I’ve picked up, or discerned, a few effective writing tips over the past week. I’ll share what I can here.
First, I recently read an opinion piece in The New York Times by Pico Iyer. One of the topics Iyer discusses in the piece, which is titled “The Joy of Quiet,” is the nearly constant mental distraction created by the deluge of information available on the Internet. Many people get distracted for hours — at work or at home — by emails, Facebook, YouTube, websites, and whatever else is out there in Cyberspace, accessible nearly anywhere on our computers and smartphones, and now tablets.
In order to block out these distractions, Iyer notes, many writers use a software program called “Freedom” that disables the Internet on their desktop or laptop computers. This eliminates the temptation to log on during writing time. Because Internet distraction has been an increasing problem for me, I downloaded the software (for just $10 each time) for both my laptop and desktop. I have to say, I love it. My morning writing hours have been far more focused and productive knowing that I can’t log on, even “just for a minute” to check an email or glance at a blog. When my mind gets restless or frustrated with a sentence, paragraph, or essay, I am forced now (unless I leave the room of course) to sit with the feeling and work through it, and then keep writing. I highly recommend “Freedom” if the same type of temptation affects your own ability to stay focused.
Continuing with the same theme, on Friday I attended a one-hour presentation at the winter residency of the Solstice MFA Program by author Roland Merullo. The subject of the presentation was “The Demons that Keep You from Writing,” and because the content of the talk belongs to Roland, I won’t give everything away here. But a couple of things he said really rang true for me. I tend to get very wrapped up in my paying work, which involves being available to multiple freelance clients who have varied needs and work styles (and who are also working in different time zones). I get caught up in trying to meet numerous responsibilities and deadlines related to that work, and doing so begins to feel like a priority over anything else (after all, it’s what pays the bills). Roland talked, however, about the importance of considering your writing time as “sacred,” whether you write daily or create a schedule that fits with the rest of your life in some other way. Once you’ve set that schedule you have to honor it, and consider the time that you set aside for writing as important (if not more so) as your other activities or responsibilities. I would add that this requires making what you owe to yourself as important as what you owe to other people, and for someone like me, that’s not an easy thing to do.
Roland also talked about the importance of finding ways to quiet your mind (much as Iyer did in The Times) in order to be in touch with its workings and impulses. He meditates, but suggested that exercise or time spent in nature are two other possible strategies. I have nearly a constant stream of thoughts, worries, and concerns running through my mind at any given moment, and have tried to combat this problem with many of the strategies Roland mentioned. After hearing Roland’s presentation, however, I am going to renew my efforts to find a solution.
One last thing I’ll mention from the presentation is Roland’s suggestion that a writing life almost always includes some or all of certain ingredients, such as a mentor, a writing group, or participation in literary activities. Overall, the idea is to set up one’s life in a way that supports your potential success as a writer (whatever “success” means for you). After hearing Roland speak, I am going to work a little harder to set up my life in a way that supports my goals rather than thwarts them.
One other tidbit of advice came to me this morning during my happily uninterrupted ninety minutes of writing time. I am currently revamping an essay that I started during my MFA program, and I decided to refer back to an early version of the piece to rediscover some details I had lost along the way. In looking for the original file, I came across some notes from Randall Kenan, who was my faculty mentor during my second semester in the program (and who I was happy to see earlier last week when I moderated a publishing panel on the Pine Manor campus). In re-reading Randall’s notes, I noticed something interesting. Today, two years after I graduated from the program, I was able to grasp his meaning much more clearly than I had when I read his comments as a student. Of course reading his notes now, I am not dealing with the stress associated with trying to fulfill academic requirements and pass a semester. But I also, simply, have come a long way in my understanding of the written language and the writing process. Not only have I completed the program since then, but I’ve been reading and writing for two more years, and have taught a semester of Expository Writing, which forced me to re-learn a lot of language particulars and grammar. With the added experience and knowledge, I could look back at Randall’s notes and understand more of what he was trying to tell me at the time. In two more years, maybe I’ll understand even more.
So if you’ve saved the notes of former teachers, or even if it’s just been some time since you read certain essays or text on craft, I suggest that you take another look. You might be able to glean more information from them now than you could before.
I guess that’s enough for today. We’ve had strangely warm weather for a New England January — the temperature hit 60 degrees yesterday, and today it has climbed to 42. Maybe I’ll get out there and breathe some of the fresh air that helps to clear my mind.
Good writing to you.