This is a guest post by my dear friend Bailey Brown.
This blog was suggested by a student of mine. I obliged.
There are lots of better and longer posts and books on writing. These are some of the things I've learned from them, as well as from projects I've done, whether they be academic or creative. Also, I am someone who works better when I am making a lot of things. Not everyone is. Take this advice with that particular grain of salt.
Make (and keep) appointments. This has got to be the most important thing: to make stuff, you have to show up and make it. I set up times in my week that I have to sit down and work on stuff, whether that means setting aside a couple of mornings to write before work, or meeting up with some students who have homework and working on my stuff while they work on theirs. These appointments have to be real, as in, very difficult to break. If you are making a practice of creating (as in, not only trying to complete one project but planning on creating more afterward, even if they are nebulous) these appointments need to be daily. If you are wanting to start a blog or something of a similar size, weekly appointments are probably fine.
Inspiration happens when you're already moving. "Inspire" initially meant "to breathe into." As with exercise, creating starts off anaerobic, and becomes aerobic when you keep going. You'll get inspired when you are making the thing. Give your creative lungs a reason to breathe in. You can edit out the clunky stuff later. Your ideas also need a chance to breathe. Don't stifle ideas until you've given them a shot at being alive. Some ideas are stupid. Some great ideas don't sound great at first. Both you and your ideas will get there once you start to move.
Writing is rewriting (the SFD). Anne Lamott calls it the "sh**ty first draft." Diana Glyer calls it "the Discovery Draft." When I text, I call it "the SFD." This is the draft that has one purpose: to be done. It's not great, and in fact it's okay if there is not a single piece of the SFD that can remain in its current form
Break Projects™ into smaller projects. When I'm writing a short story, I have to give myself space between writing the first draft and starting the process of revision. Editing also needs to come after another break. Basically, "write a story" is too big. "Write an SFD" is just right. Find realistic stopping points for yourself that give you motivation to finish the project and also permission to breathe.
Bricks and birds. Writing an entire page is a challenge. Writing a sentence is a little easier, especially when you know you can go back and make the sentence smart. Anne Lamott discusses this in her book on writing, Bird By Bird. I also remember Nehemiah telling the people living in Jerusalem not to worry about rebuilding the whole wall, and to just work on the wall right in front of their house. Brick by brick, bird by bird, the thing will get done.
Rotation. I write in a lot of genres and despite some well-intended concern from several interested parties, it doesn't seem likely that I am going to settle one just one. After some trial and error, I've found that switching genres every month works for me. It lights a fire under my butt to get to a stopping point within a month, and it also gives me a light at the end of the tunnel. When I finish a month-project early (which happened in both April and May) I have the option to either start the next month's work, or take a break until the new month. In April, I brought three smaller projects (all of which were in various stages-- only one was a concept at the beginning of the month) to completion. This month, I did a big project and I'm letting me rest.
Basic health is creative health. There's no such thing as someone struggling to function who is also making really spectacular art. They're working on the good days (or good enough days). I don't revise well when I'm sad. I don't write well when my stomach hurts. Take care of your body.
Accept that you can't create un-resourced. Absorb art in your medium. Read. Look at paintings. Listen to music. And then do that 100 more times. I've found that I need to read about 80-100 pages of writing to really turn out a page I'm proud of (in the end product).
The Good Talk Ratio. If you talk too little about a project, you might feel like it's not worth making. If you talk about it too much, your brain will believe the work is already done. Figure out the people in your life who care enough about your work to hear about it and will push you to get it done.
Get the feedback. Find people who will be honest about your work and help you make it better. You'll need encouragement. You'll need opposition. You'll need hugs. Find the people who can give the right kind of feedback to make you make stuff better. Once the SFD is done, it's time to make a better draft. And another. And another. Also, your feedback people will be able to tell you when to take your claws out of the work and let it breathe. I have a friend who edits most of my fiction and non-fiction during at least two stages of the process. When she says a story is done, I know it's done. For more on getting the right kind of feedback, read Bandersnatch by Diana Glyer.
Believe it's worth doing. You want to make things. Make them! The world needs more reckless optimism; it needs more people making stuff because they want to. To create is healing, in the most painful way. Be brave! Make the thing. Set the alarm in your phone: tomorrow's the day I write the sentence, draw the first line, take the first photo, edit the first frames. It's gonna be great. Make sure you stick with it long enough to see it.
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My fiction isn't about pretty people doing pretty things, and even more rarely is it about Christian people doing Christian things-- usually, it tackles questionable characters making questionable decisions (either objectively, as in "Synesthesia", or by getting caught up in really terrible situations, as in "Thorn"). Sometimes, there's an element of horror, or mystery, or the toss-up between inevitability and agency. A lot of well-meaning Christians in my life have asked why: why write messy work? Why muddy the waters? Why not inspire?
It's a tired cliche: success is hard to define. It's also a truth universally acknowledged that everyone has an idea of what success means. Money, relationships, personal fulfillment, product, promotion, and a host of other things usually go into it. Generally, growth is tied up in success as well-- "getting a boyfriend" becomes "getting a husband" becomes "having kids" becomes "sending them to college;" promotions never stop; there's never too much money (for most of us).
One of the parts of being out of college (and not having returned to one as a teacher) is that I no longer have a summer. Sure, I will be returning to teaching at an annual theatre summer camp, but it's not the same thing as having months off, dedicated to doing something different than what I do nine months out of the year. There are summers I wasted and summers I didn't, and so I've put together this blog post of ways I'm glad I spent summers, with notes on things that might not apply to everyone. No one actually thinks doing nothing is the right idea unless they really, really need to.
When it comes to community and societal solutions to problems, there's an impulse to find the Answer™. There's a notion that, if only we can find the right fix to the problem, it will go away, permanently. The other side (and, frankly, it doesn't matter what side) doesn't have actual solutions -- they have "band-aids," tiny, meaningless fixes that aren't going to cause real change.
Today, I'm going to try to write the three to five hundred words I promised myself (and my website) I would produce every Friday, including the bad ones. They will exist, even if they aren't what anyone else wanted me to write about, even if no one reads them. I can only show up and do the work, press "save and publish," and be content in the showing up part. There's no making plants grow once they're in the ground, there's just tending the land and letting God do the thing. Writing, especially in the world we live in, works much the same way.
One thing I did not expect about my twenties is how many times I would have to break up with versions of myself. The fantasies of the future that are only possible to paint on the walls of Plato's cave, that evaporate when the light shifts, keep dissolving. From what I understand, this process is not going to stop any time soon.
In my thesis presentation, I mentioned that I loved Marvel Comics, and that there is nothing too stupid to love. A professor challenged me on it (read: said "that's not true but it's a nice sentiment"). I think I'm writing this in response to that moment. See, nothing is a strong word, but there really isn't very much that's too stupid to love, even if for the moment. What Marvel taught me (however clumsily) was how to build a universe out of separate stories -- yes, there are better versions of that, but I learned the language I needed to love them through Thor/Wolverine crossovers. Sure, there are better books about fate/will... but for a lot of kids, The Fault in our Stars did the trick.
My former thesis mentor and now regular part-time mentor met for coffee. I think I looked less tired than I did during my thesis (I am hoping to always look less tired than I did during my thesis). He advised me, as he did during my last meeting as his official master's candidate, to read more, to spend time breathing and doing what made my soul feel rested. Unlike the last time I got this advice, I've been trying to take it. Instead of writing everything, all the time, forever, I'm working on one project every month. If I want to do the same one for two months, I can, but at the moment I have the freedom to work on one project at a time, rather than keeping twenty thousand (okay, maybe five) spinning plates in the air. And I have to fundamentally change the way I look at productivity.
During my early childhood, both of my parents were in full-time ministry, serving in our very small, and very poor, church. There wasn't enough money, and eventually they left ministry and got day jobs: Mom started a landscaping company and Dad worked in hotel maintenance and management, but not the fancy kind. We moved from lower class to lower middle class, and eventually into the beginnings of the middle of the middle class (though that period was very short and--for other reasons--unpleasant).