In my previous post, I basically broke down what I found to be the most helpful bits of advice from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. (Once again, I highly recommend this book; it is an exceptionally slim volume, but it contains multitudes, and, highest praise: it always makes me want to write–added bonus, you can find it libraries or you can pick up a used copy for less than $10.)
To sum up those helpful starting tips again:
- Consume as much as you can (and don’t worry about stealing).
- Write fast enough so you don’t have a chance to get in your own way.
So far, my advice on ways to get started hasn’t really been gendered. I probably won’t get too gender specific advice in this post either, but I will most definitely get to the gender specific advice in Part Three. You might be skeptical and think that writing advice should be universal. Well, you’re right. Writing advice should be universal, but we lived in a flawed culture and my writing advice, unfortunately, is going to be gendered. At least in Part Three. It is most likely going to be classed as well, since I was raised in poverty and find myself there again–although the poverty level in which I currently find myself is a far cry from the poverty I experienced as a child. And I’m white. As well as a survivor of abuse. So all of these things, whether I want them to or not, create my own personal “terministic screen” through which I see and experience the world, and these filters inform my approach to writing. Which is really just to say that it’s an invisible Instagram applied to my personality. (Would Kenneth Burke roll his eyes at that analogy? Fuck it, I don’t care.)
So, like all things in life, use the sluice box of your personal experience and glean what nuggets of advice you can, and know that these frameworks are part of my own personal narrative drive. They are not necessarily frameworks you’re working from (hopefully not!–I have some terrible self-sabotaging habits that I wish on no one).
For now, though, I want to write about writing resistance and self-sabotage.
There’s a book that I really love called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (not to be confused with Alan Watts). In that book, he maintains that a first draft of a novel should take no more than 90 days. And, having read the book, and having made it through 45 of the 90 days, and having written a dissertation before that, I wholeheartedly agree.
But a strong caveat here: the FIRST DRAFT of a novel doesn’t necessarily need to take more than 90 days. A first draft is shit–back when I taught introduction to argumentative writing, I made “Shitty Rough Drafts” by Anne Lamont mandatory reading at the beginning of the semester (it’s a really short essay, I highly suggest reading it if you haven’t read it already).
And the first draft should be shitty. Because getting the words on a page/screen is the. Hardest. Thing. And I kind of want to start a society of (re)writers–people who hold no delusions that they’re brilliant writers, but firmly believe in their preternatural ability to rewrite the hell out of a shitty first draft.
Okay, so I might have lied: getting words on a screen is not the hardest thing to do. At least not for me. And this is where my own personal Instagram filter of life, that I’ll call it “Mt. Aukum,” comes to tint (taint?) a perfectly fine photograph with it’s fucking warped sense of contrast and sharpness. You know this filter, you’re always drawn to this filter, but never end up using it, and you kind of wish you weren’t attracted to the distorted coloration. But, for you, it’s named something different from “Mt. Aukum,” although feel free to adopt my filter’s name if it helps.
The hardest thing for me to do as a writer is not worry about money while I’m writing.
After talking with lots of other writers, this seems to be a universal phenomenon, regardless of economic status, because worrying about money is really a fear about selling your work, which is directly related to publishing your work. And, speaking from my own personal experience, if I don’t have an end goal in mind for a piece, it is hard to find the motivation, energy, and time to finish it. Especially if you’re writing something that you’re not sure will ever find a home.
I kid you not, a way to combat this is to be part of an active writing community. Because if you’re part of a supportive and cooperative environment you can feel safe asking: I have a story about dinosaurs and monster trucks, is there even a publication that will publish a story like this?
I want to be really clear here: being part of a community is so helpful as a writer. And it’s even more helpful as a female writer. And it’s the best resource I’ve found so far as a speculative fiction writer: because on the whole SpecFic writers are wonderful geeky people who love the same things I love, and they’re incredibly generous to boot: jumping in when I need feedback in a timely fashion, when I’m not sure where to send a story, with upcoming publishing opportunities, and cheerleading me on with ideas I have. I originally floated the idea for The Brainery Workshop in my writing community and asked if it was a good idea and the resounding answer was, “Yes!”–if I hadn’t felt safe to ask, if they hadn’t been supportive, I may not have gone through with it. (Whether that is a construct of me being a woman or poor or just wavering self-confidence, I don’t know, but I suspect is connected to all three. And dammit, we all deserve a little cheerleading now and then.)
I think writers as a group are generally lone wolf types: we’re usually outsiders and prone to observation of others. We like being alone, we’re not intimidated by silence, and we can entertain ourselves. All of these things are generally what makes us good writers.
But. If you’re not part of a writing community, you can start to feel isolated in the non-productive kind of way. Especially if you’re not reading what makes you happy, you can start to wonder if there really is a market for your dinosaur monster truck story. Being part of a community can help you stay connected to places where you’ll find things to read that will give you faith in the literary world again, and where your writing might one day find a home–which is a really helpful way to stay productive.
And sometimes you’ll get tapped for other people’s projects–my writing community is how I became an Assistant Editor at NonBinary Review–which is another really wonderful way to feel like you’re contributing and participating in the literary community.
I don’t know about you, but knowing where I want to send a story helps me finish work. It is a motivating factor for me because I want to join the club of writers who get published in the publications I’m excited about. It connects me to the literary community I like the best: the speculative fiction writing community. (I assume this is how literary fiction writers feel, too, but I never felt excited about most literary fiction, so I don’t know for sure.)
So I was always a speculative fiction writer, although in grad school I never submitted my work to the “right places.” And “right places” is individually or culturally defined. For me, at the time, it was more culturally defined because, being a Ph.D. candidate and considering a career as a creative writing professor, I submitted to places that I thought I “should” be submitting to. (Here’s another piece of advice: stop “should-ing” all over yourself.) My work was hardly ever accepted, because even if they say they’re open to “forms of genre fiction, or all fiction” I suspect you might have to be a rock star to get the weirder work sold to publications that don’t traditional publish SpecFic.
Now, the “right places” for me to publish are individually defined as opposed to “culturally defined,” and I’m way happier. Lots of writing advice about publishing usually can be distilled down to, “You have to read everything, you have to be familiar with the style of magazine you’re submitting to, blah blah blah.”
But if you ever find this aspect of researching publications terribly boring, if you find yourself resenting the fact that you’re reading The Missouri Review or Harpers or The New Yorker, and wishing there were way more aliens or serial killers or psychics in the story, then maybe you’re not a literary fiction writer. You might be a SpecFic writer, and, for the most part, those literary fiction people are not your people.
I suspect we’re your people. Welcome to the community of speculative fiction. Read what makes you happy! Write what makes you happier! Even if it’s about dinosaurs and monster trucks.
The odds are that your work will find a home in the speculative fiction community way easier than in a literary fiction community. You may not make $600 from publishing it, but the odds are also good that you will make something for the story. (My cursory research thus far has found many more publications, both large and small, paying writers with for reals money than in simply contributor’s copies–like in literary fiction.)
Plus, there is great power in selling a story, even if it’s for $10 or $25. Speaking from my own experience, it has started to challenge me to be a faster writer–and to “kill your darlings,” so to speak. Because do I really want to spend 6 years on one short story just to sell it for $50?
The answer should be no.
I wish I had figured this out during grad school–or before grad school. I think I would’ve been way happier. But I was still figuring out who I was and what kind of writing I had the most fun doing. (I highly recommend not going to grad school until you know who you are as a writer–grad school is not the place to find your voice, it is the place to perfect it and the place to practice being a professional–I did grad school all wrong, even though I made it out with a Ph.D. I will write a post one day about how to do grad school right and list all of the mistakes I made, in hopes that other people looking to do a MFA or PhD in creative writing do not replicate mine.)
But back to that hardest thing for me to do as a writer: not worrying about money whilst writing.
Although having a place to ultimately submit my work to helps me finish it these days, up until fairly recently I was obsessed with just trying to make enough money to keep us afloat. My husband doesn’t worry about this nearly as much as I do, even though he sees us go into $400 of debt every month I don’t have a job because 1) he didn’t grow up poor and 2) even if he had, his parents probably wouldn’t have burdened him with that information.
I worry about this because I grew up in what I would call abject poverty; the kind of poverty where we had to wait two hours in line at the County fairgrounds each month to be handed a brown paper sack of what looked like Dharma Initiative groceries that included weevil-ridden flour, cereal, and macaroni and cheese–seriously, all of these were sealed but still had weevils inside. And since I was much older than my brothers, I was treated differently, in that, my mom used me as a sounding board for a lot of troubles our family had to overcome financially; I was constantly aware of the fact that we were living on seventy-three cents for the next two weeks. And it wasn’t like my mom was lazy. She was so busy that she literally had to schedule time to sleep in her car in parking lots at her jobs.
So, finding myself in poverty at the moment really gets in the way of my productivity: I am constantly worried that any time I am spending on writing that isn’t actively making money feels like a precious waste of time. Especially because I grew up watching my mom work two jobs and take on three unpaid internships while taking two college classes at the same time. So I feel weird when I’m not doing everything that I can to get us out of our current situation–because even though I actually am doing everything I can, it never feels like enough because my mom had to schedule time to sleep in her car, for chrissakes. I have to remember that my mom also had the benefit of having me around so she could be free to be that busy. My brothers actually started calling me “Mommy Number Two.” It started out as a joke, until my mom was home for dinner one night and got offended.
This is why writing contests are so damn sinister: for a mere $10-$25 dollars, I can gamble and submit my work for a shot at $500-$2500. This is also why writing contests that cost money to enter are the devil: they are tempting, but ultimately really bad for your bank account unless you’re not poor.
I would rather sell a piece of writing for $10-$25 than submit to another contest.
Also, I think places like Narrative Magazine (where you have to pay to submit when their editors make in excess of $100,000 a year) are nefarious enterprises. However, even though I understand why places like Wyvern Lit have optional expedition response fees, it’s hard to get on board with those kinds of fees, even though I highly doubt they make $143,000 a year from the magazine. (Edited to add: thank you to Sara Zaske who found the link!)
This is why any other form of employment tends to distract me from actually completing writing projects. Because I feel like I need to try to keep us afloat because my husband makes grad student money (which is always below poverty-level, regardless of your discipline, regardless of your institution, and especially if you made the choice of going to grad school in your 30s and also simultaneously have a child).
Worrying about money while writing, though totally legit, is also a form of self-sabotage.
Readercon, which is an excellent speculative fiction convention held in Waltham, Massachusetts, had a panel about this two years ago (which was the only year I could afford to attend). They said it helped writers to think about their writing as a “long term investment.” I love thinking about writing in this way so much. And some days it helps quiet the noise in my brain.
But, if you’re like me on most days, and you can’t quiet the noise because you’re scraping by money-wise, the most helpful thing you can do to try to be productive is to make money. It will free up your brain to write. Do something even if it’s small. If you can somehow trick your brain into thinking about your writing as a long-term investment, especially if you’re able to sell your short fiction, then that’s probably the best approach (and also the most awesome and productive one). Otherwise, you’ll find or invent some other form of employment. I went into business for myself with The Brainery–and that’s another post I plan to write. Especially since I’m alt-ac and post-ac (alternate academic and post-academic track respectively).
Another form of self-sabotage that is helpful to be aware of is the kind Alan Watt writes about in The 90-Day Novel: creativity overflow. He recommends that writers do not start any other stories while they’re working on the novel–he suggests conserving all of that writing energy for the novel. And that you will be tempted to start other stories along the way because you’re opening up the well of creativity and it inevitably gives you lots of ideas. He cautions that all of these other ideas are ways to possibly distract and detract you from finishing the novel.
I only got through 45 of the 90 days this summer because a confrontation with my brother sent me into a spiral of depression that was difficult to come out of.
It takes an incredible amount of self-discipline and focus to not let outside forces detract you, regardless of the creative wellspring that starts to overflow once you start working on your novel. And I hope one day to have the kind of focus where I won’t get distracted by family drama or having bills to pay.
So identifying your particular forms of self-sabotage are incredibly important and also kind of difficult. Because there is a reason you aren’t writing. There is a reason you haven’t finished your novel. You have to figure out what those reasons are. Mine are usually tied up with money in the various ways I’ve shared above.
But for writers who grew up in similar circumstances as me, getting distracted by money issues haunts at a deeper level. Because for us being writers (or artists of any kind) isn’t really “allowed.” My mom always wanted me to be a real estate agent and write on the side. I could write as long as I was a car mechanic or a teacher first and a writer second. I could always “write on the side.” That was my mom’s motto for me. It’s hard programming to rebel against, I have to say.
Like a lot of poor people I know, growing up poor in my family meant we didn’t dream about being astronauts or artists. As poor people, we grew up dreaming of not living paycheck-to-paycheck, so we dream about realistic jobs. The common ones where I grew up were being telephone line technicians or construction of some kind. My brothers pursued things like being a HVAC technician or maintenance worker at a theme park, despite one being a brilliant artist and the other being just plain brilliant (we have always believed he was the smartest of the three of us: my youngest brother was annoyingly good at everything he tried; my younger brother and I had to really work to be good at just one thing).
So for me, I honestly think there’s more at stake psychologically about finishing a book. I feel like I’m not allowed to write unless I’m “writing on the side.” At least not at this time when our finances are so unstable. I think this is why academia in general used to be so appealing to me: because I genuinely love teaching and I’m good at it, plus it subsidizes a writing life.
“Writing on the side.”
It’s both a blessing and a curse.
But it’s only a form of self-sabotage if you let it derail your productivity.
Don’t do what I did for the previous two years and let it derail your productivity if you can help it. And if you can’t help it, write in the comments and maybe we can crowdsource more ideas on how to combat it. Or feel free to message me and we can strategize together or I can just be a sympathetic shoulder.
In the meantime, I have a Pinterest board that I curate with a bunch of helpful writing advice I’ve found online or beautiful quotes that can help you power through on the self-sabotage-y days. You can follow it here.
And if you’re suspect of Pinterest or people promoting their own Pinterest boards or what not, might I suggest this lovely piece of writing by Debbie Millman. Reading it always reminds me of what I’m trying to combat on a daily basis while being a writer. Here’s a preview: