On Writering

Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)
Writering it up, One Story Debutante Ball, May 2016 (Photo Dan Fuchs)

See the end of this post for details about the Landfalls audiobook giveaway. It ends July 14, 2016.
[This giveaway has ended. Congratulations to Sandra G. of Woodland, CA, for winning an audiobook!]

Before my book came out, I was a writer who spent a lot of time writing. Now I’m a published author, and I spend a lot of time doing things connected to writing or to my life as a writer but that don’t involve actual writing. If I wanted to, I could easily spend all of my time doing writerly stuff instead of writing. I call it “writering.”

This was understandable—necessary, even—in the weeks right before and the months right after Landfalls came out last August. Book store events, book club appearances, presentations at conferences and schools and book festivals and pretty much anywhere someone would lend me a stage, author interviews and more author interviews, literary shindigs—I logged a lot of car miles and air miles, signed a bunch of books, and generally did everything I reasonably could to find more readers. And mostly I had a blast. I’m that apparently rare species: the extroverted writer. I like meeting people, I enjoy public speaking, I love dressing up and going to parties.

But it’s been almost a year since the book came out, and high time for the writing/writering balance to tip back in favor of writing. And mostly it has. But I’ve really had to fight for it, which means I’ve had to fight myself and my knee-jerk impulse to say “yes” to every damn thing.

Because it turns out that even after you stop scheduling book appearances and hankering after publicity, stuff just keeps coming up. Invitations and requests of all sorts—to attend literary events and judge contests and read applications and blurb or review other writers’ books. All of these invites and requests are flattering, and most of them are appealing.

Huntington Library (by Aaron Logan)
Huntington Library (by Aaron Logan)

Some are no-brainers: I just say yes. Would I be willing to participate in a conference on historical fiction at the Huntington Library, where Hilary Mantel will be the keynote speaker? Oh my God, yes! (Forthcoming in May of 2017.) Can I serve as juror for an arts foundation that funded me while I was working on my book? Of course.

And others are also no-brainers. The out-of-the-blue e-mail asking for feedback on the attached short stories? Um, how to say this nicely—no. The Comic-Con invite from someone who appeared to know little to nothing about my work then seemed offended when I asked what other writers might be on the panel in question? No thank you.

But there’s a vast in-between where it’s hard to decide whether something is worth the time and expense—and what does “worth” even mean in this context?

I recently made a presentation at a writers conference. It didn’t pay anything—not even my travel expenses, which involved a round-trip drive of over 100 miles. I’m not sure I sold a single book. And I’d spent about 15 hours preparing an 80-minute talk that I gave twice, time I could have used working on my next book.

The numbers didn’t add up at all. In the days before the event, I was kicking myself for having said yes.

And yet: I had a great time. The participants were terrific: engaged, smart, articulate, good-humored. Maybe some of the folks I met will go home and buy my book. Maybe not. Maybe this will lead to a future invite to a conference that does pay its presenters. Or not. Or to some pleasing outcome I can’t even guess right now.

As for the time I spent in preparation, driving, presenting, then presenting again—it’s okay. For one thing, it’s possible I’ll be able to reshape some of the material for a future presentation. But it also forced me to think through some thorny questions about writing, questions I haven’t finished figuring out. That was good for me.

Still, I really need to be saying “no” more often. The other day I got all the way through composing a “yes” e-mail in response to a request and was about to press “Send” when I suddenly realized something: I loved the idea of saying yes to the requestor, someone I quite like, but I didn’t actually want to do what was being asked, which promised to be time-consuming and would, of course, pay nothing.

I said no. It took me much longer to write the “no” e-mail than it had to write the initial “yes” e-mail. And I worried about disappointing a nice person. But I did it, and my friend was very understanding, and I spared myself many hours and much stress.

One thing that’s really helped me with this whole writing/writering balance is that I hired a writing coach for the year. Does that sound hokey or even a little pathetic? Maybe. I don’t care. I’m incredibly fortunate in being able to afford some outside help, because I really need it.

My coach has helped me set both short-term and long-term goals for my writing, and I’m obligated to check in with her weekly with an accounting of my time and any pages I’ve produced. She’s also a genius reader, so I’m receiving amazing feedback on new work.

Among the excellent side-effects of this arrangement is that it forces me to evaluate potential “writering” endeavors against the need to account for them with my coach. When I find myself thinking, “Oh, I kinda want to do this, but I really don’t want to tell her about it,” I know I’m on thin ice.

Sometimes, if you don’t have much common sense, you need to outsource it.

Writers who don’t have the means to enter into formal arrangements like this can still benefit from setting up informal arrangements with friends who understand and respect them and their writing goals.

I did something like this a few summers ago when I was writing the first draft for what turned out to be the longest chapter in Landfalls: I asked a friend if I could be on the hook to e-mail her five pages a week until I was done. It worked; I dutifully churned out the pages, we met once a week for lunch to talk about my writing and hers, and I finished the chapter.

And with that, I’m now going to return to my own proper writing. Even though it involves “writing,” composing blog posts and newsletter copy, it seems to me, falls more into the writering category than the writing category.

Ironic, really, to indulge in “writering” in order to talk about how I’m trying to do less of it.


Audiobook cover (via Audible)The Landfalls audiobook giveaway:

[This giveaway has ended. Congratulations to Sandra G. of Woodland, CA, for winning an audiobook!]

Perfect for that long car trip this summer!

I’m giving away one copy of the Landfalls audiobook and will mail it free of charge to any address in the U.S. Between now and 11:59 pm Pacific Time on July 14, leave a comment below indicating your interest in receiving the audiobook. Don’t put your e-mail address or mailing address in the comment field! (You’ll have to provide your e-mail in order to post a comment, but it won’t show up on the site.) I’ll post the name of the winner on July 15.

P.S. Not seeing a comment field? Try re-loading the page here. Or leave a comment elsewhere on this blog noting your interest in the audiobook. I’ll get it & enter your name in the drawing.


23 thoughts on “On Writering

  1. I truly appreciate your style of writing and your willingness to share your feelings about write ring. I would love to receive an audio book.
    Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed reading this while procrastinating doing my work. Outsourcing common sense–love that! It’s always easier to prioritize the tasks in someone else’s life. It’s ironic (and a bit delicious) that I get paid to give students common sense advice that I have a terrible time heeding myself. Good luck with the writing and just saying no!

  3. Love this post, Naomi! I’m reading your wonderful book right now — about halfway through “Concepción.” I love your way of telling a story and your way of turning a phrase. Marvelous reading!

  4. I’m looking forward to reading Landfalls. I also am commuting these days 25 minutes each way so I’ve become enamored of audiobooks.

  5. Great post! Love your writing style and thoughtfulness. I look forward to reading your book and/or listening to the audio book.

  6. You write my heart, Naomi. It’s been only 6 months since my novel launched and my writer is crying out for attention and nurturing. Between promoting novel 1, revising novel 2 for launch next year and revising novel 3 to go on submission, as well as editing and teaching I waver between blown-mind gratitude that I get to do all these things I’m passionate about and sheer exhaustion. I’m simply to write new material – it’s been over a year. Hoping this fall brings a respite and my right brain can play again.

    You know I’m such a fan of your beautiful novel. Thrilled to witness its success!!

  7. I would have liked to hear you and Hilary Mantel discuss historical fiction. Is there any record of that conversation on which we can eavesdrop?

    1. This hasn’t happened yet! It’s scheduled for next March. I should have made that clear in my post. It’s not up on the Huntington’s site yet, but I’ll link to it when it is. 🙂

  8. Just finally found a minute to read this. It’s great. My favorite part was your changing the easy-to-concoct “yes” email to the much more difficult “no.” There is a lot of wisdom, I believe, in such decisions.

  9. Excellent piece. It’s so valuable to hear about the experiences of published authors who struggle for this balance. Even the pro writers have to find time to write! That makes the rest of us not so strange 🙂 I am constantly setting little, achievable goals for myself. It has to feel like an accessible milestone. Not, “I’m going to write a whole novel” but rather “I’m going to work on my novel for 30 minutes”. All of this adds up over time.

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