Letter to a reader

A reader who has followed my blog for a few years sent a kind email and asked me a few questions about writing. I’m always surprised when people say they are inspired by what I write. It helps me and nudges me to keep going.

A snippet of her email:

But I also want to begin working on my fiction — short stories first. I have not completed a formal literary training. I would really love to know more about your creative writing side, and I hope you can offer me sage words on how to start. Do I have to spend n hours daily, writing xxx words? Do I need a strategy of sorts? Or do I just let the flow take me to wherever?

This is what I responded:

You’ve asked some simple but big questions — questions that I ask myself, too. How do I start? Do I have to write xxx amount of words each day to succeed?

I don’t have concrete answers to these sorts of questions, so I will just talk a bit about my own journey. I’d wanted to be a writer in some form when I was pretty young (under 10 years old). I liked to write in journals, and in middle school I started to write movie scripts on paper. I loved movies and had dreams about working with actors and actresses. But I was shy and not performer material, and so I thought I could be part of this world another way — perhaps to actually write these stories. So, I got into screenwriting (which was my college major and degree).

For a time, I loved writing scenes and shaping characters — thinking about their wants and needs, their actions and reactions. Some of the first feature- and episode-length scripts I wrote were pretty fun: there was one where a guy is entrusted by his brother to quickly sell 500 hits of ecstasy (a sort of fictionalization of my own experiences growing up in the rave scene in California); a story of a young man who embarks on a road trip with his sister, trying to find a mysterious woman he sees in his dreams; an attempt at writing a spec script for the Sopranos; and an adapted screenplay of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I loved writing these types of stories in college, but I also found it incredibly challenging. I loved that I had so much room to imagine and create, yet stay within the boundaries of a typical Hollywood script (a tried-and-true 90-minute formula). In the end, I wasn’t very happy in Los Angeles, where I went to school and was living. I wanted to return to the SF Bay Area, where I was from. And because of that, I pretty much abandoned that dream to work in film and be a screenwriter.

Since then, I’ve not really dabbled in creating scenes/characters and drafting any type of fiction. I cannot, cannot, cannot write short stories. Although, I’m not sure I’ve tried hard enough. I think it’s awesome that you’re jumping in and starting to write fiction! I think it’s important to have your own experiences. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shut some doors to friendships and past passions/hobbies, which in effect has narrowed my own mental world from which I can pull material and perspective. So, continue to try new things. Go to new places. Meet new people each day, even if the encounters are fleeting and seemingly insignificant. I have found, especially in this super-connected digital age where I’m in front of my computer screen way too much, that I’ve sometimes closed myself off from new experiences and opportunities. And that is where we draw from.

While I don’t write fiction — and to be honest, am not writing much at all these days — one piece of advice I can give is to think small. Narrow your focus. Master a simple story with just a few elements. Don’t try to do too much too quickly. I say all of these things very generally, referring to anything we might undertake in life, but also very specifically, when it comes to writing a certain story. I’m minimal — and slow — when it comes to writing, thinking, interacting, and designing, for example. You might see this in how I manage my blog, and how I write. So, take your time when you write — but do keep things moving and don’t dwell too much on one thing, story, idea.

But really, I’m not the right person to ask for advice on the craft of writing. There are far more skilled, disciplined people out there. Buy Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and read it again and again. Stephen King’s On Writing. Pro writers with blogs like Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com). Just read, read, read. Read the writers you admire, but also the ones you don’t like or understand.

When it comes down to a daily writing practice, well… This might sound strange, but working at WordPress.com — the platform on which I’ve grown a presence as a writer and built some kind of readership — has negatively affected my own writing routine. I’ve stopped writing for me. I write and read for work each day, but it’s pulled me away from personal projects. I’d love to sit and write a book, or continue on with a manuscript I wrote in my MFA program, or experiment with other genres and forms beyond my comfort zone, which is personal essay and memoir. Currently, I hardly post on my blog, and most days I have no desire to sit and write. And when I do? I struggle. I’ll write for 5 hours, only to delete my draft. So there’s some blockage there, as well as an unwillingness to commit and challenge myself.

I’ve found an alternative creative outlet in photography — which I very much enjoy as a hobby — so sometimes I focus on taking pictures in times when I don’t have the energy to write. I encourage you to do the same — have other outlets (physical activities like running are a plus!) to dive into when you feel blocked.

You can set concrete goals for yourself if you think that will drive you — “I’ll write at least 1500 words a day, on anything I want.” “I’ll draft a quick piece of flash fiction each weekend.” “I’ll free-write for 30 minutes by hand in a notebook each morning.” To be honest, your goals don’t have to be ambitious! As long as you stick to a habit, I think the goal can be whatever you want. The idea is to remember that writing is and will always be a process — we’re always working to write something better than what we wrote yesterday. We can always improve. And we are only competing with ourselves — not anyone else. That last point is really important.

You asked if you need a strategy of sorts, or if you can just go with the flow — I’m not sure how to answer that. I was going to say “just go with the flow,” as I’ve thought that’s how I’ve gotten to where I’m at right now. But stepping back, and seeing the choices I’ve made since my schooling, I’d always preferred to try new experiences. I’ve traveled and lived abroad quite a bit — studied in France and interned during the Cannes Film Festival, lived in Montreal two separate summers to write and explore, went to Thailand to teach, quit my jobs to tour Europe and Asia on my own… I think these experiences have led to interesting positions, both unpaid and paid, which eventually helped me to build a well-rounded editorial resume. But these experiences also taught me a lot about people and ways of life in different places, have helped shape my own worldviews, and have helped me figure out my own place within our world, if that makes any sense. And I think the more you know yourself, the easier it is to write with your own point of view and voice.

I don’t think I have a strategy — at least, not one that I’ve outlined and defined. I do think it’s important to do what you want, to not let other people sway you when you sense otherwise, and to pick and choose the advice that you feel benefits you. Then ignore everything else. Do your own thing, and when you’re in need of guidance — whether about blogging or writing or something else — turn to those people you trust to give you unbiased, honest advice.

You’re already online, so find the communities that help to get you writing and thinking about writing. Consider in-person events/conferences in your area if you’re really serious in immersing yourself in writing and fiction, but don’t bother spending lots of $$ on stuff like that right now. I also have my own thoughts on MFAs and writing programs, but I’ll save that for another time ๐Ÿ™‚

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

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