Learning to See
A Writing Blog About Craft & Creative Process
"Learning to see is the basis for learning all of the arts."
- Flannery O'Connor
"Learning to see is the basis for learning all of the arts."
- Flannery O'Connor
Medium: I usually write a draft of anything up to a chapter or a story in longhand—by which I mean my unreadable handwriting. What that really means is that I write out a number of fragments that are ready to hand when I’m typing them up…and yet when things are working really well I only have to look down at the handwritten pages briefly—oh, yeah, that’s where I make the turn, etc.—and the typed up draft has its own life that leaves the handwritten behind.
Location: Mostly at our kitchen table, even though there are two desks in the house that look like they’re dying to be written at.
Duration: Anywhere from ten minutes to two or three hours.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Only the caffeinated kind.
First Step: For me, it’s really finding the on ramp in a chain of thought or association. Seeing a room with exits. I used to begin writing as though each sentence needed to be that one perfect thing…and now I’m mostly interested in where a sentence can take me next, and if the sentence wants to be showy, it better do that without making me slow down. I exaggerate, but these days I find more of interest when I’m writing at speed.
My Tip: They say that when Anthony Trollope was writing he had such a strict page-per-day goal that when he finished a novel without getting to that magic number of pages he made himself start another. Extremes are out there to marvel at and yay to those of us who can keep a strict routine, but maybe you’re not looking for the routine for your whole writing life—maybe it’s the routine for just this essay, or this story. And parts of that routine will be mirrored in the next routine.
• Talking to Strangers: Writing Dialogue That Makes Characters Real (March 28)
Location: I write at our family dining table, which is not ideal…
Duration: Duration really depends on whether I am generating new material or working through already-written material. I don’t like to put too much pressure on time of day or duration, especially when I am generating; but I am adamant about showing up every day. This ensures that, when I am not actively trying, things are still simmering…
Accompanying snacks/beverages: I ALWAYS have tea. Chocolate also helps.
First Step: Reading back a bit, if something's already begun; or just trying out an idea, throwing ideas on the page. Realizing that it's going to be re-written again and again, so not to worry too much.
My Tip: Personally, I find that being too rigid about routines derails me. The goal of writing (or even thinking/reading/researching) every day, even if it’s for 40 minutes, gives me a goal I can attain, and it keeps me in active mode. Sometimes I don’t find a flow and I don’t force things; when I do find a flow, I can work for hours, and it feels natural to do so. Again, touching the work every day is crucial (for me).
Jennifer's Workshop This Season:
• Come to Your Senses: Writing Sensory Experience (February 22)
Location: My favorite place to write is in my little office at home. I have a desk that I use by the window, but if I'm feeling lazy then I'll also cozy up on the couch in that room with my pup. I find that I can sometimes be more successful in focusing if I go to the library or a coffee shop to write if I can't get myself started at home.
Duration: I find that I lose steam after about ninety minutes of writing time if I'm trying to do generative work, so I'll cap it at that. Often I write for much less - sometimes even twenty minutes and that's enough if I get into a flow state. However, if I'm revising then I'll work up to three hours but it's often less than that.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Coffee if it's before noon, but most often peppermint tea. I always think snacking is a good idea, but it just makes my keyboard dirty and distracts me so I reward myself with snacks after I've written.
First Step: Well if I'm lucky enough to be in the middle of a piece, I read what I wrote previously and then just keep plowing forward. If I'm trying to start something new, my first step is to fuss. I put music on, change the music, get up to get tea, scribble an outline on a piece of paper, get more tea, change the music again, send some text messages and eventually realize I'm wasting time and then get going. I try to allow myself to write whatever comes to mind regardless of whether I think it's good, and after a few minutes I am usually engaged with the work and feel good. Sometime if I'm feeling really resistant to writing or afraid I'll write something horrible, I'll set a timer for thirty minutes and tell myself to sprint to the finish line. This is usually the most effective process.
My Tip: It's important to create manageable goals. If you set a goal that's impossible to do, then you'll just get discouraged and not write at all. If you know your life is very busy, setting a goal to write for three hours every day is not likely to be attainable. An hour every other day might be more possible, or even just twenty minutes a day. Right now, I'm working hard to find momentum in writing my first novel and finishing a collection of short stories, but my work schedule is madness. I've set aside two two hour blocks of time per week to write that fit neatly into my schedule, and feel that I will have no problem meeting this goal. In fact, I suspect that having these two blocks set aside will inspire me to squirrel away more time throughout the week when I surprisingly stumble into it, and that's great. Be reasonable with yourself, but also find a way to cultivate some discipline because writing is really like exercising a muscle. Practice is essential and so is consistency. Your writing routine should be achievable and not a pipe dream, so if that means you commit to ten minutes a day and that's all you can do for a little while, then roll with that. Ten minutes is always better than no minutes!
• Year-Long Fiction Manuscript Group (Registration closed)
• 10-Week Generative & Community Building Workshop (February 16 - April 26)
• 8-Week Advanced Fiction (May 5 - June 23)
Duration: I try to spend at least two hours writing in the morning. If I have time in the afternoon I also write and revise, usually somewhere outside the house.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Sometimes a mug of tea, but half the time it ends up full and cold next to the computer. I guess that's the sign of a good (or frustrating) writing session.
First Step: I try to read when I eat breakfast, as a reminder of why I'm writing in the first place. When I get to my desk, I give myself about two minutes to procrastinate and be frightened of what I'm about to do. Then I start.
My Tip: As a teacher of mine once told me, you never clear the decks. There will never be a perfect or even preferable time for writing. The only way to do it is to ignore responsibilities that are far more pressing, because those kinds of responsibilities will always crowd out writing if you let them.
Dennis' Workshops This Season:
• Hybrid Forms: Writing Between Genres (April 18)
• Writing Illness & the Body (May 23)
Duration: 5 to 30 minutes.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Tea.
First Step: An idea flies into my head.
My Tip: Write whenever and wherever you feel the urge. It might be different times of the day. People often think that because of the success of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, they have to write in the morning.
Giulietta's Workshops This Season:
• Tales of the Memory Palace: 6 - 100-Word Memoirs (March 21)
• Writing Without Fear: How to Raise Your Own Stakes as a Storyteller (April 25)
Duration: A few hours in the morning. A few more hours in the afternoon. Depending on how the work is flowing, I've been known to skip meals. Because I work mostly from home, I can come back to the writing throughout the day.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Coffee. Water. I'm not a breakfast person, so this sustains me until afternoon.
First step: Since I work on so many pieces at once, it really depends what's feeling most urgent that morning. Often it will begin with reading back a few sentences or a paragraph over something I wrote the day before, which will lead to subtle edits, which will lead to continuing the piece. I always tell writers to find their way in however they can. If that means tweaking commas for twenty minutes and that gets you in, that's fine (I've done that).
My tip: Trust that the right words will come. Trust the process. Don't try to solve the narrative problems in advance, trust that they will get solved, possibly in a way you're not currently aware of. Part of trusting the process is letting go of the seriousness and rigidity connected to outcome. As Goethe says, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
reveals that one of the most important skills for a writer is to become comfortable with sitting for long hours in a room alone. I created my concept of the “room” as a way to make space for my writing in my life, to give myself permission to forget all other distractions and obligations. Time is flexible in the room; or, better, time does not exist! So, I am not worried about how long I have to be there for, or how little time I have there. I forget the piles of other work and errands, and I simply create. Until it is time to step out of the “room” again.
What is my actual room like? It’s a card table and a folding chair. The card table doubles as our dinner table, because my husband and I live a (typically) small Brooklyn apartment. But when I’m in the “room” it is my writing desk.
I chose to write at home because I need (read: prefer, because in true practice I also need to be flexible,) to have quiet in order to hear the music of my prose. Additionally, I like to be able to pace, and I often speak the writing aloud as I work.
Many writers tell me they can’t write at home because of the distractions (the chores, the comfy bed…) But in the “room”, distractions vanish. The dishes disappear. The piles of other work vanish. And there is nothing but me at my desk. At some point the desk disappears too, and there is nothing but the work.
Medium: The laptop is absolutely what I default to. That said, I do like to grab a notebook occasionally for some stream-of-consciousness writing to see what happens—and I’m usually pleasantly surprised.
Location: This winter I set up a desk by an upstairs window and it’s worked like a charm. In the summer, I head for an outside deck or dock as often as possible.
Duration: My aim is at least an hour a day, hopefully more. I don’t worry about word count per day because sometimes the words flow, other times they come painfully slow. I’ve finally learned what matters most is sticking with it and enjoying the process.
Accompanying snacks, beverages, etc.: Coffee and toast, which means I’m regularly brushing crumbs off the keyboard.
First Step: Generally, it depends on what’s calling me that day. For a new story, I often start with a random sentence that pops into my head. When I’m working on my novel, I almost never complete a scene in one sitting, so I’ll go back to it many times before I see where it wants to go (opposed to where I thought it was going). Consequently, I usually have a bunch of unfinished scenes to choose from.
My Tip: Give yourself permission to experiment. When it comes to feedback, embrace what resonates and let go of whatever doesn’t serve your story. Above all, remember that writing is an art, and we need more art in the world!
Duration: I really do like to spend time with my writing for at least an hour every day. I find that if I take too much time away from writing, it’s exceedingly difficult to get back into a productive practice.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: A hot drink like coffee or tea. Just something to keep me company.
First Step: I like to start with a writing exercise. Sometimes I'll try to imitate another poet, or I'll just read a favorite poem that inspires me. Occasionally, I'll look over some of my recent work and drafts and begin with some revision.
My Tip: Ease into it and don’t give up if you’re feeling uninspired. Describe the room around you, read a poem you've never read before, listen to a favorite poet read, make a list of wonderful words you’d like to use.
Location: For weekday mornings before work, I write inside my attic window. At weekends or days off, I have a little backyard studio. It's delightful and in that studio I have different spots for different kinds of writing.
Duration: In the mornings I'm lucky if I get a half hour in before work.
Accompanying snacks/beverages: Very strong coffee. Oh, yes. Have to have coffee.
First Step: In the mornings I just dive right in. Often I wake with an idea or a thought about what I want to write that day.
My Tip: Let yourself write badly. You never promised anybody perfect. You just promised yourself that you would get a certain number of words on the page.
• Writing Your Personal Essay (March 7)