Writing Lessons

A few years ago, I read Under the Wide and Starry Sky, a fictional take on the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny. Near the end of the book, Stevenson reflects on his adult stepson, an aspiring writer who gets caught up in the trappings of the literary life. Stevenson sadly observes that his stepson “wanted the life of the writer, more than the art.”

That line stung when I read it. He could’ve been describing 25-year-old me.

In 2008, I quit my first real journalism job in order to become a freelance writer. Back then, I believed the myth that to be a “real” writer, writing had to be my full-time job and pay all my bills. My three-step plan for literary success was simple and naive.

First, minimize my living expenses. (I moved out of my apartment and into various relatives’ homes for a few months. Eventually I landed in a basement bedroom of a shared duplex that had both mildew and mice.) Second, get paid for writing magazine and newspaper articles. (An idea so vague it could hardly be called a “plan.”) And lastly, keep writing articles until I had a steady income and no longer had to live off my savings.

Disillusionment was swift. In less than a year, I was lonely, nearly broke, and so tired of wearing yoga pants as my standard work uniform—a major selling point of the freelance writer life—that I could’ve burned them. More than 500 magazines folded in 2008, and writers and publishers had yet to realize the potential of digital media. It was a bad time to base your livelihood on writing for magazines.

Worst of all, I didn’t like writing anymore. In fact, I began to dread it. When all of my income depended on my writing, I had to accept any and every writing job I could—even the assignments I didn’t like or opportunities that paid poorly. Eventually I ended up at a full-time editing job again where I worked for the next decade. Surprisingly, once writing stopped being my full-time job, I started to like it again.

Last month, history repeated itself and I once again left my corporate job with the plan to freelance full-time. But things are different this time around. In the intervening years, I’ve learned a few things about business and more importantly, about writing. This is what I wish I would’ve known when I was first starting out.

1. Writing is a craft, not a lifestyle.

In my twenties, I had pursued writing as a lifestyle, not as a craft, or even a business. As a new freelance writer, I spent most of my time and energy constructing a facade instead of refining my craft.

I made business cards that I never handed out. I spent hours at coffee shops with my laptop drinking expensive lattes because that’s what writers did. (Never mind that I prefer silence when I write.) I was fixated on seeing my name in print as though every byline was proof of my legitimacy.

I drove aimlessly around my city looking for inspiring places that would fill me with creative ideas. I dreamed of having a chic home office with vintage furniture and Anthropologie knickknacks. In short, I wanted to be like the writers I saw on social media and in movies.

A major point I overlooked is that social media and movies are full of stereotypes about writers. If someone made a movie about an actual working writer’s life, it’d probably be boring and not even have a soundtrack.

I still don’t have a chic home office, and I still can’t do productive writing in coffee shops, but it doesn’t matter anymore. These days, I think it’s more important to live according to William Faulkner’s admonition: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”

2. Word count goals are the surest way to keep me writing.

For years, my writing life was undisciplined. I thought that in order to write well, I had to feel like it. I thought that beautiful, meaningful words could only come from unpredictable rushes of inspiration.

Then I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book, Gilbert dispels a lot of myths about the creative life including the idea that you should only write when you feel inspired. She describes her work ethic and likens her own writing practice to working like a farmer. I decided it was time to work like a farmer too.

I started waking up at 5:30 a few days a week to write before work. At first, I set a time goal for myself: five hours a week. This strategy worked for a while. But then, my designated writing time gradually became less productive.

As an editor, I often rework and revise my own writing to death just because I can. It’s often easier and more gratifying than writing fresh words, still grubby and dirt-caked from the earth. I may have been working like a farmer, but I just kept scrubbing the same potatoes.

I changed tactics. Rather than a time goal, I set a monthly word-count goal. It fundamentally changed my approach to writing. When I had a time goal, I was always on the lookout for large blocks of writing time. If I didn’t have a full uninterrupted hour to write, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

The problem with this mindset is that everyone’s time tends to be fragmented. My days are full of responsibilities but also endless interruptions and distractions.

With a word-count goal, I no longer need the perfect time and place to write. I write on my laptop. I write in the notes app on my phone while waiting in line. I scribble in a notebook before bed. Twenty words here, fifty words there. They all add up. Every single imperfect word.

Yes, I’m reaching my word-count goal. But more importantly, the habit of writing now infuses my life in a way it never did before.

3. Everyone’s rough drafts are rough.

Shortly after college, I took a children’s writing workshop at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. As part of our week-long course, we took a field trip to the Kerlan Collection at one of the University of Minnesota libraries.

The Kerlan Collection is an archive of children’s literature, not only published books but the paper trails that led to them: rough drafts, galleys, original artwork. On our visit, the librarians allowed our class to browse some of their materials and I found an early draft of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Kate DiCamillo is a prolific writer I’ve long admired and her books have won many awards and been turned into films. Yet, at first glance, her rough draft looked similar to anyone else’s. It was messy and full of notes, scribbled-out words, and questions between author and editor.

As I held the raggedy pages, I had an epiphany: All the books I admire begin like this. Everyone’s rough drafts are rough. From then on, it changed the way I approached the page when I wrote.

I discovered it was easier to start a new writing project when I reminded myself that I didn’t have to write an award-winning book or even a coherent essay. I simply needed to write a rough draft.

4. Writers need readers.

When I say “readers,” I don’t mean social media followers or people who will buy my books. I mean people who will read my works-in-progress and give me honest feedback.

This lesson has taken me the longest to learn. In many ways, I’m still learning it. I tend to be a very private writer. I have endless files of unpublished work on my computer that have never been read by anyone except me: essays, poems, one-third of a novel. Most of the time, I don’t like to share my writing with anyone until it’s completely finished.

I took the children’s writing workshop not knowing that I’d have to stand in front of the class and read ten pages of the rough draft of my novel. I also didn’t know that my classmates would give me feedback on my work—both on paper and to my face.

But when it was all over, I had never been more encouraged. My classmates saw the potential in my work but they also challenged me in ways I was unable to challenge myself.

These days I’m finally, slowly starting to share my works-in-progress with people in my life. Some of them are fellow writers, and some are simply people I trust. The risk is worth it.

5. Editors are your friends and can be your best collaborators.

Over the years I’ve met writers who tell me they want to self-publish their books because they don’t want anyone else (i.e. an editor) to change their words or ideas. I think this is a mistake. (Not the self-publishing part, but their reason for it.)

One woman I know has an incredible idea for a book. When I asked if she’d thought about getting an agent and pitching it to a publisher, she looked horrified. “Oh no!” she said. “This is my book. I don’t want anyone to change it.”

That’s her business of course. But I wish I could’ve explained to her that inviting other people into her process and being open to change could make her work stronger. A good editor has the same goal as the writer: to bring out the best in the work.

Last year I saw my own manuscript evolve from a Word document on my computer to a printed book. The end result was very different from where I started. It was better.

And it was all because of the incredible collaboration that can take place between writers, editors, designers, and anyone else who touches the project.

In my current work, I switch back and forth between roles. I’m the managing editor here at The Art of Simple. I’m also writing my next children’s book. My writer side is informed by my editor side and vice versa. When I’m the writer, I want feedback. I want to collaborate. It’s one of the best ways to grow as a writer.

And at the end of the day, growth is what I desire most in my writing life anyway. I’m not the same writer I was ten years ago or even last year. And that’s a good thing.

p.s. Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

Reading Time:

6 minutes

 

 

 

17 Comments

  1. victoria

    Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing your life, talent and wisdom. xo

    • Andrea Debbink

      You’re welcome, Victoria! Thank you for reading!

  2. Libby

    This is beautiful and helpful for those of us who want to write more.

    • Andrea Debbink

      I’m so glad to hear that, Libby. Thank you.

  3. Devi

    Thank you for this, Andrea. The lifestyle vs craft conversation is so important, and the Instagram world of coffee pictures certainly doesn’t help. I’ve started to see writing work as essential to the functioning of communities and society. Doctors, engineers, teachers, electricians (and on and on), don’t get to work only when inspired. I had to see my role as a creative as essential — that’s what helps me switch from inspired mode to just-do-your-job mode.

    • Andrea Debbink

      I love your perspective, Devi, and how you put that. Writing IS essential to the functioning of our communities and societies, yet it’s so easy to see it as something on periphery. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Courtney Hanna-McNamara

    Thank you for this, Andrea! I relate so much to what you’ve said here. Fear is a major factor for me, and something I’m struggling to overcome; the early morning writing time was also working for me, until I stopped doing it. I need to print out that Faulkner quote and let some people actually read what I’ve written – thanks for the push with all of what you’ve shared here.

    • Andrea Debbink

      Glad to hear that, Courtney! Fear is such an unavoidable part of writing for me too. It encourages me to learn that authors I admire still get nervous about sharing their work. I think writing is just an inherently vulnerable act!

  5. Elliott

    So I just stumbled upon this at 5am and may I tell you, this is exactly what I needed to read this morning. I have struggled on and off with forcing a “writing career” while doing not much writing that I’ve actually felt good about. Fighting depression doesn’t help, but I think a lot of these things tie together: being depressed partly because I feel like I’m not a “real writer”, because of these myths and expectations.

    I don’t want to write an essay about my feelings right now but I just wanted to let you known this meant a lot to read. So thank you for sharing it.

    • Andrea Debbink

      I’m so encouraged to hear that, Elliott. I’m glad you stumbled upon this just when you needed to hear it. I think our inner critic can be so harsh about writing and I’m sure dealing with depression makes it harder. I mention this in our upcoming podcast discussion, but you might appreciate the book “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey. It’s full of mini bios of writers, thinkers, etc. and talks about how they approached their work. It was a great reminder for me that the writing life doesn’t have to look a certain way.

  6. Tsh Oxenreider

    Andrea, I am so glad you wrote this, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear our chat about it later this week. 🙂 I tell you, your word count vs. time spent writing is so true… I think I may have to shift my writing goals to better reflect this wisdom. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Andrea Debbink

      Thanks, Tsh! I loved talking about this with you. I think our long conversation could’ve been even longer! 🙂

  7. Sarah Caldwell

    THANK YOU for this post – I found it right before bed, as I sat here, trying to get some words on the page. I want so much to grow as a writer, but so often, I don’t do the things I need to do to practice and grow into a better writer. Grateful for these words, and I can’t wait to hear the podcast! Thanks for some much-needed inspiration! (Side note: any suggestions on the best books to read on essay writing?)

  8. trina

    Another person here trying to get a “writing career” off the ground, whatever that means … I recently worked with someone on a book who had everything magically and instantly fall from the sky re: agent, publisher, etc. It has completely distorted my expectation of how to go forward with my own creative writing process. I know this experience was a fluke and not the norm, but that does little to put the brakes on wishful thinking that the same will happen to me too. So thank you for giving me something concrete to stabilize on.

  9. Christine Bailey

    LOVE this, Andrea! I’ve been mulling this over for days since I first read it. I, too, can get so caught up in editing my existing work vs. creating new work. I think the word count goals will be great for me! I loved getting to learn more of your personality through reading this and hearing the podcast. <3

  10. Ginger Hudock

    I just listened to the podcast and came to the article from that. It was very helpful for me. My word for the year is WRITE, but I am having trouble doing this for many of the reasons you described. I edit as I write and have too often not sat down to write because conditions were not perfect. I really like your word-count idea and will try and implement this.

  11. Christi Magnuson

    What awesome suggestions. I never considered myself a writer. I still don’t, actually. But I find myself writing more these days, and am actually enjoying it (who woulda thunk it?). I love the farmer analogy look forward to reading Big Magic. Thanks for the tips!

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