Honoring the Craft

Amy PaturelBy Amy Paturel

You might have heard the platitude “those who can’t do, teach.” Obviously, I don’t agree with that theory. I’m a teacher. Plus, I have several friends and acquaintances who defy that logic. And yet, I also recognize that teaching makes doing a lot more challenging.

A former student, who is also a writer and professor, likens teaching to a “joyful bloodletting” whereby you insert an IV into your vein and suck all of the creativity out of your bloodstream.

While it isn’t quite that intense for me, I’m also not teaching full time (though it feels like full time!). What I have noticed since the coronavirus pandemic began, and I started feeling pulled to reach more students, is that I have to be more intentional about my craft. I have to make it a priority not only to read my students’ work, but also to tackle my own. What that requires, of course, is discipline — something I’ve been sorely lacking!

Here’s the thing: For weeks, I had been writing an essay my mind, and occasionally in my journal. A piece that required me to only sit in front of a computer and think thoughtfully for a chunk of time. The problem was, with three kids, a husband, four jobs, and two ongoing workshops, well, I didn’t have a chunk of time!

So, I decided to approach my essay writing like any other assignment (to a degree). The key prop: A timer! But I’m jumping ahead. Allow me to back up and walk you through my process step by step.

  1. Be spontaneous. Don’t wait for the right time, or the best time, or the time when you have uninterrupted time. Just sit down with a pad of paper, or pull up a blank document, and go for it. You’ll hear people tell you to block out time in your calendar or make an appointment with yourself. If that works for you, GO FOR IT! If not, be spontaneous about it. Me? I wrote at the picnic table while my kids rode their bikes around me. I recorded notes on my phone will driving to the grocery store. I worked within the confines of my reality.
  2. Use a timer. If I could offer only one suggestion to alleviate writer’s block, it would be: Get yourself a timer. Theo Pauline Nestor addresses this in her book, Writing is My Drink (highly recommend, by the way). I’ve heard the same advice delivered on several writer’s podcasts (The Beautiful Writer’s Podcast frequently addresses this idea, but I can’t recall the specific episodes). The Cliff’s Notes: Set a timer for 15 minutes, or even 5, and put pen to paper. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, read “Working it Out.”
  3. Make a plan. I don’t mean plot out how you’re going to find the time, energy, enthusiasm, fill-in-the-blank, to write the essay, but make a plan to get the thing done. And come up with a really cool reward when you knock it out of the park.
  4. Build in accountability. Sometimes just telling someone you plan to write a story about X, Y, Z builds in a certain level of accountability. It could be a friend, a partner, a fellow writer. It doesn’t matter who it is, but it helps if the person will say, “hey, how’s that story coming along?”
  5. Be prepared to go off course. Starting an essay comes with its own set of risks. If you’re anything like me, once you really dig in, you can’t let go. I become like a dog with a meaty bone. I sink my teeth in, and I can’t release. So, yes, I started that essay, but then I became obsessed. I thought about it day and night, trying to figure out the crux of the story, word smithing paragraphs while I was half asleep, and jotting down notes at every opportunity. Despite a full workload, two contract positions with daily deliverables, and several students who want and deserve timely feedback, all I really wanted to do was write the damn story — and make it sing. Turns out, I’m well on my way.

This blog was originally published on July 7, 2020, at amypaturel.com


ABOUT AMY: Amy Paturel has been crafting essays for more than two decades and teaching personal essay writing for more than 15 years. Her personal and reported essays frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Discover, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and more. Two of her pieces were featured in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column, and she garnered two “honorable mention” awards in ASJA’s personal essay category (2009 and 2011).


CRAFT A BETTER ESSAY WITH AMY: Join Amy for a Charlotte Lit month long Studio Writing the Personal Essay beginning October 24th, online. This personal essay writing intensive will guide you through generating interesting essay ideas to a salable piece. More information here.

Nervous

Judy Goldman

“Whenever something good happens to you regarding your writing, you just get nervous,” my daughter tells me. She’s talking about when I’m on my way to publication, when I get a positive review, when I win a prize.

What’s also true is that when something bad happens to me regarding my writing (publication impossible, bad review, no prize), I get nervous.

Rejection makes me nervous because it confirms what I often believe to be true about myself.  Acceptance also makes me nervous because I’m convinced some major rejection is next.

For years, I’ve told students in my workshops they need to possess both arrogance and insecurity to be a writer.  Arrogance enables you to think that what you write might matter to somebody else.  Insecurity forces you to keep going back to your work to revise, to strive to make it better.

But what role does nervousness play?  And what is the key to getting rid of that nervousness or, at least, tone it down a notch?  How do you become a person who approaches writing with a sense of calm?

Be a dead writer?

Maybe.

But if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and we need to work with that.  Is there some trade secret all the successful writers know?

Ann Enright, an Irish writer, says, “Writing is mostly a case of mood management.”

So how do you manage your mood?

Well, this is what not managing your mood looks like:

  1. Praise paralyzes you.  You think, surely they’re just trying to make you feel good.  Or maybe the praise is sincere, but they don’t know good writing, so you can’t trust them.  Or maybe they know good writing and meant what they said, but you know all that could change in an instant.
  2. You know you’ll never get it right.  It’s the contrast between the image in your mind of the work you want to create vs. what actually ends up on paper.  How they rarely match.  If only readers could see inside your head, they’d know what a fabulous writer you are.
  3. You’re so afraid of failure, you don’t take risks.  Your inner critic is forever blowing the whistle.   Maybe you stop yourself before you even begin, before you take the risk of writing at all.
  4. What’s the use? is your mantra.

And what is really excellent mood management?

Persisting.  Persevering.  Without discouragement or bravado.  With curiosity.  With wide-eyed wonder.  With the attitude that anything can happen — and so what? Regardless, you’re right there, at your sturdy little desk, pecking away.  The writer, Fred Leebron, once said to me: “It’s a war of attrition.  Don’t attrish.”

So, it turns out the key to continuing to write even while riddled with nerves is to continue writing even while riddled with nerves.  It’s the trade secret every successful writer knows.  It’s also the problem every successful writer struggles with.


ABOUT JUDY: Judy Goldman is the author of seven books – three memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry.  Her new memoir, Child, will be published May 2022. Her recent memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) was named one of the best books of 2019 by Real Simple magazine and received a starred review from Library Journal.

Her first memoir, Losing My Sister, was a finalist for both SIBA’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the year.  She received the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the Mary Ruffin Poole First Fiction Award, as well as the three prizes awarded for a poetry book by a North Carolinian and Silverfish Review Press’s Gerald Cable Prize.  She received the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for “outstanding generosity to other writers and the larger community,” the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College, and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University.

Her work has appeared in USA Today, Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, Real Simple, LitHub, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.