retreats

Redefining “Writing,” and doing it every day/ by Nate Chang

I’ve heard a lot of writers over the years thumping the “write every day” bible. While I applaud their dedication and zeal in the service of our craft, I have a few issues with the daily writing philosophy. I tried writing every day last year. I got about six months in before I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I’d cranked out two rather expansive novels and got halfway through a third before the muse in my head started throwing empty vodka bottles at me and shouting at me to knock it off and let her rest for a little while. While your muse may be a bit more taciturn than mine, I have met few other writers who were willing or able to write 180,000 words in six months. Why? Because we burn out. Because the human brain can only sustain a good creative bender for so long before we either start cranking out garbage, give up, or something much worse happens.

Does this mean you can’t or shouldn’t write every day? Of course not. I only suggest that we reconsider what “writing” means to us.

Writing is Rewriting

Any editor, good friend, beta reader, or killjoy will tell you that while the first job of every writer is to write, the second job of said writer is to rewrite. Unless you just plan on letting your stories collect dust – a terrible waste – you’ll need to do some rewriting/editing/revising/whatever you want to call it. As I tell my students, “nobody just shits literary gold.” Not you, not me, not J.K. Rowling, nobody. Nobody gets it right the first time, and so it falls to us to go back through our work and make it better. Utilizing the axiom that writing is rewriting, our new definition of writing must include rewriting.

Writing is Brainstorming

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Sometimes we need to stop and consider what it is we’re doing. It’s all too easy to get lost in a moment that we love, blinded to the fact that we may be writing something that nobody but us will ever want to read. Maybe our writing has gotten stale, we’ve hit a wall, or one of a million other things has come up and rendered us creatively inert. In such times, it’s helpful to stop working on the main project and do a bit of brainstorming. Use a new document, that leather journal you bought but haven’t written anything in yet, or that scrap paper you’ve got here and there. Take a step back and let your mind work out the kinks in the big project, then go back to it when you’re ready. Fair warning: this may take a while.

Writing is Self-care

As writers, we often let our creative minds get the better of us, and we forget to take care of ourselves. We neglect going to the gym so we can get that extra 500 words in, or we “forget” to eat right because we can keep writing a little longer if we order a pizza so we don’t have to stop to cook or clean. We bail on family and friends because we procrastinated all day, and it’s only at 11pm that we start the day’s writing. It’s tantalizingly easy to shirk our needs and responsibilities for the high that fulfilling your creative needs brings. What’s worse, we may be working long and/or arduous hours in a soul-sucking job we hate that has left us naught but husks of human beings. Trying to write in such a husk-like state is, in my experience, ill-advised, as what comes out of my brain is embittered and anything but useful. Of course, all things in moderation. If “self-care” involves a pint of ice cream and binge watching Stranger Things again, it might be time to dial it back.

Writing is Publishing

I remember a scene in the film Amadeus where Mozart’s father Leopold asks him if he’s taken on any pupils.

MOZART: I don’t want pupils. I have to have time for composition.

LEOPOLD: Composition doesn’t pay.

While we’re not all teachers, the idea remains the same: if all we do is crank out story after story, how is anyone going to read them? Eventually, we’ll have to dedicate some time to writing query letters, working with agents and publishers, and the rest of what’s involved in sending our stories out into the world. Working toward getting your work to our readers is absolutely worthy of being called “writing.”

“Write” every day

Armed with our new definition of writing, we’ve got a much more manageable life ahead of us. While compositional “writing” is the cornerstone of what we do, living as a writer and “writing” must include something more. While I cannot advise writing every day, I heartily endorse writing every day.

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Nate Chang is a genderqueer author and professor of English, currently living south of Seattle, Washington. Their work has appeared in The Pitkin Review Literary Magazine, Paper Tape, and Soul’s Road: a Fiction Collection (although you might not know it was them.) They enjoy musty old books, weird comics nobody has ever heard of, and model tanks.

The lost baggage of criticism

 

It starts early and it takes seed. It’s the thing that goes on, the thing I can’t control in other people’s heads and barely in my own, the one that tells me, Good Lord, Woman, haven’t you learned how to pack a suitcase yet? The wonderment at somehow convincing myself that squeezing all of the air out of a space would make it easier to carry, when, in fact, it’s like that thing they say about the Earth, how if you squeezed all of the air out of everything then the planet would be the size of a soccer ball but still weigh the same. And sometimes that’s what I carry.

 

But these things are no longer the driver, but simply the screaming kids in the back seat. I long to be elegant, to never clatter my silverware or trip over my own feet, and if there are lessons to be learned from these distractions, I don’t know, but that’s all they are, distractions. Because age is good for something, and that’s knowing that most things are silly and that there are no somedays. That all you really have is to be here now, and some years are more prone to remind you that it’s time to use the good china and the pretty linen and to wear that dress. Big things expand to take up all the space. There’s less room for the small. You’re less prone to be sidelined or slowed down.

 

You learn that you can’t avoid the dark, and in fact, it’s long past time to seek it out. You learn that sometimes pain is least painful when you crawl inside it, become it, to find the smallest origin of it and expand inside of it until it bursts. To look under the bed and say, hello, monster, come out and play. You begin to see the beauty in the whole, to understand that painters seek the right kind of light not for the light itself but for the play of light and dark together.

 

You begin to dust off that heavy trunk in the corner that carries the carefully folded and preserved statements and lessons passed along for the sake of safety or good intention or not such good intention, the collection of proclamations, yellowed and frayed but very carefully kept, the ways you still convince yourself you’re not enough just as you are. You begin to unfold them and see them as silliness, too. Maybe you actually find something in there that can be spun into silk.

 

You invite the shadow on the other side of the mirror to laugh with you, and maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but you see it for what it is. You cry for the ones who won’t be convinced but then you let it go. You see the falseness and have no patience for it and maybe now that you’ve unfolded some parchment from the trunk and it’s not so heavy anymore, you start to let your impatience show a little more. You stop hiding your crazy. You start seeing through the veil. You start seeing more clearly what is real, what is life, what is love.

 

 

Wake Up, Dulcie

Something about being in another country with mostly people you don’t know and maybe a few people you do know.  And you don’t speak the language.  And the pace is different than your regular one, time has shifted by six hours and you eat meat and cheese and tomatoes for breakfast.  You eat dinner until 11 or 12 at night.  You talk more than you ever talk and you write more than you ever write.

 

That’s what the simplest parts of me noticed about being in Tuscany at a writing retreat.  Doing different things and doing them in a different place and even doing the regular things differently, that they grate against the part of me that feels most at ease and most comfortable when it does the same thing over and over again.  When it kind of snoozes along and doesn’t make a fuss.

 

It’s the part of me that plays solitaire on my computer.  It sets up my coffee the night before.  It puts the car on cruise control and says The Serenity Prayer and tries to buy the same underwear I bought the last time because they fit and they didn’t wear out too fast.  It knows where most of the Starbucks are and orders the same thing every time when I go there.

 

I’m not unhappy with this part of me, in fact, I’m grateful that somewhere in my forties I got okay with creating some routines and rituals and that I could appreciate and feel more solid as a result of.

 

But I have needed something more.

 

And this trip was just the ticket.  It began as a writing retreat that I would lead with several partners in Tuscany, a trip that would hopefully reboot my own writing practice after a year of slogging through the aftermath of an awful accident that included missing last year’s retreat.  

 

The retreat was a beauty.  The farm where we went is cinema material, rolling hills and vineyards and olive groves.  Warm Italian food and breezes and people – Sebastian and his son Malcom, the owners and their staff - gracious and kind and generous.  The weather, deep heat with a thunderstorm coming on schedule to help us celebrate Mary Shelley’s birthday.  

 

The writer’s who came brought their hearts with them and I brought mine.  We sat in circles and wrote from our senses – poetry and songs and eulogies and essays and epitaphs, memoirs and short stories and plays – we listened to ourselves and we listened to each other.

 

And somewhere in there, somewhere in the stirring and the boiling, the writer in me began talking again.  When we asked what she wanted the others to know about her she answered, “…that I am a therapist by profession and a writer by choice, that I am a mother, that my parents are gone and I am both lighter and lost-er as a result…” and when asked what she didn’t want others to know about her she wrote, “… I don’t want you to know how angry I have been this past year, how envious I have been of other people’s ease and simplicity of pleasures, how dumbed down I have felt without my own …”.  She talked and she wrote and she read and she listened.

It was really good to be in her company.  I had missed her.

 

We are such interesting creatures, us humans.  We both encompass all possibility and we can slog about in circles, doing the same thing over and over and over, seeking comfort while looking around to see what’s changing.  In this way, I am no different, especially when things are hard.  I, like most everyone, reach into that old bag of tricks to soothe myself to sleep.

 

But I also like to be awake.  And Tuscany woke me up.  This morning it woke me up early, 4am actually, still on Italy time.  It said, “Wake Up, come on, it’s time to get up, hey what’s for breakfast, I’m hungry, what do you want to do today, I wonder what time sunrise is now, bring the coffee over here and get back under the covers and let’s write something before the day has a chance to grab hold”.

 

So I did.

 

Thank you, Tuscany.