For the longest time, my favorite question during author Q&A panels went something like this: “Can you tell me about your writing process?” or “What is your writing practice?” or “How do you revise your work?” I was always hoping to glean some magic truth, a golden nugget that would suddenly motivate me to be generative, skillful and efficient all at the same time. I would think to myself, these writers have done something I haven’t yet accomplished, they must know something I don’t.
I am still interested in the answers to these questions, but I have now come to realize–it seems so basic and cliché that I’m embarrassed to confess it here–that one should not hold onto advice, call it wisdom if you like, for longer than its expiration date. What resonates today may not work for tomorrow. And further, two seemingly opposite ideas can both be true at the same time.
Here’s an example: When I heard Cheryl Strayed say she didn’t write everyday, I felt relieved, giving myself a pass for not being a daily writer. She instead created opportunities, funded by organizations or with her own money, to hole up somewhere and write in chunks of time. A while back I took her advice and booked a three night stay in Santa Barbara to finish a draft of a script. Driving back to Los Angeles, I felt euphoric from the marathon writing, and I wondered why I hadn’t done such a thing before. Well, there’s a good reason why. I’m a parent with a parent schedule, and it’s hard to justify the cost of a hotel when you don’t plan on going out and you have a designated workspace in your own apartment. However, there was something psychologically motivating when I went away. I powered through in a way that I never seemed to be able to at my desk, even when I had the allotted time to get the writing done. Cheryl’s advice, it turned out, was sound. But let’s be honest, that was over six months ago. I’m not going to do that every month; I can’t afford it. Then what of all the time in between self-made “writing retreats”? While Cheryl allowed me to be gentler toward myself and to create space for the creative work, I know a younger version of myself might’ve interpreted that positive experience as proof positive that “I can only write in hotels on long weekends.” I still take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to write everyday to call yourself a writer. But I also see value in cultivating the discipline to write everyday or establishing a writing routine. It’s not anything I’ve ever achieved, but I still strive toward that practice.
Here’s another example that is less about the writing process and more about the steps to publication or production. In other words, putting yourself out there. Once I read a very compelling argument against paid writing contests. I can’t remember if it was an article, blogpost, or comments section rant, but the author made salient points. We were writers, already strapped for cash, being asked to submit our work to an applicant pool so large and/or nebulous that acceptance was as likely as winning the lottery. For some reason, this author’s screed made sense to me. It was undoubtedly validating a growing sense of resentment at having to go through so much vulnerability and rejection. I don’t blame myself for adopting this stance, I only wish I hadn’t held on to it for so long. Only recently have I started submitting myself to contests, publications, and development opportunities, and it has cost me a lot of money. I have had very slim success–but slim is obviously better than none.
I am guilty of holding good advice to my chest as if it were my cuddle blanket. I am quick to adopt ideas that alleviate my insecurities or justify my inactions. Often, the advice is revelatory and genuinely useful. Often it has an arresting shimmer when it comes out of the mouth of someone I respect, someone whose work I admire. They must have the answer, they must know THE WAY, I think to myself. But when someone tells you THE WAY to accomplish a goal, it’s important to remember that there are many ways. The fact is that every writer is different and, more importantly, every writer evolves. A writer’s process for one project may be completely different for another. Sometimes you have to throw spaghetti at a wall and see what sticks; other times it is wise to hunker down and focus on the one project eating at your brain and haunting your dreams. It’s smart to look to others for advice, especially those who are doing what you want to do, but re-assessing how that advice aligns with your current philosophies and practices and listening to your own creative pulse is just as important.