June 22, 2023
By Beth Ann Bauman, faculty, writing for children and young adults faculty
Recently, I had a conversation with a writer friend in which we shared some highs and lows. We’re both chugging along on our novels and have made some discoveries we feel darn good about, but there are places in the stories we’re stuck too. We hashed it out, talked about what hadn’t worked and new ideas we’re exploring. All told, we cheered each other on and felt a little more equipped to tackle our challenges. This is the kind of conversation I’ve had countless times with fellow writers. To write, to create, is to wrestle. The work rarely comes out whole. We explore and discover. We back up and delete. The push-pull of creation is par for the course. The acerbic Flannery O’Connor wrote: “There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it's well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.”
In this post, I’d like to share some of the most useful tips I know that can make the writing process a little easier.
Annie Dillard in her seminal writing text The Writing Life says this:
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
I’ve found this to be absolutely true, and it seems to me what’s she really talking about is following intuition. Consider that when we’re working our subconscious minds have been activated and all sorts of ideas are brewing and bubbling up—ideas half-born, mysterious glimmers, moments we envision playing out far down the line in our work. I think many of us want to write in a linear way—this happens, then this, then this—maybe because our brains are wired for the approach. And we might think hoarding for later is a good approach as well. But what I’ve found to be truer is when I explore a part that seems disconnected from what I’m writing now, that’s kind of vague and misty at this point but nonetheless tugging at me, I often make a good discovery. By exploring it and stepping away from chronology, I discover something about the now of my story, something that informs character or conflict or theme. For me, it comes down to trusting intuition, to follow impulses to see what they unlock. For me, writing is all about unlocking.
Judging your work too harshly? Questioning everything and losing confidence? Here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent advice:
"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."
Let’s face it: it’s daunting to think about audience, the faceless masses judging your every word. Instead, what kid, teen, friend, or loved one would fancy the project you’re working on? Write to that reader, holding him or her in your heart and mind’s eye. This will also disabuse you of trying to sound a certain way. Trying to sound “writerly” is a death knell in fiction. Writing to please one person will make the process natural and enjoyable, paradoxically helping you to meet your high standards.
And finally, a word about patience, something we could all use more of. We live in a fast-paced, results-driven world. We hold high expectations for ourselves and the work, and as such, we sometimes demand too much too soon, leading to frustration. I think the antidote is to allow ourselves the time and space to explore. I’ve learned to be flexible and switch gears when more organic things show up in the work that are better than my original intentions. I’ve learned to get comfortable with uncertainty and trust I’ll find my way. I’m learning to cultivate patience. To think of patience not just as a virtue, but as a skill that can be learned and developed. I’ll give Richard Bausch, prize-winning short story writer, the last word on the topic:
"Remember that a good writing day ought to be simply any day you worked. So just work. The hell with all that anxiety about what may or may not come when you do work. Quit expecting it to dance for you. It’s not about you, finally. It’s about itself. Spend the time. And that’s a good day. That’s a gift."
Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection Beautiful Girls and two YA novels, Rosie and Skate and Jersey Angel.