Writer’s Desk: Something Every Day

The poet William Stafford (1914–1993) had a fairly disciplined four-part approach to his daily writing task.
But the key element to his process is the last, where he advises this:
For this day, again, you give yourself a chance to discover worthy things. Nothing stupendous may occur… but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure… and you will spend the balance of your day in blind reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.
Get something down on paper each and every day. Leave yourself open to something wonderful. Or terrible.
You can edit later.

Writer’s Desk: Ask the Questions

Unless you’re Karl Ove Knausgard, writing entails getting in touch with life outside of yourself. That can present problems in fiction. Why? Most writers’ lives just are not that exciting.
Lynda La Plante, the crime novelist responsible for the series Widows and Prime Suspect, has a simple solution for finding out what you need to know:
If you want to find out something you go to source. If you want to know what a man serving life for murder is like, call your nearest prison and register as a visitor … That’s what’s so exciting as a writer, if you put yourself out there, you come home with the goodies
So if you want to truly engage with your invented characters, go find their closest real-life corollaries and talk to them. That’s how you get the goodies.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Literary

Georges Simenon , 1965 (Dutch National Archives)

When Georges Simenon was starting out as a newspaper writer and later a factory for churning out pulp fiction in Paris in the 1920s, he had higher ambitions. So he went to ask for advice from Colette, one of the reigning doyennes of French (and world) literature.

Colette, whose early writings had been produced under her husband’s name and had to fight for every scrap of financial and critical success she ultimately won, had some tart words for the young pulpist:

She told him to stop trying to be literary, and Mr. Simenon would later say it was the best piece of writing advice he ever got.

By the time Simenon passed away in 1989, he had produced 220 novels under his own name, plus another couple hundred under pseudonyms, and over a thousand short stories.

His method was monastic when required:

When he worked he hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door and often wrote round-the-clock. Once finished, Mr. Simenon put his manuscript away for a few days, then took it out, revised it briefly and sent it to his editor. He never read any of his books once they had been published.

Also, Simenon wasn’t just prolific, he was wildly successful, selling something like half a billion copies worldwide.

Sometimes refusing to worry about how your work is perceived is the best thing you can do.

Writer’s Desk: Render It Eternal

Even in fiction, when we’re writing, we are often reliving something something we already experienced. A thought, a view, a conversation, a stab of pain or shiver of beauty.

Part of the reason writers do that is simple: Fuel for the engine. But sometimes we write about an experience in order to go through it again, to remember what it felt like, get it down on paper, and let it some extent, live forever.

Anais Nin wrote in her diaries:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render it all eternal…

Writer’s Desk: Ha Jin on Patience

According to Ha Jin, the author of Waiting and War Trash among other books, there is something to be said for taking your time:

Be patient. Patience is everything.

I write everyday. When I have a large amount of time, in the summer, I can write a draft of a book and then when I teach I can edit and revise the book. Even though I work everyday, it doesn’t mean I write everyday. It’s impossible. It takes such a long time. It’s far from finished once you have a rough draft. Sometimes you just waste weeks and months. It happened to me a few times. I wrote 18 pages and realized it was terrible and had to start again. That’s why patience is everything.

Writer’s Desk: Imagine Your Reader

Novelist and poet Russell Banks (Family Life, Continental Drift, Affliction) had some advice for high school students in upstate New York a few years back:

Imagine the teller but also imagine the listener. What is fiction after all but a sort of visual hallucination — you’re asking the reader to see things that aren’t there.

When you’re writing, you’re taking a journey with words. Remember that you want the reader to come along with you.

Writer’s Desk: Start with the Sun

James Dickey won a National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice. That was years before he hit the big time with Deliverance. To some degree, poetry remained his first and last love.

Later, in the 1985 collection How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, he offered some advice for aspiring, or even veteran poets. It begins with simplicity:

As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. ‘Start with the sun,’ D. H. Lawrence said, ‘and everything will slowly, slowly happen.’ Good advice. And a lot will happen…

Start by writing what’s in front of you. If you can capture that, it’s an amazing start.

(h/t: Maria Popova)