Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing

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I’d never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates until the 3-minute and 40-second clip below that I happened to click on yesterday. His take on writing is so accurate and so heartfelt that I’ve watched this clip several times now.

He talks about writing being an act of courage because it’s a process about failure, which he says is the main reason more people don’t write. Writing, after all, is the desperate and often obsessive attempt to transcribe an idea in such a way that it becomes a mirror image of what you’d imagined in your head. This being an impossible feat drives a writer to madness revising over and over again:

You try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. You never really get to that perfect thing that was in your head.

He talks about pressure being a catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Which makes sense when we think about survival of the fittest, and the way diamonds are made. Comfort zones are breeding grounds for perspiration and daydreams, but being under pressure triggers the fight or flight response—you either fight (persevere) or flee (give up).

I’ve heard and read endless advice on writing. This section of my blog is dedicated to the writing process because I find it therapeutic write about. So of course I’m aware, as I’m sure you are, of the number one advice on writing—that perseverance is key.

But there’s something about the way Coates delivers this familiar advice. Perhaps it’s the look in his eyes or the honesty in his voice or the eagerness with which he shares his thoughts. Whatever it is—his words had an effect on me, and I hope they have an effect on you too.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Writers Need Other Writers

Quill_and_InkI’m a writer, an aspiring fiction author, an occasional poet, a fairly new blogger, and I don’t know many others like me. I’m talking about others who share my passion for putting words together and watching them come alive. Not necessarily accomplished authors, but regular people in everyday circles who, like me, feel as desperately about writing as I do. Who understand the strange, torturous, tantalizing magnetism of the writing life.

The writing life is a struggle against the self — against silence or too much noise. One aspect that I struggle with most is self-discipline: sticking to a writing routine. Ideas are never a problem. Putting them to paper and not giving up on them once I’ve doused them with ink, that’s when I need the most encouragement. I’m fortunate to have a significant other whose support and faith in my writing never falters when I’m wading in self-doubt, but only writers truly understand the writing frames of mind — the writing life.

I went to grad school for creative writing, to really hone my craft and give myself a chance to evolve as a writer, which I did. When graduation day arrived, my heart was swollen with hope and excitement and motivation and readiness to go out there and be the writer I know I can be. Not only did the program I was in validate the fact that yes, I could sit at the writing table with other writers, it also helped me beyond measure in the accountability department. Structure and deadlines are what I need to keep me from slacking.

But as the years passed (I graduated in 2011), I began to realize that my grad program had provided me with something even more valuable: a community of writers, of other people on the same squiggly path as me. quote-Mary-Gordon-it-was-actually-a-womens-writing-group-181318_1People with whom I could learn from and grow… and connect. I missed the writing workshops.

I think no matter what your field, no matter what your passion, you need to surround yourself with people who are on your similar journey. It’s not vital to your success, but it helps. Writing especially is such a solitary activity, and although our characters keep us company and our obsession with our writing topics distract us from loneliness, sometimes you just need someone to talk to about your progress or lack-thereof. Someone who understands the craft to give you feedback with a writer’s eye. I think this is especially important for aspiring authors like myself, who yes, write for themselves, but who also dream of their work being read one day, and dare I say, enjoyed. (More on this dream later.) Mentors are important no matter what your pursuit, but I’m more so talking about a community that can help you thrive. Communities provide context and nourishment.

Something interesting happened to me last year. I had finished a short story draft and was feeling rather ecstatic about it. But I needed a reader… I needed… feedback. I don’t have any writer friends, as I mentioned, but I do have reader friends. So I called the one friend I thought could give me the best critical feedback because we both share a similar appreciation for good language and literature.

I gave her my awkward little infant of a story and waited. When she finally responded, it was so interesting to see the kind of feedback she had given. I realized she had basically written a literary analysis on my story — which was wonderful to read! — but it didn’t give me specific feedback I could use to improve my draft. It certainly gave me insight into how a reader would perceive my story, which was enlightening, but there’s an art to reading as a writer — to giving feedback as writer, which I hadn’t realized completely until that moment. That’s not to say I won’t ask this friend to be my reader again; the experience simply gave me some interesting perspective.

2692992498_0889df0aeeWriters need other writers.

Whether it’s an online community (WordPress bloggers, you are amazing!) or a writer’s workshop or writer’s group or just one single writing friend — writers need other writers.

We need each other because only we can understand one another. Only we can give the craft-specific feedback that non-writers aren’t as apt in giving. We need each other because writing is hard, and sometimes (a lot of times) we need to commiserate — or celebrate! — with someone who understands. We need each other because we can encourage each other in ways non-writers can’t.

Writers, after all, inspire other writers. That’s why I’m a writer to begin with. I fell in love very early on with reading, with the written words of writers. And when you have a writer friend in your life, or a group of writers, the mere fact that they’re writing is encouraging to you because you don’t want to be left behind. Their writing becomes inspiration for you to write. Their writing tells you… hey, you’re a writer too… so get to writing.

Also last year, my aunt connected me with a writer friend of hers on Facebook. She said hey, this  person is a writer too, and she blogs, so I thought you two should add each other because you seem to have a lot in common. So through that virtual introduction we became virtual friends. And every time I saw this new virtual writer friend of mine share her latest blog post, it lit a flame — a small flame — but a flame, to my fingers. It inspired me to see another writer, just like me, writing. Every time she shared a new post it put up a mirror to my own journey as a writer.

Now, I know that comparison is the thief of joy. I know that the writing world is overwhelmingly competitive, that reading a peer’s marvelous work can make your confidence cripple, that jealousy is a very real thing in writing circles (there’s a whole chapter on jealousy in Anne Lamott’s wonderful book Bird by Bird), but I also know that it takes tough skin to survive the writing life, and that only great writing can inspire great writing. And hey, as ugly as it can be, jealousy is a part of life, not the end of it.

I suppose this post was inspired by the fact that I recently made a writing friend. We’ve been getting together to share each other’s works-in-progress, and holding one another accountable as a result. We both struggle with self-discipline, we’re both desperately in love with writing, and we both just needed another writer in our lives to gently nudge us with encouragement and inspiration to not give up on our many drafts.

When I gave my writer friend the same story I had given my reader friend, she said something so simple that I wanted to get up and hug her (but that would have been weird because, I mean, our friendship is still new). I have a vision to expand this story of mine into a longer work, so as we discussed where and how I could revise my draft, she said: don’t revise what you have, just keep writing; write what comes next. Don’t write backward, write forward.

That has really stuck with me because as all writers know, the mere thought of tackling a revision project can be paralyzing. better-writer-graphic-560x724

But just keep writing, is what she told me. Because as a writer, she knows the struggle well. She knows that the number one rule to succeeding as a writer is to just keep writing. I have plenty of those just keep writing quotes plastered around my room and on my computer’s desktop. But the fact that it came from her, another writer, somehow made all the difference to me. Somehow fueled me with the motivation and courage that… she’s a writer, she knows… and if she can do it, I can do it too.

There are many things we need as writers. Coffee. Good conversations. Overheard conversations. Snacks. Long walks. Long nights. Plenty of books and reading time. No interruptions. Readers. The perfect writing nook or desk or pocket book. Sharpened pencils. A favorite pen. Every writer needs something different.

But for me, other writers, it seems, are what have been missing in my writing life; other writers, I’ve found, add much fuel to my writing fire. Joining WordPress and following other writer’s blogs has given me so much inspiration, as well as a platform and community.

So thank you for being a part of my journey, WordPress bloggers! You have truly helped me become better and more accountable to my blog and to my commitment to the writing life. Do you have any writer friends? Does it help you to have a writing community? Do you wish you had one? Or do you disagree with this notion? And how do you feel about receiving feedback from writers vs. non-writers?

And while I’m on the topic of community and inspiring one another, I highly recommend this fantastic blog as a resource for aspiring authors.

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Working, Sleeping, Writing: A Writer’s Rant

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Here’s my problem, and I’ve been analyzing it for some time: I write best at night.

It’s 1:01 am right now and here I am writing. It may not be very good writing, but I’m writing and that’s what matters.

I need to write.

That’s why I’ve been cranky. That’s why I’ve been feeling hopeless. That’s why my blog’s been dry. I haven’t been writing on a regular schedule because I write best at night.

So write at night! What’s the issue?

The issue is that I can’t afford to be an insomniac writer anymore. I used to stay up into deep hours, my brain on fire for as long as my fingers and eyes could keep up, sometimes until dawn.

But jarring adulthood has thrust me into the arena of full-time employment—the arena of bus and car and train commutes, where every morning I’m surrounded by fellow worker bees clutching their coffee cups with drowsy faces, eyes still puffy from sleep that hasn’t worn off yet.

I am now the rush hour traffic.

And when I come home at night, I’m tired of the computer screen. I’m tired of the sitting. I’m tired of the to-do list that won’t detach from my hip. I’m just tired and I want to unwrap my brain from its knots, and I don’t feel like writing just yet.

I walk my dog. Make my dinner. Eat my dinner. Do the chores.  (Wow, imagine if I had kids. Hats off to all the mom writers out there.) And by the time I recenter myself and open up my laptop, it’s 10 pm and my bed starts whispering… tick tock… the time for sleep is near… and I don’t want to sleep—not yet—so I rebel: I type away, I type and I type till I look up and see the time and it laughs in my face and says something like don’t you have to wake up in four hours?

So when am I supposed to write if I write best at night?

As an insomniac, I hated the night. It was lonely, maddening, a time of hallucination, but also—and I didn’t realize it then—a peak time for my creativity. At night I can zoom into my words, my world, my brain, uninterrupted, because I need silence when I write. The night is my writing cocoon.

But my lifestyle doesn’t allow for this nocturnal love story anymore.

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And I’ve tried to be an “early bird”, and you know, mornings aren’t so bad; they’re pleasant, actually. They too have their element of peace and quiet. I love coffee. I love tea. I love breakfast and brunch. I love sunlight—I love windows flooded with sunlight.

But mornings are just not me. Mornings make me want to be outside and breathe the air and get active—not sit down to confinement.

Writing is discipline. Half the work is just getting yourself in the chair—holding yourself hostage to the task. The other half is to not hate yourself as you write so you can keep on writing. Suppress that voice of the oppressor, as Anne Lamott said—the perfectionist in your ear that snickers at your ugly first draft.

So that’s my problem, fellow bloggers. And this is not an excuse to not write regularly. I need to reprogram myself somehow.

How do you do it? How do you harness that discipline and hold yourself accountable to a writing schedule? It’s not that I have to force myself to write—I’m just struggling to find a time frame that works for me.

What kind of writer are you?

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An insomniac writer?

A morning writer?

A between-house-chores writer?

A stay-home-on-the-weekends to write writer?

A writer by full-time employment?

A writer who types away secretly at work and minimizes the document when someone walks by?

A writer with multiples jobs who still manages to write, thereby shrinking me to a sorry, whiny bucket of excuses?

Under what conditions do you write best and how do you set yourself up for success?

What struggles do you face when it comes to carving out your writing time?

And do you have any advice for me?

I need to get some sleep.