Questions Writers Ask

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My students’ desks mid-way through Memoir Writing workshop.

This week, I’m teaching my Memoir Writing week-long worskhop for Interlochen College of Creative Arts in northern Michigan. This is the sixth year in a row I have taught this program and it never ceases to motivate and inspire me. So many people have talent. So many people yearn to tell their stories. But very few of those people do the hard work it takes to meet their goals. When I teach at Interlochen, I meet people who I know will meet their goals. I can tell by the way the lean in closely during lectures, by the deep questions they ask during discussions, and the hard skills and attention they apply to their writing over the course of the week.

Year after year, each group is different…but many groups do have some of the same questions about the writing life. Here are few that always come up, along with my very abbreviated answers:

  • Do you have to know why you are writing something before you begin? Does it have to have a point?

No. Not at all. Writing for discovery or without an agenda that you’re attached to is one of the best ways to set yourself up for success. Besides, chances are pretty good that if you think you know what you’re writing about before you begin, you’re wrong. By the end of draft three, or draft ten, the REAL heart of the matter will pulse through your pages. THEN the “so what?” factor should be clear. THEN, you know why you felt compelled to write what you did.

  • What tools do you need at your desk to write really well?

Focus. Determination. Uninterrupted work time. An open mind. A curious mind. Patience. No fancy desks, chairs, or computers required. Though a good rule of thumb to follow is the 20-20-20 rule: Every twenty minutes stand up for 20 seconds and look 20 feet into the distance. But really, folks, the biggest challenge many writers I teach face today has to do with discursiveness and the lure of the Internet. Here’s a post about that.

  • I wrote something. Now what?

Keep writing. You may hate your draft. You may think it’s perfect. In either case, you’re wrong. But what you’re right about is this: if you’re still feeling interested in writing (whether working more on that draft, or writing in general), then follow that feeling. Keep writing. Amass pages (fifty, a hundred, 25 poems, three short stories…four chapters…), BEFORE entertaining any questions of doubt. Keep writing (did I say that yet?). And read. Read like you read as a child. Devour books. Figure out the HOW of works you admire, then apply it to your own work. PRINT YOUR PAGES and work by hand to revise. Revise again. Read the pages out loud. One more thing: keep writing.

Showing 2 comments
  • Holly Spaulding

    Such a good reminder to keep out the doubt. Do the work . . . give it time . . . then permit the mind to ask if it’s any good (and how, and where).

  • Anne-Marie Oomen

    Oh, all such smart advice. I am especially grateful to read PRINT YOUR PAGES. Such a good reminder that the screen is deceptive. Thank you!

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