Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's the Writing, Stupid

My friend Karen said it: "It's the writing, stupid." We were talking about persistence, arguably the most important writing habit, but we agreed: persistence is more than torpedo-style submitting. It's more than creating the perfect submittal-organizer database, and it's more than hunting down the perfect agent.

Persistence is about craft. It's about revising your story until there is not a single spare word. Until every line serves its two purposes: advancing the story and revealing character. It's about reworking your prose until your novel, as Ron Rash once advised, is one long poem. Persistence is about sweating it out until your prose is so smooth it makes your reader forget he's reading. It's about the years that go into this, the mornings you rise, and, again and again, confront your words, your story. It's about a level-headed honesty and a belief in the impossible, about pushing your story until nothing about it nags at you, until there are no parts you frown over or try to ignore.

It's about tossing the story that simply doesn't work. Throwing out the novel that, you now realize, after months or maybe years of work, is invaluable only for what it taught you. Though giving up on an entire novel is oh so tough, you can't regret the time you've spent with it. It's about taking those lessons and starting all over again.

Don't get me wrong: publishing is important. It's very important. It is what we're all striving for. And, I've spent my share of time poring over duotrope and new pages. I've spent whole afternoons--precious, child-free writing time--licking envelopes, setting up databases to track where exactly my stories are and how long they've been there. I've cried real tears over rejection letters, I've given up. I've gloried at the acceptance email, I've loved the sight of my words in print. What we writers want are readers--we want eyeballs on our words--and the regular practice of submitting is the only way to go about it.

So, go ahead. Submit. Submit like mad. But don't let it distract you from what is really, really wonderful about all this: it's the writing. It's the butt-in-chair time. This is what we're here for. Why we show up at our desks every morning. What we fell in love with in the first place.


sherylmonks said...

It was so gratifying this week to read what my Expository Writing students said they'd learned about themselves as writers this semester. The most important thing they learned was that writing is a process. Taking short cuts is a sure way to stay where you are. But trusting the process, the whole process-- though it seems longer and slower-- in the end, is not just the quicker method, it's the only one that truly works for improving us.

I love what Anne Lamott says about perfectionism, and I think a maniacal need to be published has something to do with perfectionism-- she says: "It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft... Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get." My students, all students I would venture, suffer from the same fear of messiness involved in pre-writing, planning and drafting, and so forth. I suffer from it myself. Who wants to descend into chaos? There's the fear of being sucked under completely. Publishing is head and shoulders and chest up out of the water, gliding beautifully across the ocean you've conquered, all its dark dangers safely beneath you, behind you. But it's down there with the suckery-legged, sharp-toothed, irridescent-eyed swimmy things where the treasure is buried.

It also reminds me of what the great Stephen Covey says about the law of the harvest. We know that in the natural world we cannot harvest what has never been planted and watered and fed and weeded and tended to properly during the growing season. But as writers, we sit still for 30 minutes and think, Phew, that was some hard work. Now, how do I find an agent? And it's not just beginning writers. Few of us seem to really settle down and simply enjoy the process, and I certainly don't include myself in that group. But imagine the joy of seeing ourselves as seed, beginning to burst open and sprout, to grow the tiniest tender shoots that reach up through the dark loamy earth toward the sun, and so forth. No one mentions in graduate school or workshops that it takes this kind of patience. If you're lucky, you learn this on your own. Or you stumble across some sage advice on the internet :)

Susannah said...

sage advice, indeed!

(incidentally, my

Susannah said...


My security word just then was "habilog" interesting blend of themes...hmmmm

Susan Woodring said...

Sheryl, your comment was better than my post! Thank you for this! You are so right about trusting the process--I was just talking with my class about this. I said, if you find yourself in the middle of a mess at some point during revisions, celebrate. This means you're getting close to a break-through.

You know I LOVE Anne Lamott--what she says about shitty first drafts has changed my life--but I hadn't heard Steven Covey's harvest analogy. Love it.

THank you!!

Susan Woodring said...

Oh, yes, Susannah! Habilog--love it!!

I'm so glad you took the class. I enjoyed it so, so much--and I'm looking forward to reading everyone's stories...

sherylmonks said...

Yes, thank you for giving me a copy of this book. Radio KFKD really struck a nerve! And yesterday, sitting down was so incredibly hard, so hard to sit still, to move into all the old, very cold stuff that's been on the back burner. All day long, I just wrestled with one terrible piece of a story after another, late into the night. But then, about 10 pm, I finally began to hit upon something. I ran back up to the office and got it down and then collapsed and dreamed out new things, solutions, little revelations. Though I'm still not sure where it's all headed, it just feels so good--just being in this heady space where Radio KFKD can't enter. Truly is one of the best feelings and worth the struggle if for no other reason than that, just turning down the volume of the world.

Habilog! Yes, interesting blend indeed, Susannah.

Susan Woodring said...

I agree, Sheryl, it's so worth it, the wrestling our way into that space, that quiet, nowhere-space. I love it. It's gratifying to read your account of it, and I think it answers every doubt any writer ever has--why do I keep doing this? As you say, it's about turning down the volume of the world. I love that.

I think that book--Anne Lammott's Bird by Bird--truly has something for everyone. Honestly, the best writing book I've ever read. I can't get enough of her talk about tidiness and shitty first drafts. If I didn't believe in the fixability of everything I write, I wouldn't be able to write a single word. Ever.

Glad to hear you're geared up and writing with gusto. I can never get enough Sheryl Monks fiction.

jessica handler said...

Writing is to me like nourishment. I can get by without it in short bursts, but I only feel right, feel well, if I've written. Something. Anything.

Kathy Waller said...

Caroline Myss writes about the bookstore mystic, who reads about mysticism rather than doing the work required to become one. I'm a bookstore (and now blogstore) writer. I prefer reading Anne Lamott to listening to Radio KFKD while I try to make something out of nothing. On the other hand, while I'm laughing with Lamott, I deny myself those moments when, stuck in the middle of a nausea-inducing passage, I happen on just the right word or revision and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, come unstuck. I forget the process--nausea, then flow--and so keep Lamott around to remind me. I've recognized that I lack the faith that would drive persistence. Reading your post, I realized that persistence can also generate faith. Thanks for enlarging my point of view.

Susan Woodring said...

Jessica, I know exactly what you mean. If I'm not working on something, or if it's been a day or two since I've sat down to write, I'll start to feel a little off-center, a bit lost, really. Nourishment. Absolutely.

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, I love what you say about the process--nausea first, then breakthrough. Also, I love the thought that persistence leads to faith and vice-versa--I'd never thought about it in those terms, but yes, that's it exactly. Persistence and faith feed off each other.

Kathy Waller said...

Here's the rub: It's a chicken-and-egg thing. You have to start with what you've got. If someone handed me a large, leak-proof container of faith (perhaps in a hope chest?), I might persist. But I carry my faith in a sieve and so must begin with persistence, which requires a certain amount of jump-starting. The preceding demonstrates why I usually leave metaphors alone.

emilberry said...

So true! Thanks for the continued inspiration. :)

Jessie Carty said...

terrific post and comments :)
I just retired a flash fiction piece this morning that just wasn't going anywhere and I felt totally ok with it.
Wanting, however, to start a new fiction piece this afternoon is really a problem. I can't think of where to start. Need to start an idea sheet just for stories. I have one for poems and essays but why not stories? Perhaps I don't trust myself as a short story writer?

Susannah said...

Jessie~ A wise writing teacher once told me to start here: you find a wedding cake in the middle of the road...


Some prolific writers collaborated & put tgether a book of their responses to this 'prompt.' Might be worth checking out @ the library for a little inspiration!

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, no, I LOVE your metaphor--the relationship between faith and persistence--completely a chicken-and-egg thing. I think we have to glean our faith in writing, starting out, from the process itself. We can look around, see how others have managed, and think, yep. I can do that. I remember when I first started writing how desperate I was to hear others' telling about how their persistence paid off. I tried everything they tried. I still do this, try to pick up good habits from the writers I admire. If it helps William Faulkner to sharpen a slew of pencils before he gets started, I'll try it. Once, I typed blind-folded because that's how I heard Kent Haruf (sp.) does it. Next, I'm going to research writers' diets, see if John Irving is eating more leafy greens than I am.

Susan Woodring said...

Emily, thanks for stopping by. I hope revisions on that ss of yours is going well...

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, I think your point about trusting yourself is very interesting, and so true. Could be that's what we're talking about when talk about persistence leading to faith which leads to persistence. I wonder how you get there? To trusting yourself? At the same time, we have to constantly push our work, questioning it. Oh. No wonder this stuff is so dang hard!!

I hope you've gotten a good start on your new story. I'm so impressed with how multi-genre you are. I aspire.

Susan Woodring said...

Susannah, how funny! Yes, that book was called the Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road--love it for the fact that it's all these stories inspired by the same prompt: There's a wedding cake in the middle of the road. How did it get there? Who finds it? What happens now?

You never know when a writing prompt is going to lend itself to a great story, right? Have you written any more about your wedding cake?

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