From The Writing Life

The Art of the Artists’ Residency



Readers, this month I have been tucked away in the splendid Vermont Studio Center, busily editing the novel and also trying to produce some new short stories. About once a year I love attending programs like these; there really is nothing like devoting yourself to the quiet, singular craft of writing. You’d be amazed what kinds of work can come out of an experienc like it.

I am stunned by how smoothly the VSC is run, by how beautiful the facilities are, and how friendly and welcoming the entire community is. I’ve met a terrific bunch of writers and artists while being here, and I’m so inspired by marinating in their developing work.

Many might say that you can achieve the same experience if you just turn off the phone and hunker down at your desk at home, and you can with effort and if a residency is not possible. But if it is possible, jump at the chance. There’s a huge mental difference between squeezing an hour of writing in between obligations at home, and giving yourself the time and permission to put your writing first.

So what is a residency really like? I’ll try to tell you about a typical day here at the Vermont Studio Center. The day might be different for every resident, but here’s the routine I’ve been working on.

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That Thing is Like That Other Thing: How to Use Analogies for Better Writing

I’ve written about how absolutely crucial the skill of observation is in writers. You need to be a giant walking eyeball as Emerson said, a vacuum that absorbs the world. You’ve got to use all of your senses to notice the eccentricities, the beauty and the ugliness of the world.

By itself, though, sensory perception, or noticing, is not necessarily a creative process. It’s something that animals do a lot better than us, for example. If you’ve ever seen how a cat will instantly pick up on any kind of motion in a room that you’ve barely detected, you know what I’m talking about. The creative process comes from linking things with other things. Read more

How to Recognize Your Flaws and Change Your Writing Habits


I’ve written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I’ve found it’s tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I’m sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I’m much better at getting work done.

But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you — because you’ve already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with “easy grace” or “knitting their eyebrows” and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these “contemporary clichés” as one teacher of mine called them. They’re over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don’t give us that. So let’s discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.

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How to Rotate Your Success in Writing and Life

On another panel discussion I went to at the AWP Writers’ Conference, I learned another very interesting bit of advice from some acclaimed writers: several used the phrase “rotate failure.” A poet, a memoirist and a fiction writer all agreed with this idea, and it does seem like a wise way to approach your writing. So what does this phrase mean? And how do we apply it to our creative writing lives?

Whenever you’re good at something, you’re bad at something else.

When you’re really devoting yourself to your poems or fiction, something else is necessarily being given the slip in your life. It might be your schoolwork, or it could be your time with your family; it could be all those projects you wanted to do, like learning to cook or training for a 10K or eating more healthily or getting into college. At any one time, we’re trying to manage and juggle a busy life full of expectations, obligations, and demands. The truth of our modern lives is that we can’t be awesome at everything at the same time.

But the secret is, we CAN be awesome at some things some of the time.

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You’re a Big Failure. Here’s How to Succeed.

I got your attention, didn’t I? It’s very rare for people to actually tell us that we’ve failed. And yet there’s probably no more universal a feeling than the feeling of failure. It happens when we do badly on a test or lose a race; for writers and creative folks, it happens when we get that rejection in the mail, or just when we look at the great yawning gap between what we want to achieve and what we have actually done. There’s no worse a feeling than when we fail, and we begin to doubt everything we’re doing. We begin to think that one failure, or a series of failures, means we ourselves are failures; maybe there’s just something fundamentally lacking and untalented in our cores.

The secret is, everyone is a big, flailing failure.

Attending a conference panel discussion on failure recently, I felt the whole audience breathing a sigh of relief as each accomplished, published, award-winning writer on the panel admitted to us that they, too, were failures. The writers told us about the days when everything seemed to be going wrong; when no one would read their work, or thought they could succeed. At that stage of their careers, they needed to hear about other people’s failures, because it can be heartening, sometimes, to remember that other people go through this too.

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Why Television will Suck Out Your Soul. And Be So, So Fun.

I know I’m not supposed to admit this, because I’m supposed to be a Big Fancy Writer who doesn’t waste time on non-literary pursuits — but I. Love. Television. I always have. The love affair began when my mother dug a tiny black-and-white TV out of a neighbor’s trash to have something to watch while she was on her treadmill in the basement. When my older sister was hogging the regular tv I’d go down there and stand on the treadmill — literally, just stand there — in order to watch Saturday cartoons. It was cold and damp and dark in the basement, and the little half-broken TV only got three channels and had a horizontal stripe across the screen that scrolled slowly up and down the image, but I didn’t care.

My first TV love was cartoons, and I continued to love them well past the age considered appropriate. I watched Nickelodeon devotedly. When my older sister was watching MTV, I rolled my eyes. We had to have a strict turn-switching system, and when it was my turn, I went straight back to Rugrats or Hey Arnold.

Then later on, I discovered grown-up TV. When the good HBO shows started coming out, my parents rented them on DVD a year after the fact and I watched Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I saw more violence and sex than was probably usual for my age, but I was more captivated by the stories than anything else. For that reason, Sex and the City was always something of a drag to me — weak storytelling that doesn’t age well — but The Sopranos was a family event.

There was a slowing down period in college, but when I got my own place and got a tv that actually got more than five channels, it was hard to control for a while. I could watch silly reality TV or serious educational shows on PBS; I could watch old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr’s enormous shoulders filling the screen. I loved it all. Time that I could have spent reading studiously or writing diligently has been wasted staring into the silver screen.

Why is television so powerfully attractive? It’s hard to say. But I’d argue it uses the same storytelling techniques that make for compelling fiction — just to even greater effect. Great and bad tv shows alike use suspense and drama and surprise; they let you sink into a deepening and broadening world. The really excellent shows in our day — Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Downtown Abbey, and so on — are more like novels than anything else, giving us a large and complex and deep immersion into a fictional world. They tap into the same wells of storytelling hunger that all of us feel.

Television can be delightful as well. There are teams of writers out there right now, whole mobs, sitting around tables and working out ways to make you laugh. They’re funny. Good, serious books are not as funny as often, because television shows have the advantage of the visual cue. A sideways look, a pratfall, a bit of slapstick and we can laugh.

But as I began this post, I want to point out that television also has a funny way of — well, sucking out your soul. Of draining you of creativity, of originality, of energy. Even with all the fun and suspense and surprise.

Have you ever had one of those weekend nights, where you started sitting on the couch after dinner, and hours later you find yourself sinking to the floor in a pile of chip crumbs, the last hours of your life an uncertain haze? Anyone who watches television seriously has had a night like this. The way the shows loop endlessly together, the way our favorite shows are always available in rerun, the way even the commercials know how to pull us in with a cheery jingle and funny joke — all these techniques have been precisely calculated to suck the creative life right out of you. 

The problem is that bad television really is bad. It’s clichéd, lazy storytelling. It relies on absurd and offensive stereotypes or sex appeal. When you are passively consuming the same clichéd storyline over and over, you become a little deadened to the possibilities of story. You forget to imagine that other people exist beyond the bro, the shopaholic girl, the nuclear family. You forget that other races and genders and countries have perspectives. You forget what your own perspective is, and you begin to think you’re just like those two-dimensional figures you see on the screen.

I’m thinking about the new series Fresh off the Boat, which has rightly been garnering some praise and excitement for its humor, sharp writing, and bold new choices. But then I can’t help but feel stunned that it’s such a big deal. This is a fairly typical family sitcom — but everyone’s going wild over this one because it’s only the second television show to ever star an Asian-American family — and the first in nearly twenty years. How absurd is that?

Bad TV irons out any of the bumps and wrinkles of humanity; it has only about five to seven possible storylines for all characters to follow. It’s insulting to our humanity and it can really ruin a day’s worth of creativity.

So how can we resist? I know we all need our guilty pleasures. I began this piece talking about how much I love the experience of watching television. I love sinking into that spot on the couch after a long day and relaxing a bit into a familiar story, a beautiful vista, or the life of a character I know. I like being educated and informed; I like learning something about lions in Kenya or the state of Ukraine. But I also like watching voyeuristic reality tv or sitcom reruns I’ve already seen. I’ll probably always love television, and I want to say that without shame. But I know what makes me feel good beyond the time of reading or watching; it’s reading that makes me feel richer and fuller and happier long after the book has been closed. With television, the moment of pushing the power button is filled with a feeling of regret. What just happened to those two hours of my life?


The Rising Rollercoaster of AWP

AWP! Each year that you attend this massive conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, each year you crack open the wallet and plunge for the airfare to another city you’ve never visited, your emotions are taken on a wild climb, dip, and climb. For those of you unfamiliar, the thing that briefly took over the writerly corner of Twitter this week was an annual conference held in different cities each year for writers and all their ilk. It includes back to back panels led by publishers, agents, and writers, as well as a massive bookfair in which every literary magazine and MFA program under the sun has booths, tote bags, cheerful interns, and endless swag. It’s an exhilarating time for writers, particularly because we are a solitary lot, and it provides a time for socializing, boozing, and a healthy dose of motivation. 

I’ve been twice now, and it can feel a bit like a ten-year high school reunion that’s held every year. The first year, in Boston, I was barely out of my MFA program and somewhat terrified at the idea of talking to anyone. I couldn’t imagine nosing my way into a conversation or confidently speaking about my work. I had business cards made up but ended up giving them to no one. The panels were informative but I don’t think I was fully ready to absorb much of their advice. What a change a few years makes!

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Too Much, Too Many! What to do When Too Many Projects Grab Your Attention

I’m in a tizzy half the time these days, readers. With a bit more free time and warm weather on the rise, it seems that a new writing idea is growing on every tree, popping up out of manhole covers as I walk down the street, tapping me on the shoulder as I sit in my chair. I’ve started half a dozen short flash fiction pieces and have two short stories partway in the works, and I’m still working hard on a major revision of my novel.

It’s great to have ideas, but there comes a point when your brain starts shrieking, too much, too many! My attention is scattered to the four winds as I struggle to bring any of these projects home. There’s just too much pulling at me in these different stories I’m crafting. Have you ever had this problem? Have you been working on three poems and a novel and two stories and that creative essay for school all at once? The feeling can be exhilarating, but having too much going on can actually lead our work to suffer. What will happen is that when the going gets tough on one story, I’ll just effortlessly jump over to another project — and if I keep jumping this way, dodging any difficult work or giving up when one story doesn’t please me, I’ll end up with ten unfinished projects grumbling in a drawer.

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What Will You Do with the Joys of Spring?

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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