Piper Writers Blog

Be honest: did you even know Piper had a blog? Well, shame on you. Now that you know, there is no excuse not to quickly exhaust our back-catalogue of entries. And then, once you are caught up, check back every other Monday for new additions to the blog! Oh, you’re still dubious? You want to know why you should read the blog? The Piper Writers Blog is a platform for some of the esteemed friends of the Piper Center to write about something that inspires them as a writer, or about a technique that has helped them work past a particularly irksome impasse, or to share a fruitful writing prompt they swear by, or to share something else entirely—it is a place where writers invite you behind the curtains of their craft. If you are a writer, this blog is literally for you. If you are not a writer, this blog is less literally for you but still absolutely valuable to you. Some of the writers who contributed to the Piper Writers Blog: Michael A. Stackpole, Kevin J. Anderson, Jeredith Merrin, Alan di Perna, Tom Leveen, James Blasingame, Michael Schiffer, and many others, and many more to come.

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How I Learned to Love Writers Block—And How I Learned to Leave It

When I was asked to contribute a blog for this series, I decided to write about what gets me unstuck. I promptly got stuck.

Like every writer I know, I’ve experienced writers block. It’s usually my inner critic getting in the way. But sometimes what seems like writers block is a hiatus essential to the creative process. I’ve had some long dormant seasons—months, even years—when I haven’t been able to start the story that’s burning inside me. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t ready to write the story yet. I needed that time to assimilate and reflect before I could translate it from my imagination to the page. The unanticipated lull can be a sabbatical, a time for creative regeneration.

But a writer has to write. And that lull might be procrastination rather than regeneration. So how do you start again after an extended break? In the YA novel I’m working on now, Lydia, my 16-year-old protagonist, has the artist equivalent of writers block. Her art teacher advises her:

            “When I have artist’s block, it helps if I think of it as fallow time.”

            “What’s that?”

            Melody laughs. “You’re such a city girl. I grew up on a farm in Kansas, so this is my farm girl perspective. See, you can’t plant crops in the same field every year. You have to let rest and replenish. So the farmer plows and harrows the field, but leaves it unsown for a season, to restore its fertility. It’s called leaving the field fallow.”

            “Is fallow time a good thing for an artist?”


            “Then… can I have an extension?”

            “Hell, no!” she laughs. “You’ve had three months of fallow time. Now you have to do the work.”

 That’s what I tell myself—and my students. Embrace the fallow time when it’s useful. Then do the work.

Here are some jump-start approaches that have worked for me:

Invent deadlines. This is part logical strategy, part magical thinking. There is no deadline; nobody is waiting to read my idea-in-progress, but I hear that Mission Impossible theme in my head, and I have to finish… or else! I fabricate deadlines for myself all the time and convince myself that meeting them is consequential. ‘I must finish this chapter by tomorrow.’ ‘I’ll give myself till next month to finish the first draft.’ ‘I’ve committed ten new pages to share with my writers group on Sunday.’ The ticking clock of an impending deadline gets the creative juices flowing.

Set a timer for 15 minutes and start writing. Don’t stop till the timer goes off. Write anything. Just write. Now!

Try this prompt: “Have your character reveal a secret she’s never told anybody before.” (That got me going on my novel.)

Go out to dinner with a friend and confess, “I know the story I want to tell, but I can’t start. What should I do?” A true friend will smile and answer, “Just write it.” (That’s how I began my first memoir.)

One more tip. If your inner critic is preventing you from writing, read and re-read Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, for her profound and hilariously funny take on doing battle with that inner voice. I keep the book permanently on my bedside table.


Ideas and How to Keep Track of Them

Young writers often ask me where I get my ideas. This is an easy question to answer, but the answer leads to a more complicated question, namely, how do you keep track of your ideas?

 Let me try to answer both.

First, the easy one. Like you, I get my ideas everywhere, at unpredictable times, for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Certain stimuli seem to encourage the arrival of “ideas.”

Reading anything – from the daily news snippets my e-mail server gives me, to a great work of fiction – feeds the brain. Reading is probably my richest source for ideas.

So are movies and TV, music, talking with smart people, driving distances, flying, and lying in bed before and after sleep, watching the fire in the fireplace.

Sometimes the idea that you get is obvious. For instance, I read an article about a man named Charlie Hatfield, who lived in the early twentieth century, and made his living as a “rain-maker.” I was utterly seduced by the idea of a man who not only claimed to be able to control the weather – made a made a good living (for a while) doing just that! So, years later I let his story inspire my novel, “Storm Runners.”

The interesting thing is that the ideas you get – wherever you get them – are often seemingly unrelated to the activity that produced them. For instance, I once solved a story problem in one of my thrillers while sitting in church, where I was supposed to be thinking about higher things. Another time, I found had an important insight into one of my darkest villains while watching a stand-up comedian on TV. And, late at night, watching the fire in my living room fireplace burn, I often get ideas for the stories I’m writing, but they (the ideas) have not one time – so far – had anything to do with fire!

Okay, so you’ve got all these ideas coming in every time you turn around, so what do you do with them?

For decades I’ve been making notes in whatever small notebook I can carry in the rear pocket of my jeans or, if I’m going formal for the day, the breast pocket of a sport coat. Into that notebook go all the ideas that come to me as I’m out and about in the everyday world. I keep a loose mental “table of contents” for each notebook and by the time it is full (and generally falling apart) I put it into my latest “clip box.”

My clip boxes are in the garage, and there are maybe ten of them, and they go back, say, ten years (I clean them out every few years to make room for more). They are the large plastic bins with locking lids, like you buy at an office store. Along with the little pocket notebooks, I chuck into these bins all of the printed material, except books, that has supplied me with ideas. This includes newspaper articles, magazines partial and whole, printed Internet stuff, etc. Pictures and words, charts and graphs.

Of course I’ll never use all these ideas. I don’t even know why I’m keeping them all. But many times I’ve gone back into my bins searching for something – an inspiration, an arcane fact, a quirky character, a “mood.” And I’ve found it right there where it belongs, buried down in a plastic bin, scribbled into a little pocket notebook twenty years ago, calling out to me in a small but clear voice: put me in your book.

So I do.

Put On Your Dancing Shoes and Write!

One would think, writing for Publishers Weekly, that breaking news, tight deadlines, and word counts would not be an issue. After all, the magazine, now in its 144th year, is best known for the 8,000 pre-publication book reviews it publishes annually.

But PW is more than just book reviews and bestseller lists: it’s also a trade publication for the book publishing industry. We cover the business of books. That means news about every aspect of the industry, from the biggest deals made by literary agents to the newest imprints launched by book publishers, to the latest clients picked up by distribution companies. If it’s got anything at all to do with books or authors, it’s news to us. I’ve covered everything from President Obama’s 2013 visit to an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee –which independent booksellers loudly condemned – to the emergence of the We Need Diverse Books grassroots movement in response to BookCon 2014’s initial monochromatic lineup of featured authors. (When Grumpy the Cat is the most diverse member of a book festival’s roster, you know you have a problem.) I’ve interviewed Marilynne Robinson, John Green, John Grisham, Louise Erdrich, Suzanne Collins, and so many other authors. I’ve even reviewed a few books for our book review section, most notably the memoir of Minneapolis’ Star Tribune book editor, Laurie Hertzel – who grew up in Duluth, Minn., in a house three blocks east of the house I live in today.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give young writers, it’s this: don’t wait for the muse to strike. Just start writing. You can edit and revise later. I have found, whenever I have had a tough assignment, that if I just stop worrying and start typing, I more often than not end up becoming inspired as I go along.

Some of my favorite stories were written under impossibly tight deadlines. Not only does PW often demand exclusives with big stories, but I personally find a lot of satisfaction in scooping my competition. I finished writing Coffee House Press publisher Allan Kornblum’s obituary within an hour of hearing of his passing. I broke a lot of stories when the University of Missouri tried to shut down its press because I whipped out stories as fast as I could write them. And I well remember interviewing Kate DiCamillo when she won the 2014 Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses – my editor wanted that story posted on our website immediately! I interviewed her and wrote it in about 30 minutes. And then there’s the time at Book Expo, when I came back to the PW press room after a panel session I covered; my editor told me I had 15 minutes to write and file the story. It got written.

Writing isn’t easy – not even for James Patterson, seemingly the most prolific writer of them all, who has built up a cottage industry, churning out several novels each year. But if you keep at it, and don’t allow yourself to become distracted or disheartened when you are staring at a blank page or computer screen, you are halfway there.

By the way, when I realized that I had better write this blog, as my deadline was looming, I started writing … after writing 322 words that came out slow as molasses about how anyone can become a published author if they work hard enough and believe in themselves, I scrapped it and wrote this blog instead. In such an instance, Kenny Rogers might express it best when he sings, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/Know when to fold them” and “That the secret to survivin’/ Is knowin’ what to throw away/And knowin’ what to keep/ ‘Cause every hand’s a winner/And every hand’s a loser.”


Image and Access

The cartoonist and writer, Lynda Barry, has created her life’s work around the question: “What is an image?” Her book What It Is: Do You Wish You Could Write is alive with colorful drawings and handwritten notes that dig deep into the soul of this query. Barry writes:

At the center of everything we call ‘the arts,’ and children call ‘play,’ is something which seems somehow alive. . . . It’s alive in the way our memory is alive. Alive in the way the ocean is alive and able to transport and contain us. Alive in the way thinking is not, but experiencing is, made of both memory and imagination, this is the thing we mean by ‘an image’ (14).

Once a week, I work with a team of behavioral health specialists in an intensive outpatient PTSD treatment program, serving soldiers from all branches of the military. For six weeks, 8-10 acutely symptomatic men and women experience various forms of therapy, facing their trauma head-on. As a writer integrated into this specialized team, I serve as the narrative therapy facilitator, leading the group through close readings of poems thematically aligned with the psychologists’ goals. Then, together, we all write.

Each week, I am moved and astonished by our discussions. To be clear, the majority of the service women and men I work with initially are reluctant and quick to tell me, “I’m not really into poetry.” Often they believe or have been told that they don’t have the capacity to understand it. But, I have witnessed week after week, group after group, how image gives access to memory and experience and creates a space in which these soldiers share of themselves and of their stories. The week we take on the idea of loss, we read Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense” that begins:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

The week we deal with mindfulness and acceptance, we read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” that includes these lines:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

When we read the poems together, it’s always image that drives discussion. The images, even those involving death, are alive and transport the reader. They create connections. Images are the gateway, the vehicle that allows for a deepening awareness of both individual and universal experience. And in the case of the people I serve, discussion of poetic images leads to writing and facilitates the processing of memories through narration and, according to the evidence compiled by the Army Captain and lead psychologist, this leads to a reduction of symptoms of PTSD.

My work with this team of professionals and with the soldiers has been the most rewarding of all of my teaching experiences. I learn, in each session, something new about how images translate, how they are perceived, and how they might help people open to healing. I’ve seen images bear witness and ignite the imagination. They can create empathy and empower.

As a poet, I routinely collect in notebooks random bits and pieces that pop into my head, and when I take time to remember or process anything, it’s always in the stories that surround images. Some of these memory-images will grow into poems. Some of them will live and breathe in my journal and spring into other memory-images. When people ask me where I get ideas for my work, it’s most often through some image-experience that, in one way or another, comes alive.



Maintaining Focus

Focus has been on my mind a lot lately—not in a philosophical way, but in a practical way. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between two separate writing projects—finalizing edits on one novel while attempting to draft another. In addition to pulling deep from the wells of creativity, motivation, and mental flexibility, these tasks are ones that, more than anything, require me to be focused.

But the opposite of focus is distraction, and well, distractions are everywhere. Especially during this time of the year. Many of the distractions in my world are external: sick kids, school vacations, work schedules, birthday parties, holiday parties, paying bills, the check engine light on the car, but they’re also internal: I’m tired, I’m stressed, I don’t know what I’m doing, my writing’s awful, I’d rather be on the couch watching mindless television for eight hours, I definitely don’t know what I’m doing….

 I’ve found that the external distractions are the easiest to deal with. It’s often a matter of logistics and time management. But how to deal with the internal distractions? The self-doubt? The wandering mind?

For me, the biggest mental hurdle is getting over the idea that I have to be in just the right mood in order to write. Everyone—every artist, every athlete—wants to be “in the zone” when they perform, that awesome state where creative energy just flows effortlessly. But lovely as it is, being in this flow state is a minimal part of any performer’s life. Most writing (or any other artistic pursuit) is going to happen under less than ideal conditions. They just need to be close enough conditions. The rest is a matter of focus.

Some tips I’ve found helpful for maintaining focus and not letting my mind get distracted from the writing task at hand:

  1. Setting goals: Goals are mini-deadlines; they put pressure on you to meet them and force you to harness your creative resources in pursuit of your goal. There is also the added reinforcement of feeling a sense of genuine satisfaction when you reach your goal. However it is you want to measure progress (word count, pages, chapters, focusing on voice or tone or character development), write these goals down. Make them real. Keep yourself honest.
  2. Pre-writing routine: Whatever your routine is—getting a cup of coffee before you sit down, taking deep breaths before you open a document, turning off all other applications and your phone—doing everything in the exact same order can help transport you into the mental space you need to be in in order to write. Think Pavlov’s dogs: the repetition of the routine will eventually habituate your mind to anticipate what it is you’re about to do.
  3. Visualization: If there are certain stressors on your mind or doubts that often sneak up on you and distract you, try spending a minute or so before writing to close your eyes and mentally visualize setting aside those worries for your writing session. This will help keep you present and in the moment.
  4. Scheduled breaks: Set incremental break times and stick to them. Vow to enjoy these breaks guilt-free. It will be easier to stay focused on writing if you’re able to step back and enjoy other aspects of your life.
  5. Appreciating the good: When the writing day is done, it’s easy to fixate on what you still want to work on, what you didn’t finish, or what’s really not working, but take time to reflect on what you’ve done. Pick a favorite sentence. Or paragraph. Or hint of foreshadowing. And then be proud of your work. Be proud of your effort.

Here’s to 2016 and a wonderful year of writing!

Back to Basics

I teach writing and editing all over the country: colleges, universities, conferences, writing centers… Recently, I was asked to teach a basic editing workshop at Bouchercon, the biggest mystery/thriller conference in the U.S. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, these are my people—my friends, my colleagues—not just random students. I write mysteries. I read mysteries. I love mysteries. It was an honor, and one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever been asked to do. I was expecting the audience to be made up of new and aspiring writers. Imagine my…let’s say surprise (definitely not horror) when I looked out to find an audience at least half of which was made up of bestselling authors many times over. Oddly, a similar thing had happened to me just weeks before when I was teaching an advanced writing workshop at Dragoncon in Atlanta. In both cases, one of the aforementioned extremely experienced authors raised their hand and asked me a question. Me. I mean, I’m just an editor. I fix commas. I catch echoes. Yes, I pretend to write, sometimes, late at night. But that’s not the issue. Why are these people here? What could they possibly learn from me? So, rather than let the author who had written over fifty young adult fantasy novels ask me a question, I said, to my own surprise: “What on earth are you doing in my class?”
Her answer was one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard an author say: “Every time a story goes wrong, I realize I’ve forgotten a basic rule, so every few years, I go back to basics.”
Which was when I realized I do the same thing. I take Mystery 101 classes (or workshops, or whatever is offered) as often as possible, because I know I get too caught up in my own head, and in what I think I know, and forget to take the basics into account. And every time I hear the fundamentals I hear them in a different way. A deeper way. Like layers being unlocked that you didn’t have the password for until you’ve paid your dues.
I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the simplest way is the best. The people who were trying to tell you the basics weren’t talking down to you—they were giving you the secret. Sometimes, it just takes a while to crack the code and see it.
Don’t discount the basics. And don’t forget.

Making Space for the Muse

I’m not a fan of calling my writing life a relationship with the muse, in part because the Greek Muses – louche and sensual in most representations – have historically contributed so much to the notion that women are better suited to inspiring art than creating it. More than that, though, it’s too general a concept. I don’t feel like I have a spiritual pipeline to one vague and capricious entity (or, if someone out there needs me to stick tenaciously to the Greek schema, nine of them) – instead I have real, human bonds with each of my characters, even when they won’t cooperate with me or my plot. Even when they’re assholes.

Nonetheless, I do believe in the practical concept of “making space for the muse,” which is to say, I’m all for encouraging writers to stick to a schedule. Of course I remember being in high school (and college, and the years immediately thereafter) and telling myself that art was something natural and wild which came and went of its own accord. As a teenager, I frequently stayed up until two or three in the morning and wrote uniformly bad poems while lying on the rug in front of my space heater. (In my defense, my childhood home didn’t have central heating upstairs, and I hadn’t yet gotten the hang of cutting out caffeine after five p.m. In terms of the poetry: well, I was very young.) I viewed this time as inherently unstructured, because it existed outside the boundaries of my normal responsibilities: this wasn’t school time, or homework time, or any of the hours I set aside for my weekend job at a coffee shop. In the witching hours, I did what I felt like, and this allowed me to make the weak correlative assumption that I could only write it I happened to be in the mood.

When I left grad school I had no, shall we say, remunerative employment, and was able for a short time to make writing my full-time job. This was made possible by pure human tragedy: my father-in-law was sick, and my husband and I lived with him and my mother-in-law, occupying a comfortable room in their basement. For several months I put in dutiful hours revising the manuscript that would become my debut novel The Daughters (W.W. Norton/Liveright 2015), and still had time to cook family dinners and gather round the television for our shared dose of evening escapism. I even slept in sometimes.

But it couldn’t last. I wanted my own space again, and to accomplish that I needed to make regular money. I picked up a copywriting job, and eventually my husband and I moved to Tucson. (I’m cutting out vast swathes of history here, and the sentimental part of me wants very much to document it: my father-in-law’s death, my brother-in-law’s surprising cancer and slow recovery, the long winter days. But that’s not relevant, and so I’ll satisfy myself with this brief nod to all we went through.) The new freedom left me with a new conundrum: how could I hold onto my day job, my writing, and my sanity?

Here we return to the muse, and how I made space for her. (Or it. Or them. Whoever.) I realized quickly that sitting at a computer all day and writing copy was not conducive to sitting at a computer for even longer and writing fiction – this realization may or may not have involved periodic tears and mild fits, but regardless, I followed the advice of a writing friend and started getting up early each morning to get in at least an hour or two of writing when I’m in my best mind.

I never used to consider myself a morning person, let alone a morning writer, but for the past few years, this has worked for me. I write on days when I’m busy and stressed, I write on days when I’m bored and listless, I write on days when I’m staring down the barrel of 3 separate meetings and dinner plans and grocery shopping – in other words, life. My 15-year-old self was committed to the idea of art as caprice, but now I know, art shows up when you invite it to. My schedule is set, even rigid, and that used to frighten me. But here is the paradoxical truth: it allows my wildest dreams to come true. It makes space for my most peculiar ideas, and most thrilling adventures. My strictest planning sets me free.



The Problem of the Novel

I love writing novels. No other genre feels as satisfying. A novel takes over my existence, invades my waking and dream states. I converse with these fictional people in their universe, argue with them, try to coax them to do what I want when they insist on doing what they want. Research is a constant: there is always more to read about, investigate, and each new discovery sends you down another and another rabbit hole.

Yet I’m sometimes reluctant to share this passion when aspiring writers think aloud to me about writing a novel, or worse, are already immersed in one. It seems wrong not to spread the love, but I’m afraid of the disappointment and frustration they’ll encounter. It is not that I don’t want to help them in their endeavors. In fact, I love teaching the writing of novels, even workshopping the novel despite challenges inherent in discussing a tiny part that must somehow speak to the whole.

The problem of the novel is its possibilities. Many want to write a novel for the gold at the end of that bestseller rainbow. Plus options for a blockbuster movie, wow! But the reality is that the world is littered with unfinished and never-published novels, and attempts at bestsellers that waste years of a life with minimal or no return.

My last novel took nine years to complete; earlier ones each averaged around four. At the three-and-a-half-year mark, right when I should have begun polishing the final draft, I realized I had completely missed the heart of my novel. Which meant a complete restructuring, revision and re-imagining of the book, right back to square one. I had to ask myself: did I love these people enough to spend the next who-knows-how-many years of my life lost in their world? Because you do have to lose yourself, surrender to that fictional universe (while still getting on with real life), if you want a novel you’re proud of in the end, a novel that is its own and your raison d’etre. As for publishing the thing, well that’s a whole other story, maybe even a novel.

Perhaps you will write that bestseller. But bookshelves are littered with so-called bestsellers that get lost almost as soon as they’re published, read and discarded. As a young teen, I would gaze at titles on spines lined up by the hundreds in my public library and think, what are these novels, who were all these writers? It perplexed me, but then I’d find that book, the one I could lose myself in and would know – this is why I read, this is why I try to write.

So when aspiring novelists ask me what they should do to succeed, I say, write the book that really, really, really matters to you. Only then will you be able to spend however long it takes to get it right, because time disappears when you’re really, really in love. Oh, and write what you love to read. Good luck.

Hugh Martin on Revision

Obviously, much has been said and written about the seemingly endless task of revision. Most writers would agree that there is no specific “recipe” or guidelines when it comes to this process. Some writers can nail a poem on a first draft; others often make multiple revisions over long periods of time. “I usually revise through forty or fifty drafts of a poem before I begin to feel content with it,” writes Mary Oliver. We don’t know whether this means revising one adjective or rewriting the piece from scratch; it’s probably a little of both, right? This is, for me, both the joy and horror of writing: there’s really no way to know when it’s “done.” And maybe trying to make a poem feel “done” is the problem.

My “process” of revision—which comes from the Latin, “to see again”—is very unpredictable and involves a lot of failure. The majority of the poems I’ve written, like many writers, have barely made it past two or three drafts; most poems, although they’re absolute masterpieces when I first put them down (that’s a failure of irony), don’t end up going anywhere except a “trash” or “needs work” folder on my computer. Generally, I like to look at it as a sort juggling: I will write various poems over a period of weeks or months and continue “playing around” with them while, at the same time, starting new ones, and so on. Once I have many poems in the air, I can usually feel—instinctually, I hope—which ones feel “strong” and need more attention and work. Beyond this, I also commonly will take two or three poems I’m working on and combine them; this might mean simply combining the ideas; it might mean pulling a few images from one poem and inserting them into another; it might mean taking lines from all three and creating something “new.”

Here’s an example: I had three completely separate poems that had been up in the air for about two years; of course, I was doing many other things during these two years, so these specific poems were always on my radar, hovering somewhere, waiting. Specifically, here’s what they involved: one dealt with a soldier who simply stared at date palms all day (a common experience for any soldier in Iraq: aiming at inanimate objects); another was more of a short story/prose-poem I’d been developing that took place on the USS Abraham Lincoln when George W. Bush famously landed in a jet and spoke under the enormous “Mission Accomplished” banner; the third poem dealt with a soldier on top of a Humvee in charge of a .50-Cal. Machinegun—this guy, bored most of the day, is obsessed with rap, specifically, the rapper, 50 Cent. I like to use that analogy of finding car parts: looking for the right things in a junkyard and seeing how they can fit together. I don’t remember how or when, but I somehow decided that these three ideas belonged in the same poem. Eventually, I tried to develop this speaker, who mans the .50-Cal. Machinegun; the poem basically tries to carry his voice, which is ironic, wry, casual, and—hopefully—musical due to the influence of rap and the music from the mosques that he hears much of the day.

I’ve often had a problem with being too attached to my own experiences in Iraq; this has often controlled my poems, sometimes in a destructive way, I think. For this poem, and the poems I work on now, I try to always do what is best and most appropriate for the poem. I like to think it’s similar to what John Cheever said, “I lie, in order to tell a more significant truth.” Not that I’d argue I am telling any kind of “truth,” especially not a “significant” one. But I know I try to push the boundaries of my own experience and pay more attention to issues such as sound, juxtaposition, imagery, and voice. This poem eventually, I think, became more layered and complex in an enriching way because of how I combined these multiple pieces, or “parts.” I also think the three poems, individually, somehow carried more of “me” and the “writer” trying to do something effective; this was obviously an issue. By combining them and creating what I hope is a more distinct and authentic speaker, I got rid my own self and my own writer “personality,” so to say. It helped create a better persona. “If the work is successful,” Stephen Dobyns writes in Best Words, Best Order, “the writer has to become invisible.” So, just maybe, I was making my own intrusive presence “invisible.” But still, I’m not sure. There’s also this: when asked how he knows he’s “finished,” sculptor Alexander Calder said, “When it’s time for dinner.”



The Fourfold Process of Creativity

In writing fiction, I gravitate to the pragmatic, to what works. Some years ago, when I realized that bringing a short story to completion could be seen as a fourfold process, much of my writing anxiety eased. I still use this as a reassuring measurement of progress when working on any piece of writing.

Show Up

Nothing will get done if you don’t show up. Resolve, for one month, to write one hour a day, preferably at the same time each day. Write, even if, as Joyce Carol Oates once said, “your soul feels as thin as a playing card.” If what you produce seems terrible on a given day, still, by showing up, you’ve notified your subconscious that you take your writing life seriously. In my own experience, “bad” or mediocre writing one day can turn to fine, even inspired writing the next. The essential thing is to show up, since this trains the subconscious to be ready to write on a daily basis. Once you’ve established this beneficial habit, the prescribed hour quickly turns into two or more, into happily losing track of time altogether.


The art of writing fiction depends upon the preliminary act of deep listening, of moving into a reflective or ruminative state of consciousness radically different from everyday, ordinary awareness. Perhaps you have an image, a scene, an idea or bit of dialogue as impetus for a story. Sit in a relaxed, aware manner until the window of the subconscious opens, then write down whatever comes to you even if it doesn’t make rational sense. During this stage of meditative, hypnogogic, trance-like consciousness, you don’t need to know why you are “seeing” or “hearing” things in your imagination, it is more important to trust the inherent wisdom of your subconscious. This stage is much like dreaming, lucid dreaming, and once you recognize and trust it, you can enter a marvelous state of high, effortless play. I use a large art sketchbook, so I can doodle, sketch out images and scenes, bits of dialogue, diagrams, mandalas. Use what works for you. This is the loveliest, messiest stage of the creation process, when you move from listening to associative thought, to a beginning interpretation of the dream you are receiving.


When you feel ready to write your first draft, write it down as quickly as you can, in one or two sittings. The important thing is to finish this rough draft without allowing your internal critic to judge, slow or stop your progress. Write rapidly in cursive, and trust the process. I recommend writing by hand before transposing the draft onto a computer. Recent neuroscience and cognitive science research shows that the physical act of writing, putting pen or pencil to paper, stimulates synapses, synchronizes the brain’s left and right hemispheres and acts as a kind of focusing filter. Many writers handwrite their first drafts. “I write with a felt-tip pen or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads,” said Susan Sontag in a Paris Review interview. “I like the slowness of writing by hand.” In his Paris Review interview, Truman Capote said, “No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil.) Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”

Revise, Let Go

The fourth step is revision, re-visioning your rough draft(s). Using learned tools of craft and technique, you consciously sculpt your material, make authorial decisions, identify the ethical question in your story, the “wound,” realize which character or characters the story belongs to. You arrange scenes, build momentum toward a narrative resolution, not necessarily a definitive “answer.” Powerful stories often have no answer, they move instead from an opening question or challenge into an even greater, unanswerable question.

When you have revised the story as many times as you need to, when you are convinced it has fulfilled its potential and promise, let it go, send it out and move on.

It is crucial to remember that in working on any story, the fourfold process I’ve described is cyclical, recurrent. You will revisit these four stages again and again: show up, listen, draft, re-draft, revise, until the story is polished, complete, powerful. At that celebratory point, your subconscious is already trained, persuaded, to move on to your next fictional creation.


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