What I’ve Learned At VCFA Series: Semester One (Included: The Secret To Productivity!)
This is the end of my first semester. Five packets containing nine essays, 200 pages total of creative work, 50 books read and analyzed, many exchanges with my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones. I get a little choked up and overwhelmed, just thinking about the whole experience. So why don’t I try to tell you what I’ve learned with a simple little list?
In my first VCFA semester, I have learned:
1. To be a beginner.
Yes, after ten years and many drafts of several manuscripts, countless conferences, critiques and workshops, I still have such a long way to go. A long, long way. Then again, I wonder if I’ll always think so. In some ways, every writer should be a beginner, unless they feel they have reached the end: the end of their growth. The moment you think you know it all a little kid inside you that is joy and wonder grows old.
2. To follow my characters.
I used to be such a bossy writer. I’d have my outline all laid out, thank you very much. Or, at the very least, I’d know the points that I’d want my story to hit, the things I wanted my characters to do. After this semester’s intense work, I realized how much I was constricting my characters, and because of it, how much the story’s logic suffered. (As in: why would she do this all of a sudden? Or, why wouldn’t he try and do that?) It’s okay to know approximately where you might want to end up. As long as that’s where your characters are going!
Now when I construct scenes, I am not asking what I need to happen. I’m asking my characters: what are you going to do? And why?
3. To face my fears.
I have analyzed and figured out why I look for that Internet browser button in the middle of writing a scene. It could be because I am stalling. I know I’m stuck, something is off, and instead of facing the problem, my response is running off on some random chase. This work isn’t over by far, again will it ever be? And yet, this semester, I have started to pay more attention to fear. I realize I can’t eliminate it. It can’t ever go away. But it is something I can — and must — face, every time I sit down at my computer. But it helps to name it. Nameless, it can eat you whole.
4. To think “try” instead of “perfect.”
Around packet 3 was where I got seriously stuck. I was paralyzed (see fear). I hated the chapters I was writing, and was terrified to approach another book I wanted to write. So, what did I do? I decided to “try” things. One day I tried to start with a school scene. The next day, I tried to start in a totally different place. In the span of that packet, I also tried to write a brand new story. It didn’t work. Ten pages, probably more, for nothing, pages I didn’t even bother show Tim. But it wasn’t “nothing.” It was learning. It got me back to a story I had been afraid to approach in the first place. Thinking “try” instead of “perfect” helps free you up. So what if you make a mistake. You’re only trying.
This is big, peeps, so pay attention. Huge. Life-changing. This, my friends, is an eternal secret to writing productivity. I used to try it other ways. Thirty-one minutes (some of you will remember that; it was great.) One chapter a day (that can work sometimes). Breaks on the weekend. Great chunks of all-or-nothing. And then I discovered Ray Bradbury’s precious little volume called Zen In The Art of Writing. Some of you/many of you might have heard of it. And I’m sure Ray Bradbury is not the only one who came up with that idea either: 1,000 words a day, to honor your craft, to honor yourself as a writer. All I know is, it came to me at the right time. I latched on to it. One thousand words a day. Make it holy. No matter what, NO MATTER WHAT. Some days, when you’re blocked on one project, make it 1,000 words from a different project. A short story. Or a fun writing exercise. Put your character in a random situation: 1,000 words. Examine a scene in the childhood of your antagonist: 1,000 words. Or just: write crappy on a crappy day. Lower your standards. One thousand words. Try it. Some days it’ll be easy as blinking. Other days, grit your teeth and stick to it, even if it takes all night. One thousand words. Some days, write more if you can. But never less. At some point during this semester, I started this practice. It hasn’t always been easy. But now I can’t live any other way. When someone asks me advice next time, this will be it. Ignore everything else I or anyone else have said and just try that, and you’ll soar. I practically guarantee it. *
*Only one way I’m letting you off the hook with this one: if you don’t need a secret to great writing productivity. If you have your own perfect secret. Some people do. Shannon Hale takes Sundays off and swears by it. Hey, it worked for her. Maybe you have something that works for you, something better. Then ignore this. If you don’t, then tell me: what do you have to lose by trying this out?
6. Short stories
I recommend writing short stories to grow as a writer. It did wonders for me.
First, I started with reading, and if you try it you should too. (I read seven anthologies. If you decide to try it, I recommend reading at least two). The reading was such an inspiration. Short stories tend to be playful, elusive, wonderfully weird. Reading them, I got a sense of immense freedom: anything goes! Anything is worth a try! My mind burst with ideas. Writing was a joy, low stakes, not much to lose, and at the same time, there was the thrill, the freshness. If you’re a novelist, you are not wasting your time on a short story. While handling the concentrated, elegant form, it’s easy to observe your issues, your problems; it’s easy to plot, to revise, to add or take away a character, to play with tense or point of view. I bet I got that one from Ray Bradbury, too.
I hope this helps/inspires you a little!
What about you? What have you been learning, lately? I’d love to know.
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