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On the Writing Life

April 9, 2011

I’ve never thought of the “writing life” as being somehow separate from other kinds of life. For me, writing has mostly been something that happens in the interstices of other activities: I scribble down ideas while at work and email them to myself, to be polished up at home between eating, sleeping, reading, doing chores and going for walks.

(I should say this appies to poetry and short fiction, which has been the bulk of my output. My one novel was an immersive, roughly two-and-a-half-month experience: during that period, I pretty much didn’t do anything except go to work and write. If I plan to write another novel, I will certainly schedule a vacation for at least part of that time.)

So I’m not a subscriber to the idea that the writing life, at least my writing life, needs big uninterrupted slabs of time. What does it need?


Inspiration is where you find it, but it may be true that a given place and set of activities has only so much inspiration to offer. So try to vary your daily routine. If you work full-time without flex, like I do, mix up your leisure time. Take walks. Read different things than you normally would. Go for a drive in the country. Roll out of your rut, whatever it is!

One word of caution: I find it unproductive to approach these things by thinking “This will be good for my writing, I need to do it!” It leads to second-guessing: you’re always looking over your shoulder, wondering, “Is this it? Is inspiration happening here, right now? Am I getting what I expected out of this?” Don’t expect immediate results; this is more in the nature of practicing good nutrition than it is like getting a steroid shot.


Portland is a great place to be involved with a literary community. We’ve consistently ranked among the top 10 literate cities in the country, according to this study. We’re the home of the largest independent bookstore in the world (Powell’s). The Reading Local (Portland) blog can’t keep up with the reading/writing/open mic/critique groups going on in this town: Powell’s alone has book events almost every night. We even have a poetry hour on our local radio station: “Talking Earth” on KBOO.

Solitude may be good for uninterrupted concentration in the short term; in the long term, I believe it’s stultifying. An active writing community can help a writer get out of her or his own head. Going to literary events will expose you to different styles of writing; you may not like everything you hear, but it will at least be something to think about. The feedback I’ve gotten from critique groups has also been invaluable in grooming particular pieces for publication, and sharpening my writing skills in general.

If you don’t have flesh-and-blood communities handy, there’s a huge world of online writing groups. I used to spend a fair amount of time involved with such; since I’ve become engaged with local groups, I’ve almost completely quit online communities. Your preference may vary.


Without this one, everything else falls apart. It’s important to write regularly, but it’s also important to pick a schedule you honestly think you can keep to. I know more than one novel writer who came up the old, hard way: by writing a short story every week, and then submitting it repeatedly– for years. It worked for them, but if I was ever up to that, I’m not now.

I’m also not generally the write-every-day type. Even when I was working on my novel, there were a couple of days when I didn’t write at all– on the road for Thanksgiving, for instance. I interpret the NaPoWriMo goal of writing a poem a day every day in the month of April as an average: if I have a total of 30 or more poems by the end of the month, I figure it’s good.

Long-term goals tend to work better for me than short-term ones. Long-term goals require a bit of record-keeping, but fortunately in an electronic age, much of that can be done automatically: for instance, if you keep e-copies of your poems, you can do a sort by date and see what your output’s been month by month. (You could even organize them into folders by month, but that might be a little much.)

One of the reasons I prefer long-term goals is that they’re less sensitive to singular events. Got an attack of flu and didn’t make your goal for this week? Don’t give up the plan. You’ll make it up over the next few. (If you don’t think that’ll happen, chances are your goal wasn’t reasonable to begin with.)

And Finally

No-one’s completely free to choose their life. You have to feed your writing life from the parts that are under your control, not the parts that aren’t. If you’re trying to do that, it becomes nothing but an excuse for failure.

  1. April 9, 2011 7:14 am

    I like what you say about the role of groups and engaging with other writers here. I think that’s a key to keeping going.

  2. April 9, 2011 7:55 am

    That tension between connecting with other writers and working alone continues. I’d just like to add that diving into the library, picking up a copy of National Geographic, going to museums, and walking in the woods can also feed ideas, memories, and sheer bursts of pleasure in writing.

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