Linda: A Writing Life

Prior to attending the AWP conference, I spent hours poring over the schedule of events, weighing the relative merits of each panel, and wondering if I could sprint from one session at the Palmer House Hilton to another at the Hilton Chicago in the space of 15 minutes.  When I left for Chicago I carried with me a printed calendar detailing my every move over the next three days. If only I approached my writing life with that same military precision.

Happy for me then, that the first panel I attended was called “A Writing Life: After the Workshop.” I wanted to know how to lead a writing life “After the MFA,” since my old routine had not yet been replaced by a new one in the transition from one job to the next, and I had embarked on no new writing projects. It was time to start acting like a writer.

I learned immediately that the panel, five dynamic young members of the Writing Life Collective, divided their writing lives into four components: Creative, Editorial, Administrative, and Marketing. I also learned that I scored only so-so when it came to performing in each of these areas.

So how do you stay productive and inspired after the workshop/conference/MFA? First, you must carve out the time for your creative work. When there are only so many hours, know what time of day you are most productive. Use a time-tracking journal to analyze the highs and lows of your day (see an example in the panel presentation). A writer on a later panel I attended (“Setting Limits: Balancing Paid Writing & Creative Writing”), who is also a parent, would go into work early to write there. Another writer on that panel tricked herself into doing creative work with a 15-minute rule to dedicate that amount of time to writing every day, until it became a habit.

Then you need to keep honing your craft. Take a class, attend a conference, find or form a writing group of people who are after what you’re after. Schedule writing time into your weekly planner – or “put the big rocks in first,” as Stephen Covey directs us. Let everything else fit around that.

Check out Evernote, a phone app that capture ideas and things of interest in the moment, before they’re lost to you (so like me you don’t waste precious time trying to remember them).

When it comes to editing, we need to understand that “editing is a profession that needs a process and schedule to revise, polish, and submit.” One panelist writes in the early morning, goes to work, and edits in the evening. My biggest challenge is finishing the first draft and restraining my internal editor, who wants to keep picking away at every word written. It’s hardly surprising that my beginnings are polished whereas my endings are weak or non-existent. We should read everything three times: for clarity, mechanics, and punctuation.

Get yourself not one but several stylebooks (preferably the online versions) and familiarize yourself with proofreading marks. As Daniel Prazer commented, “You need to know the rules before you can break them!” Establish a professional email address, set up a Dropbox account, and handle your billing through PayPal.

To stay on top of the administrative side of living a writing life, you need diligence and an organized mind. How else to keep track of submissions, requirements, and deadlines? Set up spreadsheets to track your writing and submissions (see examples here). Use them. This is the first thing I did after returning home, having gathered up armfuls of literary journals from the bookfair, along with contest announcements and flyers detailing submission deadlines.

If you consider yourself “old school” and would rather cross a task off a paper list than set up automated time-tracking on your phone, write your to-do list on a dry erase board and place it where you can always see it. Post inspirational sayings in your writing area.

Marketing is one aspect of being a writer that forces most of us out of our comfort zone. Like it or not once you’re published, you’re a product, and promotion of your writing becomes paramount. Hone and practice your pitch – not just about what you’ve done, but what you’re doing next. At this point all five panelists delivered in turn a snappy, concise statement of what they were up to. Even writers need an elevator pitch – and I heard in several different sessions that writers need to be entrepreneurial. This is my weakest point, a fact that was driven home to me again in the final session, when Mimi Schwartz came and sat next to me. When I told her that Writing True had been helpful in writing my thesis, she of course asked me what the thesis was about. Yet again, I mumbled and stumbled my way through a vague and awkward description of my work. She likely won’t remember our exchange, but I have vowed never to let myself down in that way again.

Set up a free blog (WordPress is easy to use) and create your own website. Use tools such as HootSuite, an online dashboard for brand management. Apply the 15-minute rule to learning a new technology so it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming.

Don’t work in a vacuum or you’ll stay in a vacuum – get out there! Read and perform. Network. You never know what connections might lead to new opportunities. Find your people. Develop relationships with trusted editors.

It all comes down to finding the system that works for you – there’s no one formula. The important take-aways for me were to make yourself and your work visible and to foster your own community. This is where 49 Writers can help. Not only do we provide writers with opportunities to hone their craft in our workshops, but the people attending them are making connections with each other and creating a real community of writers. We love to hear about and promote your successes too – let us know if you have published a piece of creative writing or a book, if your work has received special recognition, if you are giving a reading in the community.  We are happy to mention your success in our news roundup or to invite you to contribute as a guest blogger. However you approach it, make a commitment to leading a writing life.

3 thoughts on “Linda: A Writing Life”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Linda — that was great! Even for those of us who do try to spread ourselves across all those areas, how many of us do so purposefully? I jump from one task to the next, rather than thinking X time here, X time there. It's easy for me to tell you where I should spend more time (creative writing) but hard to say where I should spend less. A little more planning and prioritizing is in order.

    I was sorry to miss AWP so it's great to hear some of these panels and talks boiled down. Thanks!

  2. Linda,
    Thanks for this. I'm in an MFA program and struggling to figure out how to balance it all. Your description of editing the beginning of a piece of work over and over sounds exactly like me. It's a tough habit to break.

    I would certainly benefit from spending a little more time in all of the areas you mentioned but I'm sorely lacking in the organizational department right now. I may have to apply the fifteen minute rule.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Thanks for the great post. And some of your tips from AWP echo ideas I heard in 49 Writers workshops last month. We do have amazing instructors. 🙂

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