Last-day-of-School Advice for Writers

My two yearlong classes met for their final class meetings this week. We still have our class readings ahead (Many thanks to University Bookstore and Elliott Bay Book Company), but the classroom work is officially behind us. A number of class members have expressed concern about the loss of structure the classes provide. I remember feeling that same nervousness when I finished my MFA: Would I keep writing without the deadlines assignments provided? Or would I just be sucked into a vortex of life’s mundane demands?

Inspired by attending my older daughter’s commencement at Columbia College Chicago last week (Yay!), I offered my classes some parting tips to quell their anxiousness about continuing their writing practices without the group’s support. Maybe they’ll be of help to you as well.

1. Finish something.

finishYou don’t have to finish everything you write, but you need to take some of your writing all the way to the finish line–and you need to do this soon. Finishing means rewriting. Finishing means revising. Finishing means editing and proofreading. Finishing means sending your work out into the world.

Finishing is hard and scary, which is why we sometimes avoid it and prefer to have a lot of half-cooked documents simmering on our desktop. There’s a risk in finishing. When you call something finished, you’re saying this is the best I can do with this. When we finish and submit our work, we have to face the truth of our limitations. Our work may not always be as good as we wish, but we have to finish these good and mediocre and pretty good pieces, so we can go on to write the next one and the next one. And by writing the next one and the next one, we become better writers.

2. Install deadlines in your life.

deadlineIt’s hard to finish work when no one is waiting for it. Yes, there are a few people out there who can toil away without accountability, but we hate them and they’re not reading this post. Most of us need to work towards a deadline. In The Right to Write,  Julia Cameron writes: “Deadlines create a flow of adrenaline. Adrenaline medicates and overwhelms the censor.”

Take a step today to create deadlines in your life. Sign up for a class. Look for contests, grants, and residencies with upcoming deadlines. Join a writing group with due dates for writing exchanges.

3. Call yourself a writer. See yourself as a writer.

You don’t have to get paid to write to be a writer. You only need to write to be a writer. Call yourself as a writer, if only to yourself. Thinking of yourself as a writer will likely lead to more writing, to setting up your life so you have time to write, to investing in your life as a writer by taking classes and attending writing events.

nat writingAsk a friend to take a photo of you writing (not pretending to write, but actually writing). Keep this photo near your writing space as a reminder of who you are.

4. Follow your curiosity.

Let your interests lead you everywhere and anywhere. Curiosity is one of your most important traits, so don’t squash it. If you want to spend an afternoon diving deep into the arcane, do it. Don’t judge your interests just because they’re not scholarly.  If you’re called to do so, binge on the Beastie Boys, study up on how to achieve the perfectly lined eye, or read all about the life and times of your favorite pop star. Read with abandon and selfish lust. Curiosity fuels vision and voice.

5. Comfort yourself.

Most writers suffer bouts of anxious feelings about writing.  Frustration and exasperation are endemic to the writing life. So it makes sense to plan for how you’re going to comfort yourself during tremulous times. I’ve always had a cache of “comfort books” that I’ve returned to for solace: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron to name a few. These books remind me to calm the eff down. To breathe. To chill the eff out. And to keep writing. In fact, these books have meant so much to me that I wrote a comfort book of my own: Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice and A Guide to How You Can Too).

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4 Responses to Last-day-of-School Advice for Writers

  1. Wendy Hinman says:

    Thanks for posting this. I learned so much from you. These are wise words.

  2. Thank you! I needed these words. I just graduated from my MFA program last Sunday and I’ve spent the past week in an unexpected swirl of panic, dread, and twisting ravines of darkness.

  3. Barbara Meyer says:

    Thank you for posting this Theo. As Wendy said, wise words. Best of all, you are extraordinarily kind and nurturing too.

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