5 Practices for Living a Writer’s Life

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You can find a lot of advice on how to live a life as a writer by using your notebook, laptop, or keyboard. But how about away from the writing itself? What do practiced writers do when they’re away from the work? They keep it in their minds and their hearts. They use five practices.

Magic Paintbrush1. They read. Everything you read, as a story or a book, helps your writing. Once you start to write, you look at every story differently. While you do that, you’re looking for parts of stories that are just like yours. The premise, like a priest falling in love or a reporter fighting a pandemic. Or a character with a trait like yours. Or just writing: good that you want to emulate, not-so-good you want to avoid.

2. They study the craft with guide books. There is so much to learn about the craft of making stories. You will be reading as long as you love to learn how to be more skilled in your writing. Find books on making scenes. Find books on point of view. Find books on creating beautiful settings, or vivid places where evil lives. Fellow novelist Margo Raab told a story about writers working on craft. Her friend went to a food-writing course, and who should sit down next to her but Julia Child. “What are you doing here?” she asked. Julia replied, “Well, when you love doing something, how can you ever learn too much about it?”

3. They make Artist’s Dates. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron includes one fun practice. Reward yourself with an Artist’s Date. Go someplace and make a date with your muse. A park you don’t usually visit. A museum. A concert or a library. Even a coffeehouse. Drink in the setting, the colors, the new sounds. Feed your artist with new experiences, once a week.

4. They look for characters in life. Every time you’re in line, in a crowd, attending an event or even a party, look around. People who could live in your stories are all around you. The looks on their faces, the clothes they wear, the gestures they use. Someone could look just like you’ve imagined your heroine to be. People you see in person are the most vivid.

5. They listen for stories — everybody has one. While you talk to people, encourage their stories. Learn and listen to their lives. Even at a coffeehouse (see above) stories are right at your elbow. Practice gentle eavesdropping, listening. Every story has a way of working into your own storytelling.

If you practice your writing regularly, much of what you see and live will have a chance to pop up in your storytelling. Live to be a writer by letting your non-writing time enrich your story.

What have you done, away from the page, that’s helped your storytelling?

Yes, it’s hard. The hard is what makes it great.

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Earlier today I sketched out some basics to get fiction onto the page. Just storytelling, but there are a lot of things to think about. Creating character. Plotting. Sensory experiences. Making entertainment out of trouble, pumping up the drama so we care how things are going to work out, if they ever do, in a story.

“Wow, this is a lot. It sounds hard.” But notes went down onto the page about everything. My writer had it, that desire to tell a story.

On the bottom of my computer monitor there’s a little pink Post-It Note. A quote from creative coaching.

Once we acknowledge the truth, and stop fearing hard work, we grow enormously.

I would add, our storytelling ability and experience grows enormously, too. We aim ourselves at great. We fall short, but we aim again. In a part of my house next to the home studio where the classes and groups meet, there’s a beloved old poster. Under a sketch of a circus clown, it says “Why dream of being good, when you can dare to be great?”

Tom HanksAnd so I come to one of the moments that can keep me in the chair whenever it gets hard. It gets hard for all of us, no matter how long we do this storytelling thing, practiced through writing. Tom Hanks said it in A League of Their Own to Dottie, Gina Davis’s star catcher who’s leaving the all-girls team to go back to marriage. “It just got too hard,” she said.

“Of course it got hard,” said Hanks, her team manager. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” More

Boundaries spark creativity

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It’s easy enough to revel in the first-draft mania of a writing project. This is important time, the period to clear your pipes and empty that tank of ideas and dreams. The genuine creation time, however, is when there’s a deadline and a word count or a page count to meet.

That’s what drives Saturday Night Live, according to its producer Lorne Michaels. He’s been interviewed on Alec Baldwin’s top-flight Here’s the Thing podcast. Michaels said that “I believe creativity doesn’t exist without boundaries.” For him there’s both a page count and a deadline. The show is ready by 11:30 Eastern Time — or as he puts it, “it’s not ready, but it’s got to go on the air at 11:30.” At some point, a piece of writing needs to meet a deadline to show to a writing group, an agent, a contest, or a lit mag’s submission date.

And SNL needs to unspool in 90 minutes total time — so plenty of it has to be dropped or shortened to meet time. Sometimes whole skits are dumped if they don’t work out during the frantic six days before airtime.

Boundaries exist to create choices, and some people believe that choices are all there is to define art. There’s a great scene in the movie Wonder Boys. Novelist Grady Tripp is slogging through his second book after a debut success. You see him creep into his study and take a page and feed it into a typewriter. He lines up the paper for a page number and types 261 — then looks around and adds a 4, for a 2,600-plus page manuscript. Later his grad student Hannah reads the wooly piece of writing and confronts him about it.

Hannah glances at the huge stack of paper sitting on her dresser, then, hesitantly, looks back to Grady.

		It's just that, you know, I was thinking about 
		how, in class, you're always telling us '-that 
		writers make choices--at least the good ones. 
		And, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the 
		book isn't really great-I mean, really great-
		but at times it's, well, very detailed, you 
		know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses 
		and ail the dental records and so on-and I 
		don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it sort of 
		reads, in places, like, well, actually, like... 
			(with trepidation)
	...you didn't make any choices at all.

Let choices of page counts, deadlines and characters establish the boundaries that can spark great writing. And remember, sooner or later it’s 11:30, and time to finish the creation.

The Free Dictionary: page definition: a youth being trained for the medieval rank of knight and in the personal service of a knight.

One chapter at a time, revising goes

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I’ve assembled a schedule to get me to the end of Viral Times, the novel project of my past six years. Two hours a day, five days a week, three or four chapters. Taking a carving knife to 129,000 words. Not so bad, if you look at science fiction standards, where 120K is the top end. I always wanted to start at the top, after all.

It’s especially educational to revise writing that you penned more than four years ago. Talk about a cooling off period…

Chapter 25 is now complete, with 22 more to go in about six weeks. I’m in the oldest material now, one of the five attempted starts to the book. (It’s finally got a prologue, so there’s no doubt where it begins.)

The good news is that the writing to come will get easier to revise, because it’s fresher. If there’s a shiny center to this cloud of words, it might be in seeing how much my craft has grown up. A funny thing to consider, growing up, when you’re already past 50.

“You just have to take it bird by bird, buddy.” That’s the advice that Annie Lamott’s dad gave her brother, who had procrastinated on a school paper about birds. In Bird by Bird the boy had dozens of books on the table and it was time to finish. For me, too. There’s another, newer book, about a much older time, waiting inside.

Blogging tips? Writing tips!

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One of my blogs — the day-job journalism — is hosted on TypePad, a combo of the Moveable Type blog engine and a hosting service. Great value at $15 monthly for up to five blogs. Recently they offered advice on blogging better, ten tips.

I loved the first, words to live by as a writer:

1. DO write about what matters to you.

Blogging is a different kind of writing than most, except maybe the personal essay. That doesn’t mean that blogging can’t serve the masters of oh, journalism (see open.salon.com) or instruction on craft.

Most important, it’s a way to keep your fingers on the keyboard, a warm-up if nothing else. Plus you will get known by people you want to gather into your life, if you’re lucky.

How valuable is the idea?


Tonight over a few brews, after a bike ride, a friend asked me about ideas and writing. I mentioned that I’m heading back to Iowa for the Summer Writing Festival, and described the workshop process up there. Manuscripts get shared among those classes, we comment and mark up the writing, then tell the writer how we felt as readers while consuming the story.

My friend asked, “Aren’t you worried about people stealing your ideas?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before, so I had a ready answer. “Not at all. The idea is not the most important part of my creative writing.”

Why? For me, it might come from my years in the theatre, creating roles. We worked from the character outward, reading every line we had been given, looking at the relationship between our character and the others in the play. We were hungry for details of description, habits, beliefs, age, blind spots. All the things that make up a memorable, vivid character. We made up what we didn’t read, found motivation and meaning in costume and voice.

So I’ve learned to build my creative writing from that foundation. Who is it that reader is seeing and hearing on the page? What does that character want more than anything? Answer those questions for everybody in the story, and you’ll have an idea that flows from character. I’ve never been one to start from plot, the heartland of ideas.

The fellow who wrote screenplays like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Pat Duncan, schooled us on the relative value of ideas during the Heart of Texas Screenwriter’s Festival in Austin. He said he’s got a file cabinet full of ideas. Duncan said “Start with a character with a problem, or a situation or a place you want to explore.”

Stealing? Sure it goes on, and artists quip that “if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, the masters.” But what they mean is to steal technique, style, or structure; the substructure of story that is almost impossible to duplicate exactly. Start with the same idea, two writers might. By the time they finish, get through rewrites of their own, or from agents and editors, and they won’t have the same book.

Forget those copious copyright notices on your manuscripts. Make your characters vivid and original and give them tough problems. That’s where the ideas come from, and the ideas are like water in the sea. It’s the fish that draw our interest.