“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things,…” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard authors talk about how hard writing is. I’ve heard them talk about the satisfaction of progress made, or the reward of writing a story well: you put in work for fifteen years and, somewhere down the line, you have a poem or two you don’t hate, or a few checks from stories you sold. But gifts are not the same things as rewards. Rewards are earned; gifts are freely given. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard a writer talk at length about the gifts of writing.
When I read that quote by Anne Lamott, though, it put me in a new frame of mind. Have I been grateful for writing enough? Not for the things I write, but for the gifts that writing gives me even before I open a notebook?
The answer is, of course, “Not at all.” So, in the interest of mindfulness, the cultivation of a thankful spirit, and list-making, here is my Top Five Gifts That Writing Gives Me, with some significant help from Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird.
1. Excuses to do cool stuff
There is nothing I love more than going into my local library to look up something weird. A few weeks back, I checked out half the section on radioactivity. (None of the books dished on X-Men-style mutations.) More recently, I had some difficulties finding books about the history of Romania. Finding books about crematorium practices and death rituals around the world have become something of an annual thing for me.
One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.
The world is big, and there’s absolutely no reason not to see as much of it as you can, whether through books, the internet, or actual travel. If you’re interested in the world outside yourself, which you must be if you’re telling stories, then why not go see it?
This leads to the next gift, which is…
Another [gift] is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
Writing gives you a free pass to learn about and empathize with the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the undervalued, the strangely beautiful. We live in an old and tightly-packed world, and we can only ever know the smallest bit of it. But if you want to write, then you have every reason to find out just a bit more. Widen your horizons and you’ll probably write more humbly; the more voices you hear, the less impressive your own sounds in your ears. Which is always a good thing.
And, yes, this is absolutely a gift, as the direction of character development is always a gift. What’s not to celebrate about this side effect of writing that might gently nudge you to be better than you were the day before, more selfless and thoughtful towards the world around you?
3. Good work
That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. (xxvi)
One of the best things about finishing my last novel was that the act of writing—the harmony of mental and physical concentration—became good work, in the most spiritually invigorating way.
Even when I knew I wasn’t writing a polished, high-quality draft, I still liked doing the work, because I was writing anyway. I was working at something that I cared about. That’s good work, and the opportunity to do good work is a gift.
4. A place in the Grand Scheme
In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.” And the niche may be small and dark, but at last you will finally know what you are doing.
You’ll never be able to know how long your words last, how many people’s lives you touch with the narratives inside your brain. Maybe you’ll see hundreds of people cheer for you at a major convention; maybe you’ll have a five-star review on Goodreads claiming your poetry changed the reader’s life. Or maybe not.
But knowing the grand sum of your reach is, I’m relieved to say, not necessary. It’d be nice (if it were possible!), but, at your core, you don’t write to know you made a difference. You write because you do. You write because you’re supposed to, and maybe the only person you’ll ever knowingly impact is yourself. That’s fine; that’s one whole person. Anything beyond that, as T.S. Eliot says, “is not our business.”
Writing, for me, is like a jigsaw puzzle. And I love jigsaw puzzles. With writing, not only do I get to worry over all the pieces fitting together just so, I get to choose the picture myself—even color in the more unique portions!
I love prewriting. I love the brainstorming, picking at some knotty problem until it slowly unravels to reveal something fantastic, exciting, intriguing, disturbing, heartbreaking—in other words, something fun. And, as mentioned, I love writing, too, putting all my theoretical formulas and structures into practice, letting the characters gasp awake and promptly ruin all my plans by making them better. I even love editing: paper freshly warm from the printer, the aroma of ink, the pens and notebooks and endless tinkering. It’s the heady feeling of being better at storytelling than the past version of myself, aka the slob who produced the literary equivalent of a greasy old pizza box, which I am now reworking with spit and panache into the Mona Lisa. It’s fun. It’s not everybody’s type of fun, but it’s mine. And having good fun is one of the best gifts of all.
There are bountiful reasons to work hard at storytelling, to know that good writing doesn’t come easy or soon, to remember that your truest, most lasting motivations are easily obscured by the prospect of fame or intellectual vanity or maybe impressing the cute guy ahead of you in the Starbucks line. There are plenty of reasons to remember that writing is hard, and even to be grateful for the hurdles to jump.
But that’s hard in and of itself. It’s nice to remind ourselves, once in a while, of the sweet, easy things that writing gives us, as it graciously ignores our motivations du jour, our issues with time commitment, and the fact that we want to talk about writing more than we want to sit in the chair and write.
Writing can be nice without caveat. We, as our own little subculture, might rethink our relentless onslaught of doom and warnings, and embrace a more easygoing attitude instead. Think of what we have in writing, and write with gratitude in mind!
What gifts have you received from the act of writing?
I’m an English graduate from Mobile, Alabama, whose senior thesis was the establishment of a literary journal for the university. (It’s now been taken over by the current senior year and I’m very proud.) When not writing, preparing to write, or complaining about writing, I like to read, crochet, listen to DnD podcasts, and take long walks in the woods. I’m now a page at the local library, bemoaning the fact that pages aren’t allowed to reserve books for themselves while working. My blog, with reviews and biweekly storytelling posts, can be found at sympatheticmagicblog.wordpress.com.
* Please note that links on The One Year Adventure Novel Blog to other websites and blogs do not constitute an official endorsement. We are not intimately familiar with all the writing and opinions contained in outside links.
When I was probably around eleven years old, I read a nonfiction book called Plot by a woman named Ansen Dibell. It was published in 1988, is considered a writing craft cornerstone by no one, and is criticized on Amazon for covering little original ground. I loved it, reading and rereading Plot in the same manner I read novels. This is where I started to learn the facts: You must NEVER “head-hop” between different viewpoint characters within one scene. You must NEVER have more than 20% exposition density. And the plot must ALWAYS come first.
When I was thirteen years old, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t expect to be a bestseller within a year—I went with a more reasonable goal: be published before I’m 18. In fact, I was such a reasonable person that I knew that someone’s first novel almost never gets published, so out of all my ideas, I picked one that could stand to never see a bookshelf. The main character was a 31-year-old gardener who was put in suspended animation for over two thousand years, and when he woke up, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for hate crimes against weeds. (Incidentally, all those other ideas I was saving for later have never been touched since).
I discovered writing blogs and literary agent blogs. I soon became an expert in the right and wrong ways to be a writer. You must write messy first drafts, you must write every day, show-don’t-tell, don’t flit around from project to project. I had a few sticking points that I arbitrarily decided to champion: Third person can and should be as deep in the main character’s head as first person! Italicizing thoughts is for losers! Self-publishing can ruin your chances at being traditionally published! Trust me, I know these things—I read a blog by a literary agent.
Over the next four years, I wrote my gardener novel, slowly, so slowly. I would participate in online word wars (competitions to see who can write the greatest number of words in their stories over a day or a set number of minutes) and complain to my mom that I was slower than everyone else I knew. “Maybe your words are of better quality than theirs,” my mom would say.
“Uh, no, Mom, this is a first draft. Everybody knows that first drafts aren’t supposed to be good,” I would say.
“You sure?” she would say.
What does she know? I’d think. She doesn’t even read writing blogs.
When I was fifteen years old, I took a pause while in the middle of that book to do something I’d wanted to do for years: OYAN. After getting the curriculum for Christmas, I gained access to the forum, another platform to tell people my correct opinions taken from blogs. My OYAN was the first book I finished. (It took longer than one year.) I brought it to a couple Summer Workshops. People adored it less than I had dreamed. I went through Story Coaching. I went back and edited most of it, then ran out of time and submitted it to the Novel Contest at 11:59 on the day of the deadline.
I went back to the 31-year-old gardener. The document’s wordcount crept over 140,000. Then, at age seventeen, almost at the book’s conclusion, I scrapped everything and started over at the beginning. I took the new beginning to a Summer Workshop. It turned out to not be particularly good. I had been writing for four years, and only had one book to show for it. Where were all the messy first drafts I was supposed to bang out?
A year later, during a break working at Freddy’s, I had a pen in my hand and a paper napkin under it, and I was determined to have an idea for a new novel by the time I clocked back in. It was the last year I was eligible to enter the OYAN student novel contest, so I had less than a year to come up with the winning book. And, gripping that pen, the idea came—old story ideas to recycle, combine, transform. Over the next few months, I wrote. It was slow. It was weird. It was different from anything I had ever written before. In January, eight months before the contest deadline, I had two chapters, and I had no idea if they were any good. I brought them to my first ever Winter Workshop and was surprised to find, finally, that they were. And one evening during that Workshop, I abruptly thought that maybe, I always wrote so slow because maybe, just maybe, I am not meant to write messy first drafts. Maybe I am not meant to write messy first drafts.
So I wrote, slowly, for the next eight months. I was supposed to get my driver’s license. I didn’t have time for that. I was supposed to pack my things to move to college. I didn’t have time for that. My desperation increased—I wanted to win the contest, never mind, to final, never mind, to be a semifinalist, never mind, to just finish in time to enter. If I finish in five months, I’ll have three to edit. If I finish in one month, I’ll have one to edit. If I finish in a week, I’ll have a week to edit. If I finish tomorrow, I’ll have a day to edit. If I finish this morning, I’ll have all night to edit.
I finished the novel a few hours before the deadline. I submitted it at 11:58, an improvement from the year before. I realized, too late, that the book had multiple inconsistencies, and, worst of all, I’d left author’s notes apologizing for my mistakes in the document. I despaired of my life.
But I had finished.
The months went by, the contest was judged, and finally, on the night of the contest webinar, I was floored to discover that I was a finalist. Then, a few minutes later, Mr. S announced me as the second place winner. It really wasn’t a messy draft after all.
Six years can make a world of difference. I suppose the most obvious takeaway from my life story is to not take blogs too seriously (she said, on a blog), but that’s not quite right—I’ve been helped immensely by writing advice. It would be closer to say I learned not to take myself too seriously. Don’t worship what you think is the correct writing style, or what you think is your writing style—if from now on, I insisted upon writing pristine first drafts forever, that would be just as bad as before.
“I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die,” said sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, whom I named a 31-year-old gardener after, six years ago. So I’ll keep writing, keep evolving. I’ll take myself too seriously again and I’ll self-correct. And then I’ll probably take myself too seriously again, and start over the cycle.
But I don’t mind, as long as each time, I grow a little as a writer.
What misconceptions have you overcome on your writing journey?
Lydia DeGisi is a college student from Kansas, currently double-majoring in English and Biology. She loves insects, science fiction, history, and walking in the rain. In addition to novels, she also enjoys writing poetry and journaling.