How to Avoid Writing (Almost) Your Entire Life

Florence Ma. The Writer's Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Florence Ma. The Writer’s Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Michael Gruber says that if writing taught him anything, it was how to get used to failure.

The first book this writer published under his own name was at the age of 61. He says he avoided writing due to “a simple lack of confidence.” In the following interview (see below), Gruber explains his personal background and the forces that shaped him as a novelist. The key is that he didn’t identify himself as a writer, nor did he believe he was capable of being a “real” writer.

In other words, this man speaks to everything I’ve been studying for the hundred or so years I’ve worked on the underlying reasons for profound writer’s block, the kind that prevents you from writing for more than 45 years. I know from experience that this man’s perceptions and feelings are not unique, having listened to this story from writers at every step of the process. That’s why I so fervently believe these fears can be overcome, with the right kind of help, because why would you want to struggle with this alone? 

This interview comes via Author magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (of which I am a member).

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How to support a writer in eight (easy?) steps

Useful articles about writing—that actually say something I think is important and needs to be said—kept popping up in my inbox this week. These have been about how to better understand the writer’s psychological orientation.

This is good, because writers are, to a certain extent, misunderstood, so demythologizing writing and writers requires hearing from working writers (rather than reading biographies about writers-put-on-pedestals).

The following article I’ve selected is written by Robbie Blair, new to me, but written with honesty and clarity. The article comes via Seattle-based Writer.ly, a helpful startup for writers and those who employ them. I’ve met Writer.ly’s owners, and they’re very nice, although very busy, as one is when starting a business.  

Flow!

Now, from experience and years of research, it’s pretty clear that the biggest fear about dealing with writers (that is partially true, sadly, according to even more research) is that we are more vulnerable to mental illness than “normal” people and should be kept at arm’s length or handled with kid gloves. Writers, along with other creatives, are labelled early on in life as “different,” and then shoved into the proverbial garret to write alone.

We don’t make the consequent isolation easier to bear when that poor person who has cooked for you dares to disturb your sanctum only to be shouted at because you’re finally experiencing flow. They meant well, only to have their head bitten off. Oops. No more cookies, no more visits; now you’re really on your own.

Often, I suspect that people who do not identify themselves as creative shove us out of the way and then ignore our needs because we fascinate, but also terrify them. Normal people (people who do not write) have no idea what to make of us.

Writers like Robbie Blair, however, inform those who keep their distance; or, worse, pander to writers’ egos, becoming rather useless ‘yes-men’ who only tell us we’re great, furthering our descent into depression if we don’t get published. Key to survival with a writer: provide food and be honest, but not so honest we cry.   

So here is a list of how to treat us better; we don’t merely need a patron and financial support, we also need … a whole lot of other things too! Enjoy, and pass it along and go to the author’s site and leave a comment where it will do him some good.

support-writers

Beyond my personal experiences as a writer, I’ve also been close friends with more writers than I can count. (That may just be because I’m bad at math, though.) I have relatives who write, I have friends who write, I’ve dated people who write … I’ve seen the relationship from many different angles and figured out a few of the best ways to support the writers I’m close to. While it’s important to remember that there’s no “one size fits all” option, these eight tips provide a solid starting point for supporting the writers in your life.

1. Learn about and respect their writing process.

I could give a great many details about how to support me as a writer, but most of you have never met me before so that will only do so much good. I’ve worked with enough writers to know that, while we’re similar in many ways, we are not a homogenous group. Writing is not a predictable process, and each writer develops their own approach to it over time. Rather than assuming that your writer functions in specific ways, talk to them about their unique process so you can understand it a bit better.

My remaining tips won’t reveal any super-secret desires that your writer is trying to hide—so if your writer contradicts any of the items on the rest of this list, just ignore that particular bit of my advice.

2. Don’t lie.

If you want to express interest in something your writer is crafting, then that’s fantastic—so long as you’re actually interested. Sure, some writers will feel put off if you don’t love their work as much as you love them, but you’ll be doing them a disservice if you pretend to like something that bores you to tears.

Authentic interest is something we crave—but don’t offer interest if it isn’t real. If you want to become interested but aren’t yet, try asking gentle, open questions about the story. Note that some writers will not enjoy this at all while others will enjoy both the attention and the opportunity to further formulate their ideas. If they’re comfortable talking about their work, guide the conversation toward the elements of the story that actually appeal to you.

3. Provide edible/quaffable support.

Many writers appreciate a good snack while they’re working. Sadly, many of us also have terrible snacking habits. I myself tend to make peanut butter chocolate chip sandwiches when I’m facing a deadline. If you can provide tasty yet moderately healthy snacks (like fruits, for example), you’ll be helping out in more ways than one.

Also, just like cars need gas and Santa needs to spy on little children while they’re sleeping, most of us writers require caffeine to operate. (There’s actually some interesting neurological stuff going on that explains this writerly addiction.) If you keep the kettle on or make sure there’s always coffee available, we’ll love you for it.

4. Get them to write, right now.

Not talk about their writing. Not brainstorm. Not organize. Not research. Not read articles on LitReactor.

Write.

Just write.

Writers face what I refer to as an “inertial barrier.” It’s difficult for us to get started with writing, but once we’ve gotten there it gets progressively easier and more enjoyable. We tend to be quite practiced at procrastination techniques, especially the ones that make it seem like we’re working on our story, but this only serves to increase the inertia. If you give us an extra push toward simply writing, you’ll be helping us get the momentum and energy required to get past the inertial barrier.

5. Give them a territory.

If you’re living with this writer, one of the best things you can do is give them a specific territory that they can organize or destroy as they see fit.

For example, I need absolute organization to work effectively, but I don’t need a lot of extras. I can set up an organized writing desk anywhere in the world. But others need a bit of clutter. Others still need a sense that they’ve emotionally charged the space. Some work best in outright chaos. Now, there are limits to how much a chaotic workspace can be functional; my father is a wonderful man, but his office is a fire hazard. Still, up until it’s absolutely unbearable, let the writer make the space their own. Our environments play a significant role for our emotional states, and if your writer feels uneasy they aren’t likely to write.

6. Encourage them to take care of themselves.

Writers have high-stress work, little natural social time, and (generally) sedentary lifestyles. We often fail to take care of ourselves and, as a result, crack under the stress. Rather than pressuring us to make our deadlines (I promise, we feel enough pressure already), you’ll be doing us a big favor by encouraging us to do basic emotional maintenance.

Emotional maintenance is another one of those things that comes in different forms for different people. For me, it’s yoga, meditation, and long walks. For others it’s ping pong, socializing with close friends, and eating a balanced breakfast. Whatever helps bolster your writer’s emotional resources will help them stand strong against their various challenges.

7. Do more than pat them on the head.

My guess is you’re reading this because you want to help a writer in your life, not because you’re a writer yourself. (Though maybe you are, in which case you’ll have an advantage on this one.) Even if you don’t feel you have much to say about writing itself, you’ll run into problems if all you do is congratulate your writer on a job well done over and over again.

Your writer will start to lose respect for your opinion. They’ll realize that you’re not going to give any in-depth feedback, and that makes you kind of useless. So giving support is great, praise is great, and it’s fine if you like everything that your writer produces—but you’ll need to be specific with the things that you especially liked, items that may not have worked as well for you, and so on.

By all means, however, check in with your writer before you start giving critical analysis; sometimes we’re just looking to see if the content is functional and enjoyable on a basic level, and other times we really do want that pat on the head.

8. Leave them the fuck alone!

It’s rare to get into the flow state for writing—and it’s incredibly valuable. I’ve produced 40+ pages in a sitting because I got into the flow of it. Don’t disrupt your writer, don’t ask questions. In fact, as much as you can, try to disappear. And if your writer is in the zone but you had plans? It’s his or her turn to take the dog for a walk? You know they have to wake up early and it’s currently 3 a.m.?

Just leave them the fuck alone. One of the most supportive things you can do is treat that flow state as sacred. I know it’s a pain to change your plans while they stare at a screen and type, but don’t worry … this doesn’t happen very often.

Oh, and here’s a bonus tip that has little to do with their writing and everything to do with your own: Don’t make stupid spelling or grammar mistakes. Even if your writer is nice about it, odds are they’re judging you for typing “their is alot of things on my mind.”

And that’s it for today. How about you? What’s worked in supporting the writers in your life? If you’re a writer, what support can others offer that would be most beneficial to you? Let us know in the comments, below.

Hedgebrook, A Writers’ Retreat For Women

Imagine yourself here, writing. You can do it.

A locally-grown and produced resource here in the Puget Sound region near Seattle, Washington is Hedgebrook, an unusual writers’ retreat specifically for women.

Located on Whidbey Island, about 30 miles north of Seattle, and accessible by ferry, Hedgebrook exists to make it possible for women to write.

Founded in 1988 by philanthropist and visionary (in my opinion) Nancy Nordhoff, Hedgebrook’s writer in residency program accepts 40 writers each year (however, they’ve suspended this program until 2014; see their link for details).

Each writer stays in a cottage that was hand-crafted by Ms. Nordhoff and friends, back in the ’80s. Here’s the key that makes this place special: Room and board are provided at no cost to the writers-in-residence. Support is provided by donations. Self-sustaining, the retreat is a working farm, offering organic produce for the group, and communal dinners each night prepared by in-house chefs.

Once the writers are accepted, they then spend two to six weeks in residence working on their writing, but there are other, shorter, less time-intensive opportunities for women who want to participate for a few days in workshops.

Hedgebrook’s Master Classes offer women writers the unique opportunity to study with renowned women writers such as Jane Hamilton, Theresa Rebeck, Karen Joy FowlerVictoria Redel, Claire Dederer and Robin Swicord. The week-long writing workshops, offered in a variety of genres (fiction, memoir, playwriting, screenwriting, poetry), focus on different aspects of the writer’s craft and process.

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.

Hedgebrook has a global community of alumnae of more than 1,200 writers from all over the world. The Creative Advisory Council, helmed by Gloria Steinem and poet Carolyn Forché, includes playwright and creator of The Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler, novelists Nassim Assefi, Mary Gordon, Ruth Ozeki and Sarah Waters; poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Suheir Hammad; playwright Ellen McLaughlin; memoirist Honor Moore; non-fiction writers Pramila Jayapal and Holly Morris; and finally, mystery writer Elizabeth George, who lives on Whidbey Island. (I’ve read most of her Inspector Lynley series, and highly recommend them.)

Although a community like Hedgebrook seems like some kind of dream, in fact, it’s a reality, and it’s happening right now for many women writers. Take a look at their site, and see if you think you’d be interested in applying. It’s actually a dream of mine to start a collective organization like this (not on Whidbey Island, probably something more international) and therefore, Hedgebrook is an inspiration to me.