“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Melissa Fraterrigo, author of GLORY DAYS) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. There are many ways to write.
When I was in my 20s, I visited the local coffee shop with my yellow legal pad, ordered a bottomless cup of coffee, flipped through my Moleskin, and waited for one of the jotted ideas to catch my attention. Then I’d sit and work for about two hours. If I worked really hard, I might stand up and reward myself with a brownie, and then I’d work a few more hours. Since then I’ve been a teacher, an editor, a wife, a mom, and my process has had to accommodate these changing responsibilities. A writing practice is not static. It will adjust according to your life circumstances and you should let it do just that. Rather than expecting to work the same way you did when you were 20 years old, it can be helpful to realize there are many different ways to get words on the page. I now understand that I am writing when I’m reading poetry and paying attention to the way the old man in line at the post office clutches a sheaf of papers to his chest. Much of writing is not just about crafting sentences, but refilling the well that gives you the impetus to create in the first place.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel GLORY DAYS (Sept., 2017, University of Nebraska Press) and the short story collection THE LONGEST PREGNANCY (Livingston Press). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah and The Massachusetts Review to storySouth, and Notre Dame Review. She is founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, IN, where she teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. Follow her online at https://twitter.com/Lafayettewrite.
2. Wake early.
I’ve never been a morning person, but now my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and I charge out of bed, excited to sit and write while the rest of my slumbers. There is something comforting about writing in the dark—literally and figuratively—and it has fueled my work in a way I could not have cultivated otherwise. When I write in the early morning I am able to tend to my own needs before anyone else in my family. I am able to listen to the voices that come to me as quiet as dandelion fluff or as sharp as broken glass—and give them their due.
3. Keep lit alive.
If you love literature, you must find a way to keep it alive in your community. You can teach or tutor, organize an open mic, or just offer to read a fellow writer’s work. Better yet, start a writer’s group where rather than workshopping pieces, you simply read them out loud to one another. The market for books continues to dwindle, and lovers of literature must do their part to keep the medium strong. Introducing others to the power of the written word and sharing what it is about literature that moves you deepens everyone’s awareness of literature’s reach—and benefits us all.
4. Get moving.
I’ve solved my greatest issues of plot and character while swimming laps at our local pool. When I’m swimming, I can only focus on the beat of my stroke, heartbeat whapping in my ears. Suddenly I can’t hear the doubts that circle a project, or the concerns that plague a draft. What I’m aware of is my breath and the voices of my characters, urging me forward.
5. Say thanks.
Writing and publishing is not a solitary enterprise. We stand on the backs of supportive friends and family, dedicated teachers, readers, and writers whose work we admire. If someone has helped you along the way, thank them! Is there an author whose work makes you swoon? Take the time to track down her email and send her a note of gratitude for her books. My fifth-grade science teacher took the time to attend a small coffee shop reading last month. While I was shocked that she seemed so much shorter than I remembered, I was also floored she chose to be present, and I made sure she knew it!
6. Be your own cheerleader.
There will always be people who believe that you do not have the experience or qualifications to write. They may believe that you aren’t bright or attractive or interesting enough to pen your memoir or novel. Accept that these naysayers must exist, just like the green fuzz that develops on old yogurt, and go on. Decide for yourself that you want to learn everything about writing and that the pursuit of this knowledge is enough. Rather than focusing on publication, concentrate on what you love about this work—is it the rush of the initial idea? Is it a crackly verb? When I left for graduate school to study fiction, my dad told me that I was wasting my time pursing an MFA; he said stories weren’t real. His opinion, but still. It remained with me. Yet his comment also set me free. I was no longer bound by his expectations because I didn’t believe them. I was thrilled to have two full years to study the craft of writing. Embrace your ideas and love for writing—and don’t let anyone else keep you from this pursuit.
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7. Keep the channel open.
One of my favorite quotes is by the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” Your job is not to judge your work, but to create it. If you don’t, who will? Commit yourself to your writing. You do so each time you wake early or stay up late to complete a page. Every time you tell friends you cannot meet them for drinks because you are working, or jot down a potential story idea, you recommit yourself to your art. If you put yourself in the seat and see the work you do as important, others will as well. And sometimes, it’s okay to treat yourself to that brownie.
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.