Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.
You Don't Know Anything. And Other Writing Advice from Toni Morrison, Emily Temple (@knownemily), Literary Hub
I discovered Toni Morrison in high school and still remember passages from Beloved. Her writing legacy is undeniable. Emily Temple, in Literary Hub, commemorated Morrison's birthday by curating her writing wisdom:
Write what you want to read.
I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.
For writers, finding what works is key in the creative process. Morrison clarifies this point:
Figure out how you work best.
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?
Defining what works for a writer may prevent him from whining. Morrison is clear on how she feels about writers who complain about the process:
I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort. . . . [Confidence] I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.
All writers are apt to encounter rejection. Morrison encourages creatives to welcome failure:
As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.
With physical failures like liver, kidneys, heart, something else has to be done, something fixable that’s not in one’s own hands. But if it’s in your hands, then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. None of that is useful. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.
Temple's curated look of Morrison's advice is worth reading in its entirety. It might be the balm a writer needs to push through a plateau.
Building My Author Platform Without a Smartphone, Mallory McDuff, Cleaver Magazine
Platform is a common word writers often hear. How many followers do you have on Twitter? Are you verified? Will your platform help sell books? Mallory McDuff faced an unusual dilemma when trying to build her audience. She didn't own a smartphone, but knew this would likely not be a reasonable excuse to escape platform building.
I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.
She explains her relationship to smart devices and why she resisted electronic gadgets.
Perhaps my aversion to portable technology was a product of my upbringing. I had grown up in Fairhope, Alabama with a family that tried to minimize their impact on the natural world, which meant using the least costly, most functional item that could do the job.
Even without a smartphone, McDuff confesses her unhealthy relationship with being online and social media.
Even without a smartphone, I was already online too much of the time. My students marveled that I answered e-mails faster than many professors on campus, but my responsiveness was a deterrent to a focused writing life. I was addicted to social media and e-mail, even without the constant companion of an iPhone. If I had a mobile device, I was afraid I would take it everywhere. Leaving my house and office without one gave me freedom from being tethered to The New York Times and Facebook when I ran on the trails or listened to my daughter’s middle-school band concert.
McDuff knew she needed to find a middle ground between building a platform and her ambivalent relationship with being online. She decided to take a small steps on platform building without using her smartphone.
To address the challenge of building my online platform without a smartphone—and in a way that honored the book—I started with the simplest of actions: I updated my Facebook photo. Within one day, more than 200 of my 750 friends liked the photo and many commented with supportive notes…
Next, I needed a website: My 13-year-old whipped up a sample draft on Wix within minutes. Yet, I chose to use modest professional development funds from my college to hire someone who understood my desire for a simple and clean aesthetic.
Ultimately by taking these small steps and preserving her need for digital minimalism, McDuff came to an epiphany on how she defined her online life.
While I recognize building a platform is about using a diversity of strategies to become known and sell books, ultimately to me, it’s about elevating the work of others for a better world, magnifying voices to lift and connect us all. This seems especially true when our current times call for despair. The key seems to be integrating technology in a way that is true to my life, even if the outcome is a scaled-down version of what it could be.
I've questioned my reliance on social media and its impact on my writing life. McDuff's piece pushed me to reevaluate some of my digital choices.
Drafting Those Many Drafts: The 10 Revision Phases, Jessica Stilling, The Writer
Revise. Refine your narrative arc. Cut your darlings. These pieces of advice are common in the revision process. Much of writing is about working through multiple drafts and there are steps involved in the process. Jessica Stilling talks about how long it may take to revise a novel:
For many published authors I know, myself included, a completed novel takes them about 10, that’s right, 10 drafts, and at least a year of real editing. Will you be spending every single second editing your novel? No, of course not. Just as drafts need some real time on the surgery table, they also need rest in the recovery room.
What is the first step? Write.
During the first draft, just write. Don’t hold back. Let your characters grow and change and see where they’re going as the story progresses. Another word of advice for the first draft: Write every day. That’s important. If you write just three pages every day, which is a common goal among writers, you’ll have about 270 pages in three months. That’s a good start on a novel. If you start skipping days, that page count diminishes quickly.
When you get midway through the process and are finished with your draft, the work of revising and cutting begins. Look at your character development and don't be afraid to lose what isn't pushing the arc forward.
Does this character add to the story or are they just a placeholder? Consider tweaking the character or letting them go. In addition to repetition, look at your long paragraphs: Are they a little too expository? Maybe even long-winded? Really look at those words, those phrases, even those beautiful descriptions, and decide whether they truly help or hurt your reader’s experience. William Faulkner didn’t say “kill your darlings” for nothing. Look at everything that does not add to your story and cut. Then cut some more.
Warning: This draft is painful.
At draft seven is where you should seek feedback.
Around draft seven is a good time to get your book in the hands of readers. You might have workshopped while you were writing your first draft, and it might have helped you a great deal to look at certain smaller parts with other writers, but now it’s time to have two, three, maybe four people, people whom you trust to be critical of your work, read your novel.
At drafts nine and ten, you are looking for grammatical errors and polishing your manuscript. It takes multiple steps to get to the point when you are ready to submit your completed work to an agent or a press. Persistence and patience are key.
How to be a Writer in Five Steps, Ellen Birkett Morris, Brevity
There isn't a complicated formula in becoming a writer. The steps are sometimes difficult to execute, but not impossible. Ellen Birkett Morris pens a piece on what it takes to be a writer.
I’ve been a writer my entire life. I still have a story penned on lined paper bound by ribbon. I’ve long since thrown away scraps of paper with bad poems, the kind of poems you need to write before you can write good poems. I wrote for my school paper and took poetry workshops in college.
When it was time to get a real job, I summarized newspaper articles for a research database before starting to freelance for my local daily, the business paper, and a women’s magazine. The work was wide ranging: I filled in for a home and garden columnist, did restaurant reviews, covered crime news, and had a column on health and another on local attractions. I took every opportunity I could find to write.
You are writing. What's next? Morris encourages writers to find what is important to them.
As I wrote I got a better sense of what was important to me. When I joined the staff of the business paper, I did my best to broaden their coverage by profiling the head of a feminist women’s foundation, penning a controversial column in support of a local fairness law supporting LGBTQ rights, and writing an award-winning story on women in depression.
The creative life takes courage. There are obstacles, rejections, and writers struggle to find their footing. But as cliched as it sounds, the only way out is to push through the bad writing. Morris explains:
I was 32 when I decided to give it a real go. I started writing poems, joined a writers’ group. and began the process of honing my skills. I wrote lots of bad poems. I started reading to get a better sense of what a good poem required—the play of language, the crystalline images, and the accumulation of meaning. I submitted my work, got some published and eventually developed a chapbook, Surrender, which explores the loss of my father and coming to terms with growing older.
Part of the writing life is to keep learning. Taking classes, workshops, and joining a critique group enhances a writer's craft. Morris took the time to educate herself.
I attended workshops and earned an MFA, developing techniques, anchoring myself in the canon, learning about innovators, and getting feedback on my own work. I explored short stories, expanding my view to include scenes and dialog, drama, and catharsis. I trod my ground working over themes of seeing and being seen, the power of kindness and the cruelty of fate, and what we as humans can do in face of the beauty and horror that is life. I missed the thrill of a daily byline, but it was replaced with the sense that as the words filled the page, I was accumulating a greater sense of mastery over the work itself and my ability to articulate what it means to be human.
The fifth step in becoming a writer is to enjoy the process. There are no quick guarantees, but writers keep going. The only choice is to keep writing.
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!