Because last summer’s writing didn’t yield ample harvest, I questioned the practice -- is there not a better way to spend my limited free time?
Do I like to write -- if so, why?
The best part of writing is the initial creation, bringing to life something from nothing. That is, for me, the true singular joy of this profession.
If I am to take an example from something I know intimately well, it’s writing songs. Do I like to write song drafts and then come back to them several months or years later and revise them into a better song? Not really.
What I truly love is creating spontaneous songs that speak to the moment that they’re being written. These moments, the singular artistic explosion, are what feed me.
But I must avoid self-deception. I used to release songs instantly & without revision. This is because song writing is one of the few places in my life where I can get away with no revision. Creation and spontaneity were the skills I practiced.
These days, I take more time on songs. I might return to a song after months away and find that a finished track is really just a demo. I see the song writing process as one that need not be rushed.
This is similar to what I must do with writing. The problem is I can revise a song in a day, but I don’t have the time or energy to spend weeks or months revising large pieces of writing. Not when my writing output during the school year rarely exceeds zero.
If the limiting factor is time, the answer lies in what I write.
In the past 5 years, my published writing has either been excerpted from stalled novel drafts, or born as flash fiction pieces. Meaning, I’ve either salvaged them from very long works or I’ve created them anew. I rarely go back to old short stories and revise them to current standards.
Look away from the novel. The novel might be what agents want, but is it what I want? I don't enjoy writing them, & I'm not in this for money or fame, so why write what I don't want to write?
What about old story drafts? I have hundreds of starts & half writes. Must I salvage them all?
Think of previous drafts as practice. I am not beholden to them. I owe them nothing.
If I learn how to build a house, am I required to fix every old crooked structure I practiced building before I knew how to do it right? No. Then why would I want to return to old works of fiction and make their shitty structure sound?
Why not start by building a sound structure that is easy to revise because it’s on good footing to begin with?
What kind of sound structures do I like to build?
Very short stories.
Like songs, I can crank out very short stories in a short amount of time. The revision process is fast, too.
Okay, but how do I, you know, return to writing?
The best way, I tell both students and colleagues, is to sit down and start.
The writing might not look good at first. I might not do anything. But I have to commit to the process, which means I must spend an hour with a blank page piece of paper.
Get off the computer if you have to.
This summer, I've written two dozen songs & I am building a shed in the backyard. These things are not done on the computer, and they are not reminders of nine months of Sisyphean endurance (zoom meetings, work memos, student conferences, etc.).
When I’m on the computer, it’s hard to see through the muck & distractions to the blank page I want to fill.
If the way to start writing again is to commit one hour of time each day to the active sitting, what if no great ideas emerge?
If I can’t think of anything, or if when I think about writing I think about all the projects that I haven’t finished, or the novels I need to revise, or the stories I told myself I want to write but then find the process excruciating, just sit and stare at the blank page.
The act of sitting and staring at the blank page creates the conditions for writing to happen. The writing doesn’t need to be planned beforehand. It is the opposite of my other work. My other work requires so much damn thinking and planning. The idea that I might sit down and generate new material from nothing feels intellectually contrary. Accept it.
Get the shit bird off your shoulder. Don’t psych yourself out. Sit and stare and make shapes with your fingers and see what happens. If you can’t do this on the computer, use a journal. If you can’t do it in a journal, print out a stack of white sheets and slide them onto a clipboard.
I might come into a writing session with an idea for a story and that’s great, but if having to commit to an idea scares me off, I let it go. These are ideas that excite me in the moment, but they’re not contractual obligations.
And that’s the thing about a writing career. I am not currently contractually obliged to do anything. So don't act like I am. All of this is my whim. Embrace it.
What moves me now? What makes me want to write?