“You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better. I think it’s a good idea, especially when you’re younger, you keep your hand in by writing something everyday. So I recommend it, but it’s another one of those recommendations that I myself have been unable to follow.”Margaret Atwood
“To write a genuine familiar or truly English style is to write as anyone would speak in common conversation, who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.”William Hazlitt
He’s regarded by many as one of the finest composers alive today but Philip Glass didn’t catch his big break until he turned 41. Before then he worked odd jobs as a plumber, furniture mover and a taxi driver in New York where he once picked up a group of men fleeing a store they just robbed. In-between shifts and taking his children to school he wrote music and later toured with an ensemble for weeks before returning to work. Glass said he expected to work a day job for the rest of his life.
His life story soothes my anxiety about success because, unknown to myself, I’ve carried the belief that success only comes at a certain age or it doesn’t come at all. Nice to know that isn’t the case.
Last week I browsed Brevity, a website dedicated to the brief essay form, and I chanced upon a blog post by Kate Walter called ‘Rotating the Writing Crops‘. After working long and hard during the pandemic to publish her memoir Kate, naturally, ran dry. Some time afterwards an editor commissioned her for an assignment and while writing it a metaphor occurred to her: farming and rotating crops.
“The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.”
A few months ago I was working hard on an essay of my own, but after three months work something gave out. I couldn’t continue with it. Diminishing returns. I took a while for me to recognise what happened but I took it as my body’s way of saying enough. Yes, work ethic goes a long long way in sustaining creative output, more so than inspiration, but sooner or later something will give. So, for now, I’m working on lighter (but no less loved) forms like haiku and haibun while my own essay crop lies fallow.
final resting place …Michele L. Harvey
the wind decides
dregs in our glassesFrank Hooven
you lay your day
on top of mine
someone’s newspaperJack Cain
drifts with the snow
searching the cupboardFrank Dullaghan
for the answer
to why I opened it
A few quotes on, as Robert D. Richardson put it, “the daily struggle for adequate expression”.
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”William Goldman
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”William Zinsser
“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”Richard Price
“When I started both of my books, at first I fell into the same mindset trap of thinking too far ahead — “OMG, 100,000 words to go, why did I get myself into this?!?” Now I keep the phrase “cutting stone” on a little white board on my desk, a reminder just to take each single, barely perceptible axe-chop at the stone at a time, and eventually it will be ground to dust.”Dave Epstein, ‘Start Where You Are‘
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”John McPhee quoted in Cal Newport’s ‘Slow Productivity‘ post.
“The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly, asserting the facts as you understand them, your perceptions as you’ve gathered them.
Part of the trouble may be this: you’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough, your sentences not clever or original enough.
But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful? What if allowing us to see what is accurate and true is among the best work writing can do?
One purpose of writing -its central purpose- is to offer your testimony about the character of existence at this moment.”Several Short Sentences About Writing (p.132-133), Verlyn Klinkenborg
“One question a teacher of writing is often asked, in one form or another is: “Do I have it?” Or, you know, “Do I have it?” That is: “If I keep working at this, will it, in the end, be worth it? Am I a real writer? Will I be able to publish? Can you guarantee, based on what you’ve seen of my writing (of me, my life, my disposition), that this will all work out?””
Speaking from the heart: I have never been able to tell, at all. Honestly. Even among our very gifted students at Syracuse, I would never hazard a guess. There are too many variables and too many unknowns.
… for her, the writer, the game is not: “First, satisfy myself that, if I do the work and put in the time, all will be well, and then, well-pleased, go ahead and do the work” but, rather: “Do the work in order to find out.””George Saunders, Story Club, Issue ‘Joy, not Fear’
If you haven’t already I’d recommend subscribing to George Saunders’ Story Club newsletter. He’s a superb writing teacher.