Amy O'Neill Houck: The Practice of Writing

In my first post, I mentioned that I struggled in the first year of
my MFA to develop a writing practice. In truth, it is still a struggle, but I
have a few more tools at my disposal to help me when I’m feeling stuck.
Sometimes, a little procrastination is just the thing to get me back on track. I
love reading about the habits of other writers—it feels nearly productive. For
me, learning about how people create their writing lives is an irresistible peek
behind the curtain—like those TV Shows that are so popular right now about how
candy or fireworks are made. Instead, we’re catching a glimpse of how hard work,
habit and inspiration create our favorite stories. 
If you want to know how your favorite writers structure their days,
you can read about it in their own words in the interview archives on The Paris Review web site. You can learn that John McPhee struggled to find
story ideas when he was first hired at the New Yorker.  You can learn
that Gay Talese takes notes on shirt boards from the dry cleaners, and that,
like Mr. Rogers, he dresses for his trip to his basement office, then changes,
out of jacket and tie into a sweater and ascot when he gets to “the bunker.”
Some authors, like Joan Didion, have been interviewed twice in their long
careers: you can read Didion interviewed in 1978 and again in 2006 and see
what’s changed in her writing life. What you don’t learn from these writer
interviews: how to write. What you do learn: everyone struggles.
You may start to gain a useful sense of camaraderie with those writers who
create the literary canon you aspire to be a part of. You will almost certainly
get ideas for characters or stories. (Consider Ann Napolitano, whose novel A
Good Hard Look,
is a fictional story about Flannery O’Connor.)
Some authors have turned their fascination with the writing practice
into books to aid other writers. In his new book, The Mindful Writer,
Dinty Moore has collected quotes about writing and creativity from writers of
all genres and persuasions. He then responds to each quotation with a reflection
informed by his practice both as a writer and a Buddhist. The tiny chapters each
have a little advice and lots of empathy for the work of the writer. It’s the
kind of book you can open to any page and find something to start you thinking
and maybe even writing. Gail Sher’s book, One Continuous Mistake, is a
kindred spirit to Dinty Moore’s with a focus on poetry.
Many writers talk about their practice on the web. Author Neil Gaiman blogs
about pretty much every part of his life including his writing habits. A few
weeks ago, I found a practical post from novelist Rachel Heron, who more often
blogs about her life as a knitter and maker, called “How I write a Novel.”  If you are a tech-savvy writer, you’ll enjoy hearing
about the apps she for turning off the internet and for writing on a
When I left my MFA residency in Anchorage, I flew to meet my kids in
Cordova, Alaska. Since I’m still traveling, I’m not doing much writing, but I
feel like I’m in heavy “digesting” mode, taking in all we learned from our
amazing instructors and guests. “All the ways you’re knotted to the world are
important,” poet Zack Rogow reminded us in his morning talk at UAA. A lot of
what we do as writers, he said, is impossible to see as work from the
outside—we’re thinking, processing, creating, even when we’re not sitting with
pen and paper. So make the most of your procrastination, whatever form it

Amy O’Neill Houck is beginning her final year of UAA’s
low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. She’s the author of three books of
knitting and crochet patterns and she maintains a blog about food, fiber and life in Alaska .

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