Nobody, particularly writers and artists, want to be told to go slowly when pursuing their dreams. Reach for the stars and damn the consequences! That seems more in line with what a lot of us want to hear.
That’s why it’s helpful to hear somebody like Renata Adler, one of the great magazine writers of our time, sound a note of caution in this interview from The Guardian:
Her advice to writers is: cling to your day job – wherever it happens to be – for as long as you possibly can. “I’ve said it all along, in my even way: if you’re at Condé Nast, and they’re cutting your pieces to shreds, just hang on. Do your art in your own time, but don’t quit because then you’ll be out there, vulnerable.”
A day job can make things difficult for some writers; they need the time to concentrate on their work. But economic insecurity will ruin your concentration every time. As Adler says, “One needs an apartment and a job.”
Brooklyn’s Central Library – a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).
Finding the right space to write in is always a challenge. Some people could write in a highway median; others need dead silence. Most of us are somewhere in that Goldilocks in-between.
For all those New York-based writers (or just those coming through), here’s some ideas for great writing spaces that the Times culled from some local playwrights:
Dan Lauria (Dinner with the Boys) — “All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want.”
Michael Weller (Doctor Zhivago) — “I tend to write on subways.”
Laura Eason (The Undeniable Sound of Right Now) — “… the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables … You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.”
There are many satisfactions in the writing life; though they all come with caveats. Setting your own hours—unless you’re on deadline. Being your own boss—unless you have to work closely with a narrow-minded editor. And so on.
But one of the truest joys that comes with being a writer is when you start to think that you can actually make a living at putting words onto paper.
Longtime New Yorker scribe E.B. White recalled that moment of realization for The Paris Review:
I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing. I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use. I went abroad one summer and on my return to New York found an accumulation of mail at my apartment. I took the letters, unopened, and went to a Childs restaurant on Fourteenth Street, where I ordered dinner and began opening my mail. From one envelope, two or three checks dropped out, from The New Yorker. I suppose they totaled a little under a hundred dollars, but it looked like a fortune to me. I can still remember the feeling that “this was it”—I was a pro at last. It was a good feeling and I enjoyed the meal…
Writing itself is of course a good feeling. Being paid to do so is an acknowledgement from the outside world that you’re not wasting your time doing so.
The thing with writer’s block is that there’s no way to get around it but by writing. That’s where the prompt can come in handy.
At Poets & Writers, they have a handy resource that churns up a steady stream of prompts to get you going on that project, regardless of what it is, from creative nonfiction (always a tricky category) to fiction.
Here’s a few:
This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character.
Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century.
This week, write about a time when you were out of your element, immersed in a community or culture that you felt was very different from your own. Observe your own behavior as an anthropologist would.
You might want to toss the results away when you’re done. But at least you’ll be writing.
“Where do you find the time?” That may be one of the questions writers hear the most. It’s heard just about as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” and is possibly as hard to answer.
The most likely response is, “I have no idea.” Every writer tries to carve off little pieces of time here and there. But none of us live in a vacuum. Family, work, joy—There are lives to be led, after all. Because of the time crunch difficulty, advice can help.
Here’s some time management ideas that Fast Company gathered from people who took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo):
As a single working mom of two, [Toni Morrison] carved out a few minutes to write before bed. She cranked out The Bluest Eye in that time.
I absolutely refused to go to sleep until I’d written 500 words. This was a ridiculously small goal for each night but I found that this was my own personal ‘hump.’ If I could get to 500 I could usually get to at least 1,500
When you have a big goal, you may need to turn down opportunities or invitations, or let go of a few responsibilities. Sometimes people feel guilty about this, but people who care about you will likely support you, especially if there’s an end in sight.
It’s not always about inspiration. Sometimes it can be about what you’re willing to give up. How important is writing to you in the end? If you’re not sure about how to answer that question, you may have your answer.
George Orwell at the BBC (1940)
According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.
In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:
- Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
- Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
- Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
- Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.