Thursday, October 10, 2013

How Much Do You Have to Write to Stay Sane?

Flavia has a post about her writing process, with many thought-provoking comments from her readers, and Dame Eleanor Hull posts a great deal about the academic writing life. I find that I can't give a clear account of my writing process right now, if by "writing process" we mean my composition process. But I have learned, through difficult trial and error, that I need three things to keep my writing going well:

1. Something accepted but not yet in print.

2. Something submitted but not yet accepted.

3. Something new that I'm actively working on.

I know these sound like results, or productivity targets. But I don't think of them that way. The goal isn't necessarily to have x amount of work accepted in y amount of time. When I do manage to have all three of these things at once (and I certainly have not always done so), they operate as a security blanket. They allow me to write, because they keep me from worrying about my writing.

Having at least one article in press, one out for review, and one on the boil, when I can manage that trick, keeps me from obsessing about the response to any individual piece of writing. Otherwise the danger is that too much energy goes into worrying about one specific piece. That's not healthy because no one piece of writing defines you as a writer, and not healthy because the things you're worried about are beyond your control. If you're an academic writer, your articles can get swept around in the unpredictable weather of peer review, or becalmed for months and months at a journal that's going through organizational problems. You can't control that. Once it gets published, people will read it or not, like it or not, cite it or not. You can't control that either. And while you're working alone at your desk, you can lose your way worrying about whether or not what you're doing is any good at all, meaning whether anyone will like it. Anyone who's written a dissertation knows how easy it is to despair over a piece of writing that you've spent too much time working on by yourself.

But if something's out in the mail and something else is in press and something is getting worked on steadily at my desk, it's a lot easier not to worry about the one in the mail, or pin too many hopes on the piece you have coming out next summer. And it's easier to let the thing you're working on be itself, and let the worries about venues and reviews come in due time. Most of all, no single thing starts to feel like the barometer of your success. Yes, some things, especially the book you're working on, are more important. But having more than one piece of writing at various stages is, at least for me, a wonderful psychological buffer.

My three-things rule is especially suited for academic writing, where it takes months for a response to come back after submitting an article, and often a year and more between acceptance and publication. But fiction writing works on the same schedule, and literary fiction perhaps a slower one. Literary magazines can take more than six months to give you any response. The other reason to try to have pieces in various stages of acceptance, submission, and preparation is that you can not afford to stop working for the three to four months it takes to hear back about each piece. When an article or a story is out the door, you need to work on another article or story. You don't have that many months to waste. And if a fiction editor takes a pass on a first story but asks to see another, you had better have another story, better than the first, to show her.

You're not a writer because you have one story you're proud of, or one article you think is important, or even one book manuscript that you hope will win some prize. You can't afford to let your sense of yourself as a writer be tied to the fate of that one piece as it tries to find a home. Or maybe you can. I certainly can't. I need to feel that if I'm a writer, there's more where that came from. If I approach my work that way, I can afford setbacks to this or that particular piece, and you have to be able to afford the setbacks if you want to write because sooner or later they're coming.

Writing is a public act performed in a private place, something you do alone at your desk for the widest audience you can manage. If you give too much weight to what other people think, or give too much weight to your own private anxieties, you will have trouble writing at all. You give up hope after too many rejections in a row, or begin undermining your work in a misguided attempt to give people what you think they want. Or you will wrestle with yourself endlessly in private and pin yourself, never putting anything in the mail because it's never "finished" and never finishing anything because you refuse to show it. Either way, you get lost, and the work suffers. Staying sane enough to write means positioning yourself somewhere between your inner voices and the outside world, where you are able to listen to both clearly, because you need to listen to both, but where neither gets the last word.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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