Writing is Not Like…

For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.

photo by Bohman

photo by Bohman

Writing is not like magic.

They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.

At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading

My Dog Made Me A Better Writer

is=Yup6aQQ-=up6RKKt-xxr=o-qpDPfX7RPfr=Uofrj7t=zrRfDUX-eQaQxg=r Two years ago next week, my dog died. I still miss him for many reasons, but what I miss the most is his companionship while I write.  It’s a strange thing to sit inside all day, not even on the phone or online, simply communing with the imaginary people in your head. But it’s a choice a dog can readily understand.  He never questioned my presence, my lack of motion, my seeming distraction. He accepted that important work can be done that is largely invisible and, perhaps, that this is some of the best work of all.

It’s perhaps a strange, contradictory desire to want companionship in a practice of a craft best pursued in isolation. But writers do seek companionship while writing, in myriad ways—through music, a favorite object, even an imagined or eventual reader.  I spent one winter listening to the same Bon Iver album over and over every time I sat down at my desk. Weird, yes, but as the notes of the first song rung out, I relaxed into my chair and felt welcome. I wouldn’t be alone at my desk as I began to pick out a story.   For a while, I was a member of the Writers’ Room of Boston, which provides quiet workspace for writers, no talking allowed. (The chalkboard in the bathroom is another story.) But still, being surrounded by others hard at work on their books, articles and other projects, even thought I could not talk to them, was both inspiring and cheering; the best of both worlds: companionship and quiet, community and contemplation.Continue Reading

Roundup: Traditions

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Food and family are the most common holiday traditions. For those of us celebrating, it’s easy to predict the Thanksgiving Day spread and which family member will show up late to the festivities. But it’s that comfort of familiarity, of pumpkin pie and your grandfather’s snores from the recliner, that gives us anticipation.

In preparation for the holiday, we’ve compiled some tasty offerings from the Ploughshares blog and around the Internet for you to enjoy.

2946395218_0a2860b0c9From Ploughshares

  • Caitlin O’Neil shares her writing recipe with a few helpful tips on cooking up a good story. Plus get a bonus recipe of Roasted Carrot Soup in how Writing is Like Cooking.
  • Thanksgiving time is often family time, with fathers everywhere settling into a post-turkey coma. But, while the dads of America are asleep, Ian Stansel has a couple replacements in the World’s Best (Literary) DadsContinue Reading

Writing is Like Making Snowballs

Photo by redjar

Photo by redjar

It snowed today. It was supposed to snow, but only for a minute, and it was not supposed to stick.  Instead it snowed all day and as the sun went down at 4:30 (alas) the snow was still there on the lawn.  And while part of me is so not ready for the onset of sneaky snow days, another part was perversely pleased. It was an object lesson in waiting for things to add up.

For the past few months, I’ve been waiting for my writing to add up. I’ve written a short story, attempted a return to the beginnings of a novel, but have mostly been reading and casting about for my next project. Lately, one-off stories or essays don’t feel like enough. I’m looking for something bigger to wrap my arms around. It’s not writer’s block—I’m still writing—but I want my work to add up to something larger. I don’t want snowflakes. I want snowballs.

In writing, there’s a process of thought and accrual that happens before an idea is fully formed. It’s a largely invisible, idiosyncratic, highly disorganized process that I still haven’t figured out. Perhaps a surrender to the chaos of it is what’s necessary, even as I crave purpose and order. Continue Reading

Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

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Writing Is Like Going Back to School


photo by manyhighways

So, if you don’t believe writing is like vacation, perhaps I can convince you it’s like going back to school? Whether we’re still in school or not, there’s a refocusing that comes each September, a back-to-real-life feeling that arrives with the yellow buses and cool Canadian air. We stop scanning the horizon for boats or mountain peaks or clouds, and look down at the work in front of us. We lose the dreamy distance of vacation and refocus on the necessities of the every day.

And this is like writing, how? If you think of vacation as the dreamy phase, when you’re brimming with ideas and feeling excitement expand in your chest from all the possibilities, think of back to school as revision; it’s time to turn on your critical eye and start shaping all those possibles into a particular.

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What Netflix Taught Me About Character Development

imgres-1I didn’t teach this summer so I was able to catch up on my cultural literacy—reading books and also binge-watching TV. Netflix is my dealer of choice, delivering whole seasons of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Arrested Development. The feeling I get when I’m on these jags is a cross between eating too much candy and being immersed in a good beach read:  my eyes hurt, but I am spellbound. When the next episode appears right there on my screen, I can’t fight the urge to find out what will happen next.

This bingeing has also given me the chance to notice how the stories unspool over time (a short time, in my case); how the plot mechanisms fit together; and how the characters evolve over the course of the story. Something about being immersed in a world for a brief, intense period of time that forced me to see what the authors—in this case writers, directors, producers, and actors—were up to and how they went about accomplishing it.

Most of all I’ve been struck by the way these shows develop characters. It’s the way I invest in stories too. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story (and often abandon it.) So instead of an essay on what I learned from my summer reading, here’s one on what I learned about character development from my summer watching.

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Betting on First Books

Photo courtesy Laura Loveday

Photo courtesy Laura Loveday

I thought it had been about three years since I sent my first novel out to agents.  Turns out it was six.  Like the rest of the world, publishing has changed since 2007. A lot. Fewer publishing houses, less money, more e-books, more blogs, more noise to cut through. My first agent, and first book, didn’t work out as I’d hoped, so it was time to search for agent number two. This time around, the first agent I queried asked for the manuscript. Two weeks later, she sent me a kind rejection, saying: “I’m not having the clarity of vision on how to champion this.”

I’ve since sent out the manuscript again, and a few agents are reading it, but this comment has lodged in my mind. I keep turning it over like a strange coin from a distant country, trying to understand its value. What I’ve gleaned from it (and yes, I am reading too much into it, but bear with me) is that agents are no longer just selling your book: they are pushing, preaching it, crusading for it. They are converting to it, then marrying it. So it stands to reason that they must know in their bones how to convince everyone else to take a chance.

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Writing Is Like Going on Vacation

Photo: Rutja76, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Rutja76, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few months I’ve compared writing to walking, mixing a drink, cooking, and baseball, and you’ve indulged my metaphorical ramblings. But writing is like going on vacation? No siree. Writing is work, hard work. Work that takes dedication and thought and effort. Lots of effort. I’d rather clean my bathtub grout with a toothbrush than figure out why my main character refuses to confront his brother for embezzling money from the restaurant. Pul-lease. Writing is hard. My head hurts just thinking about it.

But what if it isn’t? What if it’s like making a list, packing a bag, gassing up the car, and zooming away from your life for a while to visit parts unknown? What if it’s a free pass to try out things you’d never do?Continue Reading

Roundup: Reading it By Ear

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

We’ve had a few posts lately at our blog about the aural aspects of writing, so we decided to roundup some posts on the connection of silent, physical writing to the act of reading, speaking, and listening.

From Ploughshares:

  • 4808475862_01243f6740We recently posted Amber Kelly-Anderson’s “Writing by Ear,” where she advises you to play with your words, Seuss-like.
  • Thomas Lee asks if you should really try to recreate how people really speak with your dialogue – or if it just sounds fake – in “The Way We Talk.”

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