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Writerly Roundup — April 2015

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Our newest blog series at Literary Mama, Writerly Roundup features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.

In The Middle of Things: Advice for Young Writers, Andrew Solomon (@Andrew_Solomon) offers a rich exposition of Rilke in the framework of a directive to young writers. He advises to be patient, let experience run its course, embrace the difficulty that is writing and living, and live in the world that only then are we competent to write about. Solomon emphasizes, above all, the endurance and essentiality of language as the strand that runs through it all—defining our humanity and enabling us to make sense of our world and each other.


Photo by Jena Schwartz

It is nearly impossible to pull a single excerpt, as this entire piece demands attention, but here he is, quoting Rilke:

"If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place." All writers know this problem. A poor workman blames his tools, and we have only two: language and experience. Neither one is so poor as to hamper our ability to do what we dream of. The use of language gets taught at M.F.A. programs nationwide. The use of experience is far more elusive, a long-term game not easily won. Experience poses the questions we are asked to live, and our writing is the mere shadow of an answer.

In What's More Important to You: the Initial Rush of Prose or the Self-Editing and Revision That Come After It?, Thomas Mallon and Cheryl Strayed (@CherylStrayed) ruminate about their individual creative processes. Although each author evidences idiosyncrasies (Mallon's refusal to edit on screen; Strayed's week-long reluctance to "div[e] back in" to editing Wild), both exalt the crucial work of revision:

But even the pleasure of generating a scene's first, handwritten draft doesn't match the later one of taking a pencil to it, or of applying a pen to the second, word-processed one that comes out of the printer. - Mallon

I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right. There would be nothing to revise if the initial prose didn't exist. Without revision my work would be too ridiculous to bear, a pile of almost-good pages I'd rather burn than publish. - Strayed

In keeping with the theme of revision, the following two pieces offer excellent insight into revising the personal essay, gleaned from the two AWP 2015 panels addressing the same:

How To Write A Personal Essay That'll Tell Your Story The Way You Want It To by Meredith Turits (@meredithturits) for Bustle

How do you know when you've struck gold in your revision and are about to take your writing to the next level? Write until you encounter something in the text that "terrifies or surprises or interests you," Alexis Paige said. That's how you know you've moved from drafting to "something with agency… something that might exist outside of [you]." . . . "If we're doing our job as writers … hopefully we come to that point where [we say], 'I didn't know I've come here to say this, but now I’m here.'"

AWP2015: Revising the Personal Essay by Randon Billings Noble (@RandonNoble) for Assay Journal

Sven Birkerts claimed that "revision is part of the medium of thinking, moving towards writing, and writing." There's a myth of writerly inspiration (Zhigavo, Keats) but revision has rather an "unsexy custodial aspect."

[Alexis Paige] said that she wanted to say everything in this essay because whatever we're working on "feels like it's the last thing you ever write so it's hard not to cram everything in." But even though "we want to reach and leap and say more than we're capable of saying," we need to trust our editors and ourselves to recognize and curb our less-helpful writerly tics.

"Each sentence is like a mini essay in your piece," [Penny Guisinger] claimed; they should all build towards the larger meaning.

Ten Things I Look For When Selecting Submissions by Kara Cochran (@philawriter) for The Review Review

This piece, touching on the tedious yet fulfilling work of the editor, sets forth valuable insights on what editors look for and suggests submission strategies for all writers:

I am of the opinion that the best stories sound like poetry, and that the best poems tell a story.

The most interesting, authentic characters are vulnerable, insecure and ever-changing. The strongest protagonists have flirted with the idea of being bad, and the best antagonists show their softer side at one time or another . . . Virtue is a sliding scale, and the best stories feature characters that move up and down that scale.

Before submitting, read over your work and ask yourself what the heart of the story is . . . Will your work speak to other people, even if those people have no idea who wrote it or why?

Write, Erase, Do It Over: On Failure, Risk and Writing Outside Yourself by Toni Morrison on American Theatre

This is a delightful read, in which Morrison "muse[s] on the concept of creative failure" in an interview with Rebecca Gross.

There are things that I've written and pieces and parts of things that I have written that I would like to do over and fix, but it's too late because they already printed it. You realize that later.

The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed's Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility by Maria Popova (@brainpicker) on Brain Pickings

In characteristic Brain Pickings fashion, this piece beautifully relays Cheryl Strayed's direct, unapologetic response as the Dear Sugar advice columnist to a tormented young writer named Elissa Bassist. Strayed speaks to self-doubt, side-stepping one's ego, and the need to just do the work—and write.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That's where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep.

. . .

You loathe yourself, and yet you're consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You're up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it's hard to write, darling. But it's harder not to. The only way you'll find out if you "have it in you" is to get to work and see if you do.

Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!

Dina L. Relles is a writer with work in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River TeethSTIR JournalBrain, Child Magazine, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work on her own site, Commonplaceand you can connect with her on Twitter She lives in New York with her husband and children. Dina is a former blog editor for Literary Mama.

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