Willamette Writers’ Meeting Recap – November 7th

After a busy summer and a transition into a new fall school schedule, it was so wonderful to be back in community with all of you at the Old Church on November 7th. It was also a full and vibrant meeting, with many thanks to the efforts of Kate Ristau and others who promoted our meeting and our speaker.

Normally, I have striven to get my recaps out to you within a few days’ time. This time, I found myself coming away from our meeting feeling challenged and a little frustrated, so I took some time to really parse through what those challenges were about and how I might best serve you, dear readers.

First, William Kenower is an excellent motivational speaker. He offers writers real enthusiasm for finding the joy in writing, and he eschews the idea that writers must be tortured artists, slaving over their art, splitting their souls, and constantly deprecating their own work or process. Instead, Kenower focuses on the joys that come from good days of writing, which he describes as: the words are flowing and writing becomes an act of transcribing what we’re observing as though we are flies on the wall in the world which we ourselves have created. It’s an addicting, mesmerizing, joyful, and invigorating experience. Sadly, for some writers (many? Most??) it’s not a consistent one. This is where that whole tortured-artist shtick rears its ugly head, and we have a bad day of writing: the words refuse to come, we stare at the page and wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place, and everything we even dare to put down feels stilted, stiff, and just plain wrong. That’s a bad day of writing, and for many writers, it happens too often.

So what I enjoyed about Kenower’s presentation was the way he describes these days and then offers some suggestions for why we have them. His #1 point here is that the writing becomes arduous when we allow the voice of the critic to intrude into our creative space. Most particularly, Kenower says we halt the flow when we allow this question in: “I wonder what other people will think of this?” He then said, “this question stands between every writer and their productivity and happiness.”

What I want to do first is to share a few more of Kenower’s motivational one-liners, because many of them are worth printing out and tacking up wherever you look when you need to remember why you do this:

  • Understand the questions you should be asking:
    • What do I want to say
    • How do I say it
  • Success [i.e. publication] can’t be your goal; you do it because you’re interested.
  • A book is an opportunity to have a conversation.
  • Writing requires us to indulge our curiosity.
  • Readers don’t care what happens in a novel. They care about how it makes them feel.
  • Writing is simple at its core. We complicate it. We complicate it with questions like, “do I have what it takes” and “what will someone else think of this?”
  • Confidence as an artist is an expression of your inherent awareness of equality.
  • Writers start a story; readers end it.
  • Writers aren’t trying to answer a question; writers are asking them.

Ok, those are the key things that Kenower offered as lenses through which we can see ourselves and our craft. I find them helpful in the sense that they remind me of the core truths about what we’re doing and why.

Now for the challenges. As I’ve rested and ruminated, I’ve narrowed the challenges down to two core areas. First, it is my opinion that Kenower’s general stance – that writing should be effortless and we are “truly” writing when the right words fall into place one after the other – probably only really relates to that 1% of writers for whom writing comes just that easily and naturally. There’s also a certain level of irony, you have to admit, that Kenower mentioned he’s never taken a class or read a craft book and yet he was in Portland to teach a workshop while slinging his own craft book. Clearly, there’s a lot of value in that, and I don’t mean to imply he doesn’t also value classes and books, but there’s a danger to this idea that we should only bother writing if the words are flowing, the voice of the critic is silenced, and, as he said himself, “the right story takes no effort. The right word, the right scene, the right character falls into place – effortless.” Well, my friends, if that’s how it works for you, I am overjoyed to hear it. If that’s not how it works for you, hang in there, I have a few ideas.

And this is my second challenge with this presentation. While Kenower said quite a bit that I agree with, he didn’t offer nuts and bolts ideas on what to do to get to that effortless place, or how to silence the voice after it has already intruded. I sense this is what you learn in his workshop, which I’m sure was amazing and inspiring because he is simply the kind of speaker and teacher who amazes and inspires.

So this is where I’m going to pick up that baton and offer my own thoughts about how we create good writing days and what we can do to turn those bad writing days into good ones (and yes, it is absolutely possible!).

~ Writing Through the Bad until You Get to the Good

I have to say it: I reject the idea that the only “good” writing is that which is effortless. If we all waited around until only effortless writing happened…, well, pull up a chair and I’ll make us a couple gallons of tea. A Good Writing Day doesn’t only happen when the words place themselves in the “right” order right away, and I unequivocally believe that if you hold onto that ideal, you’re going to have even more bad days than you already do. We can push through and make it a good writing day, and this is part of the work it takes to be a good writer. If the words aren’t coming, just keep placing them one in front of the other. Tell the voice of the critic to shove off and remind both of you that where real writing happens is during revision. So yeah, I put words down knowing they’re wrong, but I remind myself that what I’ve just written is completely alterable. Nothing is written on stone here. Additionally, what I’ve discovered is that if I force myself to sit at my chair and keep putting one word after another, then eventually (and usually within 500-700 words, so we’re not talking a lifetime here), the “right” words will come. All of a sudden, the character will take a turn down an alley, or get in a car, or pick up the phone – things I didn’t plan for or realize were about to happen – but once it does, I’m off and rolling. The character has finally taken up space once more to do the things he or she wants to do, and I can become the transcribing observer. Most of my writing days look like this, and they can be just as joyful and satisfying as the effortless ones. In fact, I would say more so, because I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I persevered, I allowed resilience to rule over despair, and I proved to myself once again that I really can do the work I feel called to do.

  • Tip: Find a way of indicating to yourself that you want to revisit a word or passage for future revision. I like to put “thes.”for thesaurus after a word I want to find a synonym for. I put [rework] at the end of paragraphs that need some serious reframing. The point is – I put words on the page, and revision is where I’m going to shape them up. The key thing? I’m not waiting to get it right; I mark where it needs work and I move on.

 

Writerly Activities Other Than Writing

Let’s face it, those days when the words simply refuse to come are going to happen. I don’t recommend you always force yourself through it because you may end up so distraught, you do something drastic. I’ve tossed a number of novel and short story seedlings because I reached a point when I was so disgusted with them, I threw them out! There’s a point when we have to walk away and console ourselves that the words/the muse will come back another day. And we have to remember that being a writer is not just about writing. There’s a whole slew of other things we can do to maintain the core of our writerly being.

 

~ Read a Craft Book

One of the things I found particularly difficult to digest was when Kenower said that while taking classes and reading craft books can be helpful, you should just write because by writing and writing and writing, you learn to be a writer. Again, I reject this was a capital “R.” Again, this is advice that is applicable to the 1% of writers who are going to write a good story no matter what, for whom their hands become the mouth of the muse. It’s not a good strategy for the rest of us. The problem: you’re writing in a vacuum; you’re writing for an audience of one; you are, essentially, journaling. The result: you end up perpetuating really bad writing habits, and as anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, they are nefarious, niggling, and self-excusing little things. Someone who is not taking classes or reading craft books is going to spend many years writing unpublishable material because that individual is never going to realize that adverbs are anathema (you know, except for in this blog), that stories can’t and shouldn’t be told solely through exposition, that world-building cannot look like a list of the magical or nuanced elements of a fantastical setting, and so on. These are things you learn from craft books and from other writers, even from a writing group if not a workshop or class, but which is very difficult to learn on your own. So there’s my stance on that.

But here’s what else I’ve found about maintaining a constant flow of craft books: They Inspire Me! – oh boy do they ever! When I read craft books, all sorts of ideas pop to mind, whether it’s revising something I’ve written or generating new content. I’ll read another writer’s ideas about how to work with this or that literary device, and I’ll have an aha! moment about how I can fix a section that was giving me trouble. An idea inspired from a craft book can lead me to that place of effortless writing. And of course, I’m also honing in on the things I can do to make my own writing stand out above the rest because ultimately, I do want to publish – not because I crave that kind of success – but because I am a storyteller, and I want to offer my own community of readers the same joys that I have and continue to garner from those whom I read.

~ Keep a Book or List of Writing Prompts

While you may have wanted to sit down and write on this one particular project, it may be the case that it’s just not going to happen on this one day. That doesn’t mean you can’t still write. Pull out a writing prompt and just let yourself play with words. Even if it isn’t with your current project, you’re still practicing the art of words-on-the-page, and that will naturally inform your writing in positive ways. Here’s one I offered to my writer’s group, and while it had nothing to do with anything any of us were writing on, a couple members said it unlocked some ideas:

  • A woman (or your character of choice) digging in her gardenuncovers a sealed, ancient box. (From The Writer’s Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction)

There are a number of websites that offer daily writing prompts, as well, so you don’t have to go buy a book. You can find them in places such as Poets & Writers.

~ Read

One of the best things you can do as a writer is to read. If you’re stuck with the project you’re working on, read within the same genre or work that is tonally-similar to your own project. Just recently, I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, a collection of stories, and only because I happen to love her writing. All of a sudden, I put her book down, went to my desk, and wrote 2,000 words on a story I’d started years ago. The tone of Strout’s stories and the everydayness of her characters clicked something over in my mind, even though the story I’m working on has magical realism elements to it and is otherwise not related at all to the story I was reading at the time. Reading works that exemplify what you yourself are trying to do is a wonderful way to stay motivated. In addition, you will naturally build your own craft by reading and closely focusing on what makes that writing so compelling. For help with that, you might like Francince Prose’s craft book Reading like a Writer or Mike Bunn’s article “How to Read like a Writer.”

~ Write a Blog

This idea harkens back to the one offered by Tex Thompson at her appearance in the summer, where she also offered that we find our audience by writing about the things we love, because those things likely make a fairly large appearance in our writing. I write this blog because I enjoy writing about writing, and I feel that this is something I can offer the community. I also love Jane Austen, and I have a blog idea brewing for that as well. What do you love? What are you thinking about or researching when you’re not writing? Think about how you can use your writer’s platform as a place to generate more writing content. Again, you’re writing à you’re practicing the skills. Right here, I’ve written 2,000+ words, and it has felt joyful, and that is a very good day for me. (And I’ve also been thinking the whole time about you, dear reader, and what I want to offer you and why).

~ Find an Inspiring Activity

And this final idea is where I diverge from writing-focused activities. Sometimes, what you need is to clear your head. Identify an activity that has also been inspiring for you in the past. For me, it’s walking. I often set a goal when I go for a walk, something like, “write down 3 scene ideas before you get back.” And while I tell myself I’m not allowed to return home until I have those ideas, I usually find that within a couple blocks, I’ve written my 3 scene ideas and a couple more follow after. Right in that moment, I’ve fed my writing practice for the next few days or even a week. Another time, I spoke out loud an entire scene, saying it over and over again, revising it, until I got home and wrote it down. Not only that scene, but about 1,000 more words. What can you do? And remember it has to be an activity that occupies your body but not your mind. Exercising in general is good (plus it’s just good for you, so win-win!), weeding or gardening, knitting, taking a shower or bath, etc.

 

So here’s where I want to end: while we’re all striving for those perfect, effortless days of writing, don’t let that be your only goal. Don’t let it become the perfect nexus into which you believe you must fall before you can write. Because if you do, you may find it a very long time before you hit another good day. I believe that the myth of effortless writing can be just as damaging to your productivity as worrying about what other people are thinking. And I’ll offer this as well, part of what makes a good day of writing good for me is realizing that not only have I fallen completely into the world, but that I’ve created a world which will be fun and engaging for my readers. There is a place where we can feel joyful and inspired by thinking about our readers, but I do agree that when we allow it to come from a critical place, a place of judgement and censor, that is not productive.

I want to end by saying that while I don’t agree with some of Kenower’s points, I also only got the opportunity to spend 45 minutes with him. Had I not already made plans with my wife to get away while the in-laws kept our 5-year old from burning down the house, I would have immediately signed up for his Fearless Writing Workshop held at TaborSpace. While we didn’t necessarily get nuts-and-bolts advice for turning bad writing days to good at our meeting, I have every confidence that William Kenower offers them in his book and his workshop. If anyone who took the class or has read his book would like to add those suggestions, feel free to do so in the comments section. I hope these ideas from my own writing practice unlock some additional strategies for you. Because really, we’re all a family in this crazy thing we’re doing together, and why not share around some of the things we do to turn our bad days into good?

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