Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: writing process

“Getting Good” as a Writer

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

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On Rejection

For anyone who writes and seeks to publish their work, rejection is just a fact of life. Many times I’ve started entries like this one decrying how hard it is to get anything published, from a short short story to a novel. Thankfully, I’ve deleted most of them.

Being in a sunnier mood at the moment, I thought I’d offer some more positive thoughts on rejection, trying to put it into perspective.

A reality check, though: being “positive” really just means better coming to grips with what is a very grim reality. Two object lessons that will quantify that grimness:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 11.06.26 AM

This is a screen shot from my Duotrope account, which (among other things) tracks submissions. It indicates that of the 31 submissions I’ve sent out over the past 12 months, I have a 4.2% acceptance rate.

Terrible, right? My work must be pretty bad, right? Actually, if you check out the note at the very bottom of this image, you will see that that pathetic 4.2% represents a better than average response rate (from the journals to which I submitted). So much so, Duotrope is congratulating me!

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Notes for Next Time

(I was tempted to title this something flashy and contemporary-seeming, like “One Weird Trick to Make It Easy to Jump into Writing,” but opted for the more prosaic title you see above.)

Anyway, a note stemming from last night’s meeting of my “Writing Studio” class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (Briefly, this is a class whose purpose is to offer writers of all genres/backgrounds the time to write, with some hopefully-stimulating elements like a weekly craft talk, exercise prompts, discussion time, the option to share pages with me and get feedback. Basically, think of an open studio in pottery or painting—it’s like that, but with writing.) Two meetings in, the class has been great fun and very stimulating—for me but, far more importantly, for the students, a number of whom have told me they’ve been enjoying it and getting lots done.

We had a great discussion regarding writing process, and someone brought up Hemingway’s practice of stopping a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence so that he’d have a natural and easy place to start the following day.

This prompted me to share something I do when I stop writing for the day that has come to seem so natural, I quite forgot that I’d ever not done it. The students seemed interested, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

Going off the Hemingway practice, which was designed so that Papa could stop when there was more to be written and it would be fairly clear, the following day, what should come next, I have gotten into the habit of marking the place where I’m going to pick up tomorrow and then writing a short note about what I think can or will happen next.

For example, here’s what I wrote at the end of today’s work on a piece that I think will eventually add up to a novel:

“echoes of Homewood, someone saw him give Malaki a hug and wants a hug too; asks Pete’s advice on Hilda”

This will of course be complete nonsense to you, but it means something to me and when I begin work on this piece tomorrow I can look at this and remember what I thought might be a good next step.

I have the option to follow those notes as if they were a blueprint, but it’s only an option. What I think is important is that these ideas present suggestions I can consider following (and decide to do something else—for instance, I might decide this bit about the hug is stupid, after all, and ignore it), begin to follow and then change course, or follow to the letter if I’m simply not feeling very original (or if I still agree with these ideas).

As I said, this has become a thing I do unconsciously when writing, as ingrained as having a cup of coffee nearby and my internet connection disabled. But several of the students remarked that picking up the thread of a piece of writing often costs them a bit of time and effort each time they get started back up on something, and I remembered that that used to be an issue for me, too. Hopefully this is an idea that can be beneficial to somebody out there.

On Writing Badly

I’m not sure when I became a fanatic about the writing process. It was probably not until after I got my MFA in fiction writing that I settled into a more coherent process of writing a free-flowing, often somewhat sloppy first draft, then going back to it to rewrite and revise. Up to that point, I had steadily become much more comfortable writing every day, and often writing a lot in terms of word count. That was a positive development for me as a writer, but as I’m just beginning to fully appreciate now, that was only part of the final evolution.

For a long time—as far back as high school—I’d really valorized writing every day, and especially of hitting a word-count goal like 1,000 words (which I’d seen recommended in Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, one of my early writing heroes). At some point, this became a religion for me, and I felt I had to write 1,000 new words or I hadn’t worked at all. This belief lasted a long time, well through graduate school. (I can see now that the facet of grad school I most enjoyed and appreciated, having the time to write, prolonged this mania for daily writing, because I usually had enough time to write 1,000 words and look over a draft of an earlier story. That’s an ideal situation, and it didn’t necessarily prepare me for having a day job and only being able to scrape up about 45 minutes of writing time. In the real world, sometimes you have to choose.)

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve made peace with the notion that revising can be a day’s work. I held myself back for a long time by insisting on writing 1,000 words of something new when I had a finished draft of something else getting cold in a Word file on my computer. It seemed like I never had time to go back and work through those finished drafts, and the obvious—letting myself off the writing hook for a few days—was something I wouldn’t even consider.

Today, I’d go further than allowing that revising can be a day’s work and say that it’s practically the start of my work as a writer. It’s the stage of the process you’re aiming for when you sit down and hammer out that sloppy draft. It’s the stage where you get to think about what you’re saying, and look critically at this character and ask if he makes sense, if he could add to the tension in this scene, if he even belongs in this story. Everything is up for debate at the revision stage. You’re working at double your own capacity, because you’ve put your wild, unconstrained self on the page and now your critical self gets to have a look and pick out all the places where the wild self has created opportunities, along with those choices that just don’t work.

A book that helped me to appreciate what revision even is is The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I remember reading this during the period between college and graduate school and wrestling with one of the key points that Koch makes, which is that after that first draft, you should essentially throw out what you’ve written before. You should be married to nothing in that first draft.

This was not dramatically different from what I’d read and been told other places, but Koch seemed to pointedly answer questions I’d been asking without realizing it. Not even questions so much as doubts, statements of skepticism and disbelief: So when I revise, I’m literally rewriting the story? Every single page? Before this, I’d thought of revising the way many young writers do: going through an existing draft changing some words around and cleaning up typos. (For this reason I spend a lot of time, possibly too much time, in all my writing classes unpacking the differences between proofreading, copyediting, and “real” revision.) Koch’s book helped me accept that yes, a working novelist will literally write her 250-page novel again, multiple times, in the process of drafting. It had always seemed somehow impossible that “real” writers did that.

Accepting that and committing to deep revision was a good first start. And it was liberating, in its way: these are the rules, and ifI wanted to produce my best work, I simply had to accept that this was what it took to produce something worth reading.

But since that time, I’ve not only gotten comfortable with this sort of deep revision, I’ve even gotten good at it. And that has yielded an additional benefit that I was not even aware I was missing out on. The benefit is alluded to in the title of this post. It’s the freedom to write badly.

Admittedly, writing badly is something I’ve probably always done, though unwittingly. But now I am confident enough in my ability to fix and dramatically re-work things at the revision stage that even when it’s painfully obvious that I am writing badly, I don’t stop or become discouraged by that knowledge. To be sure, it never feels great to write badly, and a whole day can later seem indefinably “off” if I’ve spent a morning writing badly, but I know that the trash I wrote in the morning can be fixed when I go back to the finished thing at some later point.

I’ve been thinking about this fairly simple point lately because I’ve been working on a novel that, for one reason or another, has been coming out quickly. I had a period of a week or so where I was writing many, many pages a day, on one or two days 5,000 words or more. That is kind of crazy, and when you write 5,000 words you are surely sacrificing quality. I would not want someone to publish the novel as it currently exists, because there’s certainly something embarrassing in the pages that emerged from these marathon sessions.

But in working this way on this project, I’m able to accept 1) that I’m writing badly and 2) that this is just a stage in the process; I can clean this all up later. Being confident in my ability to revise later and make this all make sense, make the characters more coherent, make their dialogue smoother and more believable, allows me to generate material at a rate that I could never match if I still labored under the misconception that every sentence I write has got to be good.

Worrying about writing well at every turn has been a great habit to grow out of, and I hope my students (and readers of this blog) can work their way past it as well.

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.