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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Leslie Jamison

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Leslie Jamison. Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (2010), a novel about "three generations of 'wounded women' in an exquisite blues of a novel," says Booklist. She grew up in L.A. but currently splits her time between New Haven and Iowa City.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Leslie Jamison, author of THE GIN CLOSET) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

Leslie is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Cathe won.)

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Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (2010),
a novel about "three generations of 'wounded women'
in an exquisite blues of a novel," says Booklist. Publishers
Weekly gave the book a starred review. Jamison grew
up in L.A. but currently splits her time between New
Haven and Iowa City. A graduate of Harvard College
and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she is currently a
PhD candidate in American literature at Yale University.
See her website here.

1. Remember what brings you joy. Whenever I’ve been stuck on a project, it’s always brought me solace to the return to books that moved me in the past. It’s a nice way to get outside my own head; and it brings me back to one of the most important reasons I write at all: to bring some pleasure to readers, to make them think or feel.

2. Dissect what brings you joy. Coming back to what you love isn’t just an inspirational venture, it’s a pragmatic one as well. Sometimes I read to lose myself, but other times I pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the work. How does it create suspense? When do I start caring about characters and why? Where am I surprised? Some works I know I don’t want to break open like this. They exist somewhere else for me, somewhere beyond this kind of probing. But plenty of books I only love more after I examine them like this. They can re-enchant my own work once it’s gone dead to me.

3. Take time away. After finishing a draft, no matter how rough, I almost always put it aside for a while. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story or a novel, I find that when it’s still fresh in my mind I’m either thoroughly sick of its flaws or completely blind to them. Either way, I’m unable to make substantive edits of any value. Instead of beating myself up for weeks, feeling like I’m not making progress, I’ll just force myself not to work on the piece at all—work on something else, or attend to the non-writing parts of my life (family, cleaning my house) in the interim. Then I come back to the work with fresh eyes, able to recognize its flaws and virtues more plainly—to trim those weak sections I hadn’t been able to imagine parting with, and find myself once more inspired by the strong writing I’d temporarily lost faith in.

4. Cut. For me, this follows naturally from taking time away. When I come back to work after a while, I’m not shackled by the same rigid notions of what it’s about—or what makes it good. I free myself up to feel out the energy of the piece—to follow what crackles and abandon what doesn’t. A story about a man and a giraffe might actually become a story about the same man and his spurned lover, twenty years before. (This happened to me once.) The point of view might change, or the central plot twist. With a bit of distance, everything becomes fluid again. It’s one of the most liberating things I experience in writing—letting yourself get rid of a gesture or character or plot point that always nagged, even if you couldn’t admit to yourself that it did.

5. Before you try to sell a project, start another one. This lesson was pretty simple. Before my agent sent out my novel to editors, I made sure that I was thoroughly excited about my next book project. This wasn’t for the sake of my career so much as for the sake of my own mental health. If I hadn’t had another project on the horizon—a project I felt genuinely enthused about, and committed to—I would have spent my hours doing nothing but obsessing over the fate of my book. Which offers a nice segue into my nice lesson…

6. Don’t lose yourself in reactions. My work has been dismissed so many times I couldn’t even begin to keep track of the rejections. People loved one voice in my novel or else they loved the other one. People thought the ending was too dark. People thought it resolved too much, too neatly. People have found my writing soulless and overly emotional and pretentious and melodramatic. At a certain point, I realized that if I wrote in response to these critiques, I’d be left pointing in every direction at once. Which isn’t to say: don’t listen. Only to say: give listening its due space, and nothing more.

7. Work with people you can talk to. The publishing industry, unsurprisingly, is full of different people who love different things and express that love in different languages. Find the people, the editors and agents, with whom you share some language, and some sense of what makes literature worth reading. Don’t go with an agent because he’s famous. Go with him because he finds your work important for the same reasons you do. Keep the famous agent waiting in the wings, by all means—other agents will care that he’s there, and interested—but really think about the kinds of conversations you’ll have with the people who bring your work into the world. You won’t want to spend your time defending aesthetic choices or priorities for the entire journey.


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