Listening to Rachel Dratch on the podcast Conversations with Funny Feminists, I had one of those “Stars! They’re just like us!” moments. You know, when the tabloids run photos of a famous actor buying groceries or walking their dog or toting their yoga mat into a gym. Rachel Dratch is just like us! (At least some of us.) She’s a reluctant writer.
Or as she put it:
“I don’t really enjoy writing. I think it’s very difficult.”
Later she explains it’s not the writing that’s hard, it’s not stringing together words. It’s, well…
“I think most of writing is just making yourself do it—the act of it, without worrying about the result.”
“Without worrying about the result.” Yeah—easy, right?
A reluctant writer on writing
While writing her 2012 a book, A Girl Walks into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Mid-Life Miracle, Dratch found herself paralyzed.
I set this bar for myself: This has to be this literary—I can’t even write a word because it has to be this work of art, kind of thing.
Yep, that kind of thinking would definitely turn you into a reluctant writer. So she started reading memoirs by other writers—
Just random memoirs. And what I realized is like—nobody’s memoir is like, “They were like Mark Twain.” They were them and everyone had their own style. And that totally took away the standard I set for myself. Just write this how you would tell the story. And then that’s how you do it instead of sitting, prejudging yourself.
“Just write this how you would tell the story.” Or, as I tell my writers, do what Seth Godin does: Start by telling the story. Talk it out loud and write what you say. No one can tell the story exactly the way you can. Because, as Dratch reminds us,
Only you have your voice, and your experiences and personality. So whatever you’re bringing to a sketch or improvising—just trust….Bringing your experiences and who you are is all you can do.”
Of course, I’d add “or writing” to that list. Write who you are—whether you’re telling your own story or someone else’s, or reporting to the board about the third quarter sales figures, do it as yourself. Let your personality shine through. And you’ll shine.
Have a listen to the podcast for yourself—and let me know what you think of it.
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Q: How many rewrites until I have a final draft?
A: Do you want someone to publish it?
One of my writers recently admitted, “I get tired of what I’m writing after about three drafts.” Give her points for honesty. To be clear: I don’t think that means she’s giving up after three drafts. She’ll just give it a rest, until she’s got the stamina for another three drafts.
A writer I know recently sold her first article to a very prestigious publication. Took her 12 drafts. Yes, a dozen. And give her points for recognizing that each draft made the piece that much better.
Neither of those people would have passed muster in my friend Vanessa Park‘s middle school English class. This cartoon sums up the experience of one of her students—a young woman whose mother is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly.
“Uh-oh. You did 82 drafts??!” the young man says. “I only did 79!”
The point, of course, is not quantity but quality. So how do you know when to take the D-word off the top of the page and call it a finished piece?
Sometimes you run into another D-word: Deadline. I could futz and finesse all day, but if I told the client she’d have it by 5pm then by God she has it by 4:59.
But if you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself an internal one. The futzing and finessing stage can last (probably literally) forever. When you find your revisions shrinking from paragraphs to sentences to words, you’re getting as close as you’re ever going to get.
Is it perfect? No. Because it’s never going to be. As my old coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) says, “Get a C.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent “C” work out into the world and found it received as an A-plus.
We writers can be unreliable judges of our own work. That’s why we need trusted colleagues to read and comment. Sometimes that’s a writing group. Other times it’s a sympathetic magazine editor who asks for Draft 9, then 10, 11, 12. Each time you get feedback, your work gets better.
How long until you have a final draft? If your editor doesn’t tell you, your deadlines will.
Of course you know how to read. But do you know how to read like a writer? Learn that essential skill in my critical reading course. Next cohort starts in late February.
I’ve written before about the, um, idiosyncratic search function at the otherwise-spectacular Stencil. Honestly, it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my business. I have no skill at desktop publishing or whatever it is you need to do to marry images and words into eye-catching designs.
But Stencil’s search function leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I’m just overtaxing it. Maybe I’m offering it too much information. Maybe that’s the problem.
When I typed “frustrated writers” into the Stencil search box, I expected to find people in front of computers pulling out their hair. Something like this, maybe:
Although, on further reflection, this looks more like a woman who just realized she shouldn’t have ordered the diner’s meat loaf special. But among the photos of people legitimately writing (though not in apparent frustration), Stencil dished up this little image:
No! No, goth princess, I wanted to shout. Writing’s not worth that! It never is.
Seriously—is this what the folks at Stencil think when they think “frustrated writer”?
That’s just a liiiiiitle darker than I wanted to go.
Rebranding the comfort zone
I’m rebranding my 5×15 Writing Challenge Facebook group, you see. I’ll still be running the challenges—one week every quarter. But I want my writers to see the group as a place they can post anytime, not just the five days of the challenge.
So it’s about community. But it’s also about acknowledging the frustrations that come with trying to step outside your comfort zone—especially in a creative endeavor. It’s about carving out a safe space for yourself. And if the Willits arrive, saying, “Thank you very much I won’t be needing you today.”
You know the Willits. I’ve written about them before. Here’s a little video I made for the Facebook group that explains them further.
If you wonder what’s going on in the Willits-Free Zone on Facebook, well, we’ll have some community writing projects, themes for each month that people can write to if they like, and I’ll be offering some deals and discounts especially for group members. If you’d like to join us, cruise on over to Facebook and submit a request.
Frustrated writers un-frustrated here. And no Willits allowed.
It’s Day 4 of my latest 5×15 Writing Challenge; my writers have almost earned themselves a nice donation to global literacy nonprofit Room to Read. Through Day 3 we’ve got a completion rate of 100%—the highest I’ve ever had for one of these challenges. I’m thrilled to help so many people discover the joys of daily writing.
And then I opened up my email to find this intriguing headline from blogger Josh Bernoff: “Is it selfish or smart to do something creative every day?” Josh blogs daily—well, Monday through Friday—so I suspected he’d be arguing the latter point. And he is.
His post reminded me of all the things I loved about blogging daily. And all the things I’ve missed since I stopped a little over two months ago. I still write every day: today’s Day 640. But, well…Here’s the comment I left on Josh’s blog:
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You need to meet my friend Marlena. She’s a delightful person and very good at her work—which may be why every time I talk to her she says something like, “I couldn’t possibly take on another client; I’m completely booked.”
If New Yorkers are the busiest people in the world, Marlena is a New Yorker on steroids.
But there’s one thing she always makes time for: my 5-day writing challenge.
Marlena knew how to write before she registered for her first challenge, of course. But she wasn’t doing it. She didn’t have the time.
Now? She makes the time, even if it’s just 15 minutes.
This is what she told me the other day:
“It’s a heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment to put words on a page. That’s all it takes, and you are a writer. So many people yearn to write—it’s their heart’s dream. And you help them do that.”
Don’t you deserve a “heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment”?
Next challenge starts on Monday. Sharpen your pencils and join us.
I’ve been thinking about the Willits a lot this week—you know, those annoying thoughts that show up whenever you stick so much as a pinky-toe outside your comfort zone to write:
Will it be any good?
Will it make people like me?
and the worst Willit of all:
Will it sell?
This isn’t the first time the Willits have come to call. I wrote about them last summer when they barged uninvited into my vacation.
But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.
I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.
And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?
Will it be a complete waste of time?
I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.
My Willits, and yours
Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.
I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.
If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:
The Willits are full of shit.
The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.
Here’s what I wrote last night:
And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.
Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.
I’ve been feeling kind of grumpy and hopeless the last few days – being sick sometimes does that to me. But something caught my eye this afternoon, and I think I may just have enough brain function to write about it. It’s a note my friend Melissa enclosed in a gift: “Your Words Matter.”
I’ve said that a lot to my writers last year. And, whaddaya know, they listened.
They’ve written things they never imagined – my lawyerly writer has become a poet; my scientist and academic have written children’s stories.
And they’ve written things they have imagined – reanimating long-dormant stories, turning memories into memoirs. Best of all, they’ve pushed their writing out of the nest for others to read. And it’s good! Better than they think it is, in many cases – which is how we can tell they’re really writers.
One of my writers lost her father in 2017, but during the last six months of his life, she was able to read him stories. Stories she had written, stories she said would not have been written if she hadn’t joined one of my writing challenges.
“Your words matter.” Sometimes more than you know.
Still, Melissa’s note said MY words matter. At first I assumed she meant the blogging I’ve done over the last 18 months (even though I’ve stopped posting daily). Or my writing streak – 615 days as of yesterday. But all of that is just writing. Writing has paid my mortgage for a long time; I don’t think about my words as having any particular value beyond that.
But last year, I pushed some words of my own out of the nest. I opened up my work beyond corporate clients and started working with individuals for the first time, teaching, guiding. Turns out it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Looking back over the past year I think the words that have mattered the most, the words I’m most proud of, are the words of encouragement I offered my writers. When I’ve been able to reassure them that no one writes beautifully every day, that the crap they wrote today means they’ll write something better down the road…when my words have created a safe space for them to create…and they’ve created – that’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. And I can’t wait to do more of it.
You out there, reading this: your words matter, too. So go use them. Write. Revise. And then push your work out of the nest and watch as your words matter to someone else.
Resolving to write more in 2018? Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day for five days in a row and support a great global literacy nonprofit. More information and registration link here.
First a confession: I have never read any of Nora Roberts’s novels. It’s not that they’re hard to find. She highlights five “New Releases” on her website. Five. Most authors struggle to turn out one book a year. But I’ve never read even one, so I am in no position to comment on her craft.
Her dedication, on the other hand, well that impressed the hell out of me. Roberts managed to dispense some excellent advice in between quips on the NPR show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. Host Peter Sagal asked her if she ever suffered from writer’s block.
“I don’t let myself believe in it. I feel very strongly writing is a habit as much as an art or a craft.”
She continued—and I would paint this over the threshold of my classroom, if I had anything more than a virtual classroom:
“If you write crap, you’re still writing—and you can fix that. But if you walk away, then you’ve broken the habit.”
You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing. So get in the habit of writing—she didn’t say daily, but surely you can’t churn out five novels a year by only writing on Saturdays. Get in the habit of writing daily—and stay there.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
Yes I love my friends and family (and my canine assistant Fenway, too). But when I look through my daily lists of gratitudes, one word pops up more than any other: Writing.
I’m grateful that I get to do it—and for a living, even. So thanks to my clients, and to those of you who read what I write under my own name, here and elsewhere.
I’m grateful that I get to read it—so many writers doing beautiful, important, moving work.
- If you haven’t discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you have two seasons’ worth of glorious binge-listening ahead of you. Today would be a fine time to start.
- And while I’ve always found Masha Gessen’s work fascinating, it’s become even more urgent (if depressing) as the country I love slides toward authoritarianism.
- David Litt, a fellow speechwriter, made me laugh out loud with his White House memoir.
- And Elizabeth Gilbert gives me hope. I don’t have a satisfying link for that; guess I’ll have to write about her soon.
And I’m grateful that I get to teach it. It’s a cliché that you learn from your students. But clichés become clichés because they’re true. My writers inspire me with their questions, their insights, their excellent work in a jaw-dropping number of genres. And their courage.
I’m grateful to everyone who writes and pushes their work out of the nest. Thank you for letting the rest of us share your ideas and wonder at your creativity.
So here’s a Thanksgiving blessing for you, my fellow writers:
May your desk chairs be comfy and your WiFi be strong.
I look forward to seeing what we all come up with next.
Need a jumpstart to get yourself writing? Mark your calendars for my next quarterly 5×15 Writing Challenge—December 26th-30th.