by Daniella Levy
I am very much a self-taught writer. I had to be; my formal English language education more or less ended in fourth grade when I immigrated to Israel. I learned mostly from reading, writing, and getting feedback from my friends. The only writing book I read during my adolescence was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
In recent years, however, I decided to see what I could learn from outside resources. So I took a few online creative writing classes through FutureLearn and Coursera, and read Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I started reading essays passed around on social media about writing, and watched TED talks about writing and creativity, etc. etc. etc.
But the truth is… more often than not, I find such things more annoying than helpful.
(The Coursera courses through Wesleyan University were a notable exception. Definitely check them out.)
There seems to be this narrative, this formula, this body of advice that most of these things follow. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure it’s excellent advice… for most writers. But there are a few bits of advice that come up over and over that have never worked for me.
For a while, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to get my act together! Because Real Writers™ do all these things, so I must do them too to be a Real Writer™!” But when I tried to follow the advice, I found myself nothing but frustrated and hating everything I was writing.
Eventually the irony of this dawned on me. I had already written six novels, a novella, a non-fiction book, more than a hundred poems and songs, countless articles and essays, and over a dozen short stories. I maintain two blogs. And here I was, thinking that following some dude’s advice on the Internet was going to make me a Real Writer™.
So here are the ones I stopped even trying to follow:
1) Write Every Day
First of all, by default, I can’t do this because I’m an Orthodox Jew and I don’t write on the Sabbath.
But I also don’t believe in forcing myself to write when I don’t feel like writing.
The thing is–writing is like breathing for me. I always feel like writing. It’s just not always the thing I’d ideally like to be writing. For example, I am, at this very moment, writing a blog post. Ideally, I’d like to be writing my next novel. But that’s not what’s happening now, and I refuse to force it. Some days all I write are mundane e-mails to people. Some days they’re relatively boring content articles that people pay me for. But in my book–everything counts.
Furthermore, and this is more important: sometimes my best “writing” is done far away from the keyboard. I invent plotlines while I drive to doctor’s appointments. I come up with dialogue talking to myself in the shower. I compose blog posts while washing dishes or cooking dinner. Daydreaming is a huge part of writing. And if all I’m focusing on is the output, I don’t give myself time or space to do that.
2) Don’t Wait for Inspiration
Many writers advocate setting aside a specific time every day to write and fill a certain quota in minutes or words, even if you don’t feel inspired. If you wait for inspiration, they argue, you’re going to waste a lot of time. Get the words and ideas flowing, they insist. Inspiration can come later.
Me? I don’t even know how that works.
I have tried sitting myself down and telling myself to write. Nothing happens. How can I write when I’m not inspired? Why should I write creatively if I’m not enjoying it?!
I understand if you’re writing for pay and you have to keep up a steady output to get food on your table. In that case, you have to crunch away at it just like every other job. But let’s face it, how many of us are relying on creative writing for an income? Why give this advice to writers who are doing it as a hobby? I guess it must work for many people. Well, not for me!
3) Set a Deadline
If you haven’t guessed by now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is not my thing.
Very, very, very much not my thing.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about: NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write 60,000 words of a novel within the month of November. Yup, that’s an average of 2,000 words per day. The idea is, as above, to just get the words flowing, no matter how terrible, and only after you’ve finished the first draft, you can go back and edit it.
Now, I’ve had periods where I was writing 1,000-2,000 words per day in a novel. (In one memorable incident, I wrote 5,000 words over the course of 24 hours!) But I’ve also had periods of days or even weeks in which I wrote not a single word.
And you know what? Those breaks were absolutely essential.
I dunno about y’all, but at least for me, some things work much better when I give them some time on the back burner. As I mentioned, my creative process includes a lot of daydreaming away from the computer. Sometimes what I’m working on needs some space to breathe and grow inside me before I write it down.
You know how sometimes the grocery store sells pears or avocados that were picked too early? The idea is that they’re easier to ship that way and last longer in storage, and they can theoretically ripen on the shelf. But when you pick them too early, they never really ripen. They just stay hard and astringent until they turn brown and mushy. Or they have a window of ripeness that lasts approximately 12.8 seconds. Even when you catch them at the right moment, they’re nowhere near as delicious as they would have been if they’d been picked in their prime.
So too with my writing. If I try to write it before it’s ready I’m going to end up hating the project and abandoning it.
4) Get It All Down Now, Edit Later
With all my love for Anne Lammott, who coined the phrase “s***ty first drafts”… I don’t do those.
I know the idea is that you shouldn’t expect to love what you’re writing when you’re getting down the first draft. All first drafts are crappy, argues Anne. Just write it all out, even if you hate it, and edit it later.
I take issue with the phrase for two reasons:
Firstly: I have to love what I’m writing.
That doesn’t mean I have to think it’s perfect and ready to submit. It means that I’m having fun and enjoying what I’ve written so far. It means I think I have a good concept that I’m excited about, and that I’m capable of executing it reasonably well.
Secondly: I don’t think it’s healthy to use such a strongly negative word to describe your own work. (See: self-bullying in my post on criticism.)
I’ve never liked this “vomit words on page and clean them up later” approach. I like to reread what I’ve already written and tweak it before moving on to the next part. I like to take my time when I write and get it in reasonably good shape. Of course I edit after I finish the whole thing anyway. I spent just over 3 months writing my latest novel, and about 3 years revising it!
But maybe this is why my drafts always get longer, rather than shorter, when I revise. My tendency is to expand too little, not too much.
In one of those Coursera courses, there was a class on revising. The instructor said that your revised manuscript should always be about a third shorter than your first draft! That never happens to me.
5) If You Have an Idea, Write It Down Right Away so You Don’t Forget It
The way my brain works, if an idea is worth remembering, I won’t forget it. In fact, I will probably tell it to go away because chances are I’m busy doing something else. (I have three little kids, a’right?) But if the idea is worth pursuing, it will continue to pester me so persistently that eventually I’ll have no choice but to write it down–the dishes be damned.
I carry around a little pocket notebook, but in my entire life I’ve only written down maybe two lines of poetry in one of those. Sometimes when I think of something on the go I open an e-mail draft on my phone and tap it out on there so I can access it from my computer later. But I’ve never had a situation where I was afraid something would slip away from me if I didn’t write it down that. second.
It’s more like, I’m going to go insane if I don’t write this down right now because otherwise I won’t be able to think about anything else!
Yes, I’ve had the experience of an exact phrase coming to mind and not wanting to lose it. But more often than not, even if I do forget it, something just as good or better will come up when I get the chance to write it down.
In other words, I trust my muse to wait for me if the idea is good enough.
Daniella Levy is the author of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is forthcoming from Kasva Press. Her blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, explores the creative life and resilience in the face of rejection. She also blogs about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com, and her articles, short fiction, and poetry have been published by Writer’s Digest, Kveller, Reckoning, Newfound, the Rathalla Review, the Jewish Literary Journal, Silver Birch Press, and more. Learn more about her at Daniella-Levy.com.