Three Reminders for Writers


“…why did I have to keep learning this same thing over and over?”

~Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

In writing, and in life, we sometimes have to revisit or relearn things we once knew. My writing friends and I often speak of needing to reread some of our favorite writing books. Names that often come up are Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird, Judy Bridges’ Shut Up! and Write, Stephen King’s On Writing, Sandra Scofield’sThe Scene Book. Sometimes, we just need to dive back in and see what sticks this time around; which leads us to…

Reminder #1: Reviewing can be inspiring, encouraging and instructive.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to be in the right places at the right times to offer two writing friends some comments that seemed to help each of them. One, working on an epilogue for a memoir, handed me the epilogue to read. She felt that something wasn’t quite right, but she couldn’t put her finger on the problem. As it happened, I could. I immediately saw that moving three short paragraphs from mid-memoir to the beginning and then tweaking two transitions, would create a much more cohesive piece. Then, later in the day, I bumped into a friend I’d met at the Tin House Conference in 2010. We chatted online about her struggles getting going with her novel idea. By back-and-forthing and sharing, I think I helped her realize she may have been “over-thinking” her process, instead of writing. She complained of being woefully slow with her first drafts, so I suggested she try, for one week, to double her word count. She seemed excited to try it. I don’t know if it will work for her, but I hope so! And, that leads us to….

Reminder #2: Don’t be afraid to ask other writers for suggestions. It’s up to you if you follow them or not, but sometimes, they can offer what you need to hear.

December has always been a difficult time for me to sustain consistency with my writing. My days feel more chopped up with Christmas to do lists — shopping, decorating the house (which in my case also involves de-cluttering in a BIG way), writing cards, etc. And, all of that is in addition to the normal pushes and pulls of daily life. I know people who can work full-time jobs and get all that done, and still write, but, I am not one of them. So, I’ve learned to let December be a time for shorter writing chunks for me, and, more time on submitting whenever possible. If I am not able to devote solid times to revising my novel, I’m disappointed, but not stuck. There are other things I can do in shorter chunks. For example, in the chapter I’m now revising, I have one character who feels a little flat. I will be making lists (see an older post on using lists) of character attributes and brainstorming more details to help give this character more spark. When the day comes that I can carve out an extended period of time just for the novel, I will have ideas to review before I begin. Short writing times are not wasted time — leading to….

Reminder #3: Be flexible, kind and patient with yourself. Doing nothing is not a good idea, but doing a little is just fine when that’s all you can manage.

So, in the spirit of “reminders,” I leave you with The Earls and Remember Then:

Hopefully, these reminders sparked something for you. Are there things that could help you in your writing that you sometimes forget? What reminders work for you?

Happy #writing all!

Searching for the Writing Life


Searching for the Writing Life

by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85

I was twenty-four years old and enrolled in my first year in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Washington when Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life first hit the bestseller list.  I devoured each page, my heart pounding as she spoke of words that hammered against the walls of one’s house, about how writing was the freest way to live. I gobbled up each of her delicate bon mots as if they were the finest Swiss bon-bons. I read and re-read passages until they flew off the page and entered my bloodstream by osmosis, her words reverberating off the soft spongy walls of my brain.  Apart from being a wonderful guide on what it means to write, Dillard’s book exhibited the best in what good writing should be: fresh, interesting metaphors, near perfect use of rhythm and repetition, and complex ideas presented in a strong narrative framework.

I was twenty-four and in love with the idea of success as much as I was in love with words, and as I read her book, I vowed that I would always live the writing life.  I would write brilliant novels with insightful characters that made readers laugh and cry at the same time. I would gather around me a group of writing friends, a modern-day salon where nearly every conversation would be about the meaning of art, the importance of literature, and the role that we as artists would play in the world.

Most of all, I would never, never hold down a nine to five job.  That was for conventional people, for lawyers and Boeing engineers, for telephone repairmen and marketing reps, not for “creative” people such as myself.  Besides if I worked a regular job, I would never have time to write.  So I would do as Dillard did.  As all my writing teachers at Mount Holyoke, my undergraduate institution, and the University of Washington did.  I would teach creative writing.  One or two classes a semester, filled with inspired, talented (though not more talented than me I hoped) students whom were also committed to the writing life. And of course, after the appropriate amount of rejection, I would win my first Pulitzer Prize, the acceptance speech for which I had already been writing in my head for at least a year.  Ladies and gentleman of Columbia University…

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