicing” writing a story?
That’s interesting. It’s all over the map. You know, because there’s success and then there’s failure and there’s I-don’t-want-to-do-this-right-nows and crap that’s never going to work. I recently discovered a moment when I’m sitting there and I’m think, “This isn’t working. Oh man this is going to take so much to try to figure out how to make this transition work, or to make this scene work.” I kind of fizzle.
In the past it’s made me quit, when I get that feeling. I didn’t make that connection that I’m hitting a hard spot and I’m quitting. But, it’s so embarrassing when you realize that you’re quitting when it gets hard. There’s no clear end point and no one is going to pat you on the back about this thing…
So you have to believe in the merit of stories to get yourself going. And, find the places where you enjoy the process.
It’s kind of famously difficult to push through those difficult moments in writing. But with most writers that I really admire, I’ve seen kind of like a glimmer in their eye when you talk about how hard writing is, where they’re stopping themselves from saying,“Dude you gotta get over that.”
And I think part of it is “butt glue,” like Stephen King says.
Have you taken long breaks? And if so, have you found them healthy?
I’d say even in the last couple years I haven’t taken more than a week off. I could be lying to myself, but it feels like that. I’d like to keep that for the rest of my life. I’m sure there’s going to be points where I finish a huge project — which, I haven’t finished a novel yet — and it’s going to feel like, “I need my life back for a minute.”
I mean saying that feels icky though because this is my life you know? This is a huge part of my life.
So yeah, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me, but it’s so individual. Deciding you’re a shitty person because you didn’t do “xyz” doesn’t help. But a million people will tell you that you’re not a writer unless you “xyz”.
So we’ve talked about the reasons why, and how you push through the difficult times. But, how do you know when to fail? Or know when to shift gears and give up on something? Sometimes that’s almost harder than pushing through something. Because when you’re pushing through something you’re doing something good for yourself, but giving up can sometimes feel like you’re giving up on yourself.
William Maxwell, who was an editor at the New Yorker for like a billion years and who was also a fiction writer , he said something along the lines of, “It’s like digging into your own guts.” If I’m working on a story and I’m not interested in that excavation of my own interior experience and the experiences that I think I observe, it’s not working.
It’s amazing, that feeling of being able to describe something well, of being able to hold a mirror up, making it clearer and clearer and clearer so that you can see the thing. You’re not interpreting the thing, hopefully. Let the other person figure it out. Let the reader figure it out. Just show them the thing clearly.
If I lose interest in that then the story’s dead.
How do you get the sense that something is working?
You get excited. You feel like you’ve chunked off a little piece of your brain or something.
It’s confusing too, you know, because a ton of readers are going to be like, “I hate this story,” because it’s not their deal.
The excitement. If your excitement’s there, then something is happening.
What does your practice mean to you?
I mean I could get really cheesy about it and say that it keeps me alive. It forces me to look at my limitations and my strengths, too. I mean, god, if I didn’t have it I think I’d be crazy. I mean I am a little crazy…
I derive so much joy from reading work, and from nailing a story, or from getting it close to right. And from talking to other writers about writing and what writing does. There’s so much meaning in it for me. I really don’t know if I could be happy [without it].
Was that a slow realization? Or did you just kind of fall immediately in love with it?
It’s so confusing and actually an excellent parable for how my whole existence has confused me and how I kind of confuse myself. I started doing this thing and people told me, “Wow! You’re really good at this.” I was 9. And I was like, “Oh cool! I love this.” I wanted it, and I wanted to do it. But I didn’t do it.
I think that the reasons why are fairly complex, but one of them was I wanted it magically to happen and I didn’t want to do the work. And the other was I thought I should be able to be this great writer and not have to work for it somehow. It was really entitled, thinking that people either are something or aren’t something. People don’t just inherit some kind of literary mastermind.
So it’s a little bit of that debate between talent and determination and which matters more?
Yeah. Or, practice versus inherent skill.
I’m really careful when I teach not to use “skill” and “talent” and if someone uses it I say, “Meh. That doesn’t really matter as much as the work.” I was told how skilled and talented I was and it ruined me from a very young age. It built up this extreme egotism and also this pressure. I mean, I’m fine. I jstarted later — a lot of people do. It turned out okay but it really kept me afraid of my own writing for a long time.
Ira Glass [said] this thing I found that I listen to fairly regularly. He said something like, “You want to make art because you have a good aesthetic sense and you love it. And you start making it, and you know it’s bad.” You look at [your art], and you know what’s good, and you say, “Wow this is bad.” And that’s what was happening when I first started writing. I thought, “Why isn’t this coming out the way I want? I know what I want it to be…how do I make it do that?”
Let’s dig a little deeper on the “how” of your practice. Do you have a routine for your practice, and if you do what is it?
One of them is having my life in order so that things aren’t intruding and I have an empty space to let my brain go. There’s this eastern european psychology guy, his last name is like sixteen letters long or something (let the record state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). But he calls it “flow”, where you’re in a place where it feels as if everything is kind of coming out. To get there it’s easier and easier the more I have a routine and just sit down. There’s those cues — the house is fairly in order, work is not waiting for me somewhere, they don’t need me now, I have a spot, I have a space, I have an hour or two hours. Sometimes the cue is I’m in bed and I haven’t written today, and it’s 10 o’clock at night. I’m gonna open up my computer for a half an hour — in bed — and just sit there and go. Whatever it takes to get it done.
Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that finds it very difficult to keep to routine and be home and stay still. I’m always looking at plane tickets and always thinking about road trips. I’ve got to dial it back and be like, “This is where you get the work done.”
So I sit down at my computer — if it’s the morning — at my desk. Look outside. I always have a cup of tea. I always have a glass of water. And I go until I need a snack. Or , lately, when I hit the point where I hate it, I say, “No. Can’t get up. Keep goin’.”
Having an office is amazing. No noise. My husband knows not to come in. My dog has finally stopped crying at the door. *laughs* But yeah, it’s really gotten much easier to create that space, but it’s taken a lot of discipline to prioritize writing.
Writers are often imagined as someone sequestered at a desk steadily banging out a perfectly-worded novel. But the question most asked of successful writers is something like, “When do you write?” By which people mean, “How do you tell your family and friends, ‘I’m doing this thing that makes no money and takes away time spent with you.’ And how do you push yourself beyond the fear of failure waiting at your desk? And how do you continue despite failure?” The answer, which is hard for a lot of writers to accept at first, is keep failing. Fail, fail, fail. Read, read, read. Revise, revise, revise. And then show your work to others. It’s a slow climb up a tall peak.
Laura Scott’s writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Okey-Panky, No Tokens, Tin House’s Flash Friday, Monkeybicycle, and other publications. She serves as managing editor for Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince (McSweeney’s/Verso 2017), and is one of OneRoom’s novel writing coaches. Find out more here↓
Produced by: Kayla Quock. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in English Lit. and a minor in Education. She worked for the UCB Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion before coming to work at OneRoom.