Writing inspiration from Issa Rae

This week’s writing tip comes from an Issa Rae quote in Grace Bonney’s wonderful book titled: In the Company of Women.

It’s one thing to write every day – that’s already hard enough. But to complete something that you’re proud of, consistently, is a hard thing to do. I’ve started so many writing projects that I will never finish, just because I get discouraged or lazy or bored. I admire other creative women who say, “I’m going to finish no matter how horrible this piece of shit is.”

Writing tips: productivity, dissatisfaction, and happiness

This week’s writing tip begins with a quote from Chris Bailey’s book: The Productivity Project:

“Over the course of my project, I found that the best attitude to have with productivity is an odd one: to never be satisfied – but to continually find ways to cultivate happiness. Luckily, productivity, when done right, isn’t only one of the keys to happiness – happiness is one of the keys to productivity.

“The kinder you are to yourself as you become more productive, the more productive you will become.” (p 270)

Dissatisfaction is something Steven Taylor Goldsberry elaborates on in his book, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom. He calls it the “Get Used to Despair” rule number 6. “… Of all the arts, writing is perhaps the most difficult. It’s not a performing art, so you don’t have the immediacy of a live audience to let you know how you’re doing. It’s only black marks on white paper, so it’s not pretty like painting or architecture. Everyone thinks he can do it, so it has little prestige. It can be lonely work. (…)
“Are you sure you want to be a writer?
“If so, you must be willing to embrace the inevitable despair that accompanies meaningful creation.”
He includes a quote by J. B. Priestley:
“No matter how piercing and appalling his insights, the desolation creeping over his outer world, the lurid lights and shadows of his inner world, the writer must live with hope, work in faith.”

But let’s get back to happiness. In an interview with Tim O’Reilly, Gretchen Rubin asked what he has learned about happiness that he didn’t know when he was 18 and he responded, “(…) Decide what you need to do, make a habit of it, and come to love it rather than resent it. That applies to the habits of householding, to exercise and diet, to work, and to taking the time to reach out to friends and family. It is so easy to be full of resentment against the things that we feel are keeping us from our joy. Finding joy in what needs doing is magical.”

Writing tips: practicalities

This week’s edition deals with practical advice. First Chris Guillebeau in his daily podcast “Side Hustle School” offers a short guide about the steps involved in publishing a book. I enjoyed the overview and perhaps, if you haven’t looked into publishing a book, you might also like hearing Chris talk about it. It's titled "How to Get a Book Deal & Write a Book".

The second source comes from Chuck Wendig’s blog, in a post he titled “A Hot Steaming Sack of Business Advice for Writers”.

Writing tips from Brian Koppelman

In an archival episode of Design Matters, Debbie Millman interviews Brian Koppelman. In the course of the interview, Brian talks about what made him choose writing, what he used to overcome self-doubt, and how he quickly gets over the feeling of failure.

“…I’ve always had an awareness that if I’m not leading from a place of curiosity and fascination, I become sad and angry and miserable, and then I could be that way to the people that I love.”

“I think morning pages, because of Julia Cameron’s morning pages… (…) I started doing morning pages the way she talks about it, three longhand pages, freeform, not censoring yourself, not looking back and reading those pages, and in doing that I started to realize who I wanted to be, who I needed to be, and how to get there.”

“I learned how to put in place for myself, a protocol, a routine, so that I don’t get that way. I do morning pages, I meditate, I take long walks, I go somewhere and I start writing.”

Brian Koppelman's motivational Vines can be found here.

Briefly, reading & routine

Jane Kenyon writes:

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.” And, “Tell the whole truth. Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid. Close the critic out when you are drafting something new. Take chances in the interest of clarity of emotion.”

I wrote that quote down in one of my notebooks as the guiding light of last year’s resolution. I took my reading list seriously with the “good sentences” injunction even if I didn’t care for the story I was reading. I still keep that in mind. And I’m still reading.

But I can’t leave the quote like that. It could be misleading. Sure, it’s important to read, (and if you want advice on finding time to read, the Happier podcast recently released an episode on the subject).

For the rest? Some writers can’t often be alone, others take bike rides instead of walks, others don’t work regular hours. So while this quote might please and inspire some, it could be discouraging for others. In the latter case, don’t worry… Know yourself and what works for you. Tag along with Gretchen Rubin for a while if you like. Or remember what Sheryl Strayed said in her interview with Marie Forleo: “I’m a binge-writer, I’m not an everyday writer.” (It’s around 9 minutes in when they discuss routines vs “keeping the faith” over here.)

Don't expect your passion to pay you

This is an idea I've seen expressed in Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic, and now here, by Casey Neistat. It's another facet of something Brenda Ueland wrote in 1938 in If You Want To Write:

I want to assure you with all earnestness, that no writing is a waste of time, -no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.

Lessons from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There's always something you can learn about writing, and it's with that spirit that I recently picked up Big Magic from the library. Years ago, I remember reading a blog comment from someone who felt completely discouraged about their writing; how at their age, with their talent, they had hoped for greater success. For the longest time it remained a picture in my head, the uncomfortable reminder of a writer's greatest fear.

Then Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Big Magic and included an anecdote with just the right answer.

During the Q&A after the reading, a middle-aged man in the audience stood up and said something like this:

“Mr Ford, you and I have much in common. Just like you, I have been writing short stories and novels my whole life. You and I are about the same age, from the same background, and we write about the same themes. The only difference is that you have become a celebrated man of letters, and I – despite decades of effort – have never been published. This is heartbreaking to me. My spirit has been crushed by all the rejection an disappointment. I wonder if you have any advice for me. But please, sir, whatever you do, don’t just tell me to persevere, because that’s the only thing people ever tell me to do, and hearing that only makes me feel worse.”

Now I wasn’t there. And I don’t know Richard Ford personally. But according to my uncle, who is a good reporter, Ford replied, “Sir, I am sorry for your disappointment. Please believe me, I would never insult you by simply telling you to persevere. I can’t even imagine how discouraging that would be to hear, after all these years of rejection. In fact, I will tell you something else – something that may surprise you. I’m going to tell you to quit.”

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. Our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. But don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought: “However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did… well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

Isn't that lovely?

George Saunders

How irresistible is this title? "What writers really do when they write" was published in The Guardian earlier this month. George Saunders calls writing a "pursuit of specificity" and describes his treatment of a grouchy character:

I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.


Patti Smith's writing discipline

Alec Baldwin interviewed Patti Smith on his podcast Here's The Thing and 25 minutes in, he asked her about that period when she "went off the grid" for sixteen years and raised her two children. Alec Baldwin teases the creative quiet and asks if she painted. She answers no,

"...but I wrote everyday. I could never have written Just Kids or the books that I'm writing now had I not had 16 years of enforced discipline. 'Cause I've always been very undisciplined unless I had a job or something. But then having children, I had to learn to wake up at 5 in morning and from 5 to 8 was my writing time. Everybody was asleep and it was my time. And it was really hard at first, but then after awhile it got in a groove and I still write early in the morning and I really learned how to develop my craft."

Words help

I was reminded about the importance of words of encouragement, listening to a segment of This American Life recently. The story is called "Jesse's Girl" and is about a man who managed to con hundreds of other men by maintaining correspondence through a pen pal service.

What strikes me is that the letters didn't have to be especially personal, but their kind, encouraging tone was still enough to help some people through difficult phases of their life. The con aside, and the victims' vulnerability too, what matters is kindness. When you have the chance, don't hesitate to offer someone encouragement. Do it for free, do it without expectation, send a text, respond to an e-mail. Words matter!

The episode in question can be found here.

About blogging

I like blogging, I really do. Phil Lees wrote an article entitled: The Best Time To Start Blogging is Now.

Early on, bloggers never expected to be influential because there was a fair expectation that nobody would read your blog. Most of the time, nobody did. Now they’re no longer seen as influential because businesses have picked a different arbitrary and pointless metric to value online work.

The conditions of the early-2000s are back. Nobody looks for blogs actively. There’s a mounting ressentiment with the state of food and travel media. There is zero chance that bloggers will earn any money or wield any degree of influence.

I used to tell people that the best time to start a blog was ten years ago when the conditions were identical. I’m beginning to think the best time to start is now.

Writing tip: setting the tone

In a perfectly charming video about the Volkswagen ads in the 1960s, John O'Driscoll describes how the copywriter Bob Levinson set the tone of his writing.

"He put at the top of the copy: 'Dear Charlie' then wrote the copy as if he was talking to his best friend. And then he always put at the bottom: 'Yours sincerely and best, Bob.' And all he ever did was obliterate 'dear Charlie,' [and] take off the bottom bit. That's how they got the tone of voice."

Current inspiration: Alain de Botton

Writing about good communication, Alain de Botton describes an ideal person.

"They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability. They like themselves well enough to believe that they are worthy of, and can win, the goodwill of others if only they have the wherewithal to present themselves with the right degree of patience and imagination."

Via Brain Pickings

Keep writing

Seth Godin is full of motivation. In a blog post from July 2013 he writes:

The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often. Don't publish everything you write, but the more you write, the more you have to choose from.

Link here.

Current inspiration: Matthew Weiner

In an excerpt from a book titled Getting There: A Book of Mentors, the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner writes:

The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day, I would’ve written 500 pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends). Any contribution you make on a daily basis is fantastic. I still happen to write almost everything at once, but I now cut myself slack on all of the thinking and procrastination time I use. I know that it’s all part of my creative process.



Current inspiration: Michael Merschel

In an article explaining the lessons learned from the attention garnered by an out-of-office reply he created, Michael Merschel writes:

When you write, everything is literature. Your grocery list. The note to your wife. The email to your mom. Your out-of-office reply. If it's going to be read by someone, you owe it to them to make it worth their time.

Article here.


Writing is a mostly-solitary pursuit and I've often revisited this poem recited and performed by Tanya Davis. The video has been on Youtube since 2010. 

It begins: "If at first you are lonely, be patient." Toward the end she professes, "All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can't think like you, for this be relieved, [it] keeps things interesting."