On Writing

Writing fiction can be a very rewarding–but also very frustrating–activity. Sometimes I feel very inspired, and sometimes I just write because I have to, or I know I should. The hardest part is writing through the times when you know you’re writing poorly, and when you know you’re not getting anywhere. You just have to keep at it, keep writing those pages you know you’ll throw away. Because if you don’t write those necessary 150 terrible pages, then you’ll never get to those 50 gems that are possible precisely because you wrote those 150 terrible ones.

At times like this–when I’m frustrated with my own fiction writing–I am glad that I have so many other writing outlets to turn to. For better or for worse, I’ve written a weekly column in New England since 2003, when I was a teenager. My editors were always encouraging but rarely insisted I revise, and they rarely suggested I do things different the next week. I often hit “send” on those columns biting my lip at first, not knowing if what I’d written was good or terrible. But I had an audience, and for that I was grateful. I had the support of the editors I worked with, and I was even more grateful for that. Even without much direct writing criticism or feedback, after eight years–and it is eight years this month that I’ve been writing the column–I know I’ve gotten better. I’ve matured over time, and my writing voice has matured along with me. I’ve improved my style through sheer labor hours: by writing, week in and week out, no excuses, a single column of around 1,000 words.

I now view my weekly column as one of my greatest joys during the week. I look forward to Thursdays when I pick a writing topic and to Friday afternoons when I write the column itself. It’s still not perfect, and I still strive to improve both my style and my voice, but I’ve come a long way since eight years ago.

I often find it difficult to find time to write fiction. I wonder, though, if I could write a page and a half a week–the equivalent of my 1,000 word column–would that be a worthy goal? Surely, amidst my teaching and my own classes at UConn, I could find time for another 1,000 words. Even if they’re not perfect. Even if it takes eight years of doing that to get it right. Just for the practice, for the joy of it, week in and week out.

Why shouldn’t the art of fiction writing be like any other activity, where practice makes perfect? In learning languages, we labor each day to memorize words and construct new and more complicated sentences. Yet when we reach a degree of fluency, we don’t reach back to our old sentences and our old writings to try to improve them–we start afresh, with our new knowledge, and plunge into an exciting new world where things make sense. In the same way, shouldn’t I just struggle along, writing my 1,000 words a week, not hoping to publish them… and not thinking of revising them later… but just so that someday I can write something new–form those new sentences–that’s worth editing and trying to publish?

It can be frustrating to write knowing you’ll have no audience and that your efforts might be wasted. I’m grateful my column was published each week for the past eight years because when I am accountable to an audience I work harder, I write better, and I know what I write might matter to someone other than me. But writing for the sake of writing allows you to make mistakes, stumble, and just try new things that you might not want others to see.

And when that gets frustrating, I’m glad I have my column, my freelance stories for magazines, my translation projects, and my academic writing to satisfy that part of me that needs to write, regardless of genre.

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