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Being Able to Write: Lessons from Other Writers, New and Well-Seasoned

“Why had he forgotten to bring note cards to dinner that night? Had he not warned me when I forgot my own notebook that the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write?”

— Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”

As an MFA student, I see my education as more than just an opportunity to improve my writing; I see it also as an opportunity to learn from other writers–students as well as teachers–how to improve how I write.

Here is what I’ve learned so far:

1. Write a lot. If you can’t write every day, try writing several times a week. If you can’t write several times a week, write once a week… you get the idea.

2. Read a lot. Read writers you like, writers other writers like, writers you can’t stand but know you can learn from. I prayed for the Rapture to come and release me from the pain of reading W.G. Sebald, but I learned a lot.

3. Schedule your writing. Don’t just spend all of Saturday sitting in front of a blank screen waiting for inspiration. Plan to write from, say, 9-1, and then plan some other activity afterwards. (This advice from my summer advisor has helped me enormously. Even when I have to go over schedule, I’m much more focused on my writing and less likely to waste eight hours piddling in pencil-sharpening mode.)

4. Seek the community of other writers. Writing is a lonely, dispiriting endeavor; a community can really help. Join or start a workshop or find friends you can share writing with. Offer frank and full critiques, but also be encouraging.

5. Read your works in progress out loud. It’s surprising what can pop up when you do this. (Like a 250-word paragraph with verb/noun disagreements… Who wrote that and inserted it in my essay while I was sleeping?)

6. When in doubt, when you don’t know how to begin, when the well is dry: open in scene. Even if you later scrap this beginning, opening in scene can get you moving in a good direction. Besides, people like scenes. (Sometime I’ll do a post dedicated to this instructor’s advice, which is hearty good stuff worthy of its own cross-stitch sampler.)

7. For pieces longer than several pages, outlines are essential. If you can’t map the outline in your head, commit it to paper. But even if your initial writing has to be of the I’m-just-blurting-this-out-on-paper variety, at some point introduce your piece to structure. They’ll be best friends.

8. Don’t give up too early on a piece that isn’t working well. Find a way to make it work. Ask other writers for help, read writers who are working in the genre you’re struggling with, set the piece aside for a few days–weeks, months–and schedule a time to return to it. (That said, sometimes a piece is simply DOA. But at least you learned from the experience.)

9. Always carry a writing notebook (or stack of cards, or p-slips for you old-school librarian types). Before I started the MFA program, I usually carried a notebook. Now I always carry one.

10. As you write, keep a scrap file for those out-takes you can’t bear to leave on the cutting-room floor. Prior to the MFA, I did this on my own through two books and about one hundred articles, yet I remember, that first semester, shyly asking if other people did this. Yes, I was told, that practice is universal and encouraged. That’s one more way of saying that engaging with other writers is a good thing to do.

11. As you draft, be liberal with establishing new versions, but number them precisely. (That codicil about numbering is my own librarian advice, one I’m sure most of you would do anyway.) The first draft of an essay I submitted last month evolved through seven numbered versions. I was glad I did this, too, because I went back to an early version to cannibalize it for things I had earlier abandoned. Usually I get about three versions through major draft. (I don’t find Word’s “Track Changes” feature useful here–in fact, my versioning is intended so I can avoid “Track Changes,” which may accrue changes but doesn’t track or version them in any method useful for my writing.)

11. Reduce, reuse, recycle. If you like a riff (or scene, or character), but it doesn’t fit in the piece you’re working in, boldly whack it, and save it separately. I had an entirely essay grow out of a paragraph I cut from another essay where it really didn’t fit at all, and the cutting grew the better, stronger plant.

12. Back up your work. Back it up electronically. Back it up in paper. (Last week I reconstructed a three-page section from a printout.) Back it up in a way that if your office goes up in flames you still have your work somewhere. N.b.: it is that last step I still haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, but I am thinking hard about off-site backup (in addition to local backup and local hard copies).

13. Be careful who you listen to. Limit your exposure to naysayers; anyone who truly wishes you well will encourage your endeavors no matter how much you have to learn. But people who are very close to you may love your writing uncritically. Find supporters who believe in your work enough to tell you when and where it needs improvement.

14. Send out your best work, and send it out religiously. Now, having said that, I have only sent out pieces four or five times since I started the MFA. But once I’m done, I’ll accelerate the habit. Last summer I wrote about, which includes a submission tracker. I like that I can’t kid myself about how much I’m sending out. A spreadsheet could accomplish much the same, but I do like the submission tracker.

15. If you do any fact-based writing, save and organize your citations. You are likely to return to these facts for future work, and you never want to have to reconstruct them again. I subscribe to RefWorks, a Web-based citation management software which I adore, but if you aren’t immersed in research-based fact-based writing, then a spreadsheet, a document file, or even a legal pad might suffice.

16. Good writers are never quite satisfied with their work. For perfectly rationale reasons, the ability to understand how to improve your writing is always at least one step ahead of your ability to improve it. I saw Z.Z. Packer give a reading where every paragraph or so she paused to note passages she felt could have been improved. (These were published works!)

17. Be nice to librarians. Yes, I’m a librarian, but I mean it. Take note of the help you get and remember to thank them now and then. Some of my best writing has come from a book I found through the library, or a question a librarian answered. One of my personal favorites from the last two years was inspired in part by a rare videotape copy of a piece of Nazi propaganda about Terezin. Someone bothered to purchase that videotape, someone else cataloged it, someone else made sure I could find it in their catalog, and the day I walked into the library, it was waiting for me to check it out and open imaginative doors in my mind.

18. Claim the name, “writer.” Early on in the MFA program, I was perturbed when another student, interviewing me for a class assignment on portraits, never mentioned my writing. But she had no reason to: I didn’t call myself a writer anywhere, not on my blog, nor my c.v., nor anywhere else. I was too shy to claim that title, but I’m not any more. I’m a lot of things, but I’m also a writer. And, a little more every day, I’m increasingly able to write.

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