Bee image: Sam Droege and the USGS Bee Inventory & Monitoring Lab
Australian writer and doctor Leah Kaminsky asked me to be involved in a game of online tag. Her friend Sophfronia Scott from the Vermont College of Fine Arts initiated the game. It goes like this: a tagged writer answers four questions then names another writer who answers the same four questions, names/tags another and etc. Which is fun to write. But what’s in it for you? Well, if you’re like me you enjoy learning how other people work and why they write. Maybe we’ll find some common ground…or you’ll pinch this idea and use it for your own purposes. Feel free.
Mostly I said yes because Leah is awesome. And I’m humbled she calls me a writer even though in my heart I don’t think I can do so until I’ve published a book.
Here are my answers:
1. What am I working on?
Figuring out how to make a good living. I love to write but so far it’s not the most lucrative job I’ve had. Which is partly The State of the World, partly my choice. If I wanted only to make money I’d be applying for inhouse copywriting jobs at IBM or NAB. I’ve had one of those inhouse writing jobs and while it paid okay it consumed all of my writing mind and energy, and anything worthwhile I wanted to create was dead in the water. As a freelancer I write for great people, and about things I’m interested in. That part is fabulous. The money part, not so much.
I’m also working on a second fiction manuscript. My first manuscript hasn’t been published yet but was recently named a finalist in the 2014 PEN Bellwether Prize, which was better than a kick in the teeth. Like, much better.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t have a genre. I have no idea what I’m doing. The fact I haven’t found a home for my manuscript suggests I should address this question and try to fit in better. I write what I want to say, whether it’s in a blog post, an article, a manuscript, without thinking at all about where it belongs genre/conversation/industry-wise. Bull-in-a-china-shop writing is what I do. Is that a genre?
3. Why do I write what I do?
It’s a way to talk to people. When I write for The Daily Beast about what’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef, or for the Wheeler Centre about persistence, or write a review of a book I love, I’m talking about things I hope other people might find interesting/intriguing/funny/useful. And when I read, I’m listening. Writing can be a form of collective conversation, a sharing of thoughts, a way to connect with like minds, to understand other points of view… I write to be part of that flow of words – words that carry ideas and emotions and stories – from person to person.
4. How does my writing process work?
Well, I don’t have a process, but here are some things I’ve learned in the past few years:
- If I want to get any writing done I stay off the internet and work on paper. Writing in pen can feel unfamiliar, even like you’re faking ‘real’ work (since, surely, that involves a computer), and it’s shocking to realise there’s nowhere to click when the writing gets hard or frustrating, when you start to annoy and bore yourself. But if you write on paper you get more done, better and freer words come. And all that crossing out and doodling is part of finding the right words.
- Everyone has a different ‘best time of day’. Writing manuals say to write first thing in the morning. But that’s not always possible. And I’ve tried doing that but my brain is in a fog in the early hours – not a fog from which creative ideas pour, just fuzzy dumb air. I write better in the afternoon. But I do believe that waking early, exercising, scribbling a plan or list before other people are awake is a good way to ensure a productive day. If the morning is a muddle it can take hours to recover and figure out exactly you want to achieve before the next day ticks over. I’ve lost whole days because of bad mornings.
- Trust your own mind’s rhythm. Some people like to write a thousand words a day, every day. Some people like to write only when they get an unbidden impulse to do so and then write until the flame burns out. I have stints of methodical daily writing, and I’m calm, the words come easily, I stay in the story (I’m talking fiction writing here, not articles), then I drop the ball. Life interferes. The phone rings. Something falls apart in the house. Kids get sick. Days pass with no writing. I get cranky. Then I feel a need to write down an idea and hundreds/thousands of words later I stop, surprised and spent. I think that people who are highly productive and successful do have a strict routine – one that makes daily writing a priority. I strive for that but so far…I’m juggling the expected and unexpected, the desired and the inevitable, fiction and fact.
- When you’re in a good writing flow, try not to feel guilty for ignoring emails, telling friends you can’t catch up, cutting short the dog walk. Anything that can wait should be made to wait. It’s so easy to put everything else first and then realise it’s June already.
If you’d like to read more insightful things about writing process (and more) I recommend Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing. Ignore the cover – it suggests twee, cutesy advice from a ‘lady’ writer who likes cupcakes, but it’s nothing of the sort. Shapiro has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism and has advice on craft, structuring work, drafting and revising, the psychology of dealing with rejection and success. It’s a great book with a terrible cover.
Passing the baton
I’d like to introduce you the next writer and will as soon as I hear back from her!