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A Writers' Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round – Daily Local

A Writers' Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round – Daily Local


Writing this sentence was difficult.

There were so many other things I could have done. That set of words seemed accurate at that moment, about 90 seconds ago. Now I'm not so sure. Joan Didion once said that it's hard to write the first sentence of anything, but by the time you've written two, you're committed and must keep moving forward. The problem is that self-doubt is part of the process. If you started January with the certainty that this would be the year you finally wrote a book, and now it's the end of March and you're still frozen in fear, you understand. You need motivation. You need someone like Jami Attenberg, of Buffalo Grove, a Chicago suburb, in your head. She has this new book, 1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round, which is sort of the equivalent of that friend's advice book who cheers along a marathon course , throwing down his enthusiasm and his Gatorade.

It’s planned that way, Attenberg told me. She imagines people leaving her book on their desks and, whenever they can't get started, reaching for words of wholehearted support.

Better her than me.

1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Productive, and Focused All Year Round, by Jami Attenberg. (Simon & Schuster/TNS)

I hate writing. I mean, I do it for a living and I love it most of the time; there are days when it brings a boost of confidence. But I also hate writing most of the time. Because it never gets simpler. I once thought that would be the case. Years ago, when I was in college, on a whim, hungry for advice, I called Roger Ebert at the Sun-Times and he answered his phone and I asked him what he was like. able to write that much, and he said he had a deadline right now and he didn't have time to talk, which in itself was an answer.

Writing advice comes in many forms. The diaries of famous authors are windows into the struggle. Biographies too. Chicago's popular StoryStudio offers courses that guide you through writing a book in a year. Rebecca Makkai, the famous Chicago-based novelist, is the artistic director. During one of the many stops in Attendenberg's book, Makkai notes that her own first book took 10 years to complete, partly because she had children and partly because she had lost confidence in what she wrote. Which is far from comforting. There are also classics on writing, full of practical advice both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Stephen Kings On Writing, William Zinssers On Writing Well, Anne Lamotts Bird by Bird.

Attenberg, however, has never read a writing advice book. When she started this one, she imagined she was writing something motivating and repetitive, like the self-help book she once read to quit smoking. Sometimes you need encouragement. Six years ago, Attenberg was sitting with a writer friend and talking about the difficulty of staying motivated. They decided to undergo a sort of two-week training camp that they invented themselves. The goal was to write 1,000 words a day. After two weeks, they would have 50 pages of a book. Attenberg went online, tweeted about the project, and soon hundreds of strangers were joining, determined to complete 1,000 words every day for two weeks. Understand: At this point in his career, Attenberg had already written six books, including the bestselling novel The Middlesteins. She still needed motivation.

That’s how horrible the writing is.

Yet, get this, she loves to write.

It's fun, she said. I've always felt this way. When you don't have many friends as a child, it's a way of making friends. Growing up in Illinois, I was a nerdy bookworm. It seemed natural to me to create playgrounds in my head. I'm 52 now and it's still the most joyful thing, a great way to get to know yourself. I write books that I want to read. I don't hate writing like you say.

In my defense: the euphoria you feel from writing something you can stand is fleeting. James Baldwin, who said many smart things about so many things, has one of the smartest lines ever written about the pain of writing: Beyond talent are all the usual words: discipline, love, luck , but above all, endurance. He said the most important thing for a beginning writer is to have someone read his work and say: The effort is real.

But how to start?

Arthur Miller skipped spring break at the University of Michigan to write a play in six days. Norman Mailer parlayed his skills into writing science fiction starring a shameless Buck Rogers stand-in. Eudora Welty dove in, eliminating such terrible opening lines as: Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger into Mademoiselle's left side and left with calm immediacy.

Attenberg was editor of the Buffalo Grove High School newspaper and a member of an after-school creative writing workshop. And like any writer of any age worth their salt, she reads constantly. (I don't know how far you can go if you don't.) She created zines full of stories and published them one by one. It became his first book, a collection of stories. I didn't realize I was writing a book for a while there. I was just writing about dark visions of modern romance and publishing them, and then a friend told me I should do a book. But I struggled to understand what it meant to be a writer and to find the time to be one. Learning the structure (of the story) was difficult. I'm character driven and would happily like characters to chat. I had a hard time figuring out how to make things happen.

The thing is, to begin with, you don't go out on Friday night. Write at lunch. Bring a notebook on public transportation. This writer, Deesha Philyaw, said to be prepared to disappoint people. She was talking about her family. You sculpt your life to support your creativity.

What if you think your idea is stupid?

Take the heart. Dostoyevsky said: There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it. At the start of a new book, John le Carr recalled: The cat sitting on a rug is not the first line. But The Cat Sitting on the Dog Mat might work.

Attenberg knows she has something if she wants to revisit something she wrote. If she hears her characters a few days later, that's a positive sign. Usually I will start seeing scenes in the future. So I will write about these scenes. I will see an ending and I will write towards it. But the end is never the true end and it becomes a North Star. I also have friends and editors who are excellent advisors, but you should never write to a market. It always changes. Write what you like and it will be passed on to others.

I don’t keep a list of ideas either. I keep a list of titles. There is always an idea in a good title. I keep tons of notebooks but I rarely go back to them. To get new ideas, I might go to a mall and listen at the doors. You probably won't find an interesting story on Twitter, but I look at vintage clothing on Etsy. You imagine: who did this item of clothing belong to? It's a beginning.

Great, how can I stay focused?

Silence is helpful, but, you know, a lot of silence becomes surreal and distracting.

Attenberg listens to music, but only sung in a foreign language or entirely instrumental. I can't write if there are lyrics in a background music track. Brian Eno's dreamlike soundscapes, like the perfectly titled Ambient 1: Music For Airports, are ideal.

Good, said Attendenberg. Movie soundtracks too.

Maya Angelou rented a hotel room for a few months, left her home at 6 a.m. every day, wrote on the hotel bed until around 1:30 p.m., then returned the next day. Tennessee Williams would wake up before dawn and write with a glass of wine.

Yeah, but that sounds like people have the money and time to stay focused.

I asked Attenberg how she figured out how to make money and stay a writer.

I don't know if I did it, she said.

Dear reader, if you still dream of becoming a writer but have a weak constitution of humility and struggle, stop reading here. Attenberg worked in advertising, she was a temp, she took more time than expected. I went bankrupt several times. For the first books, I was basically going between writing and other work. My family was worried about me, but they also thought I had made these decisions myself. I had decided to concentrate on writing even if I didn't become a bestseller. My fourth book was my breakthrough (The Middlesteins), but just before that I had no money in the bank, I had a lot of credit card debt, I had no other career to pursue. launch and I had just been dropped by my editor. Plus, I was now 40 and couch surfing for long periods of time.

For many, sleeping on couches at 40 would be a difficult task.

Entire completed novels have been abandoned. The officers' advice was not taken into account. None of this is remarkable or unusual for this profession. Yet from the beginning, I was making decisions to get to this place, she said. Everything good, bad, heartbreaking was part of becoming a writer. It didn't seem like a waste, she said of the tossed books, although the words seemed larger. Sometimes you do something to take you somewhere else. You go through the bad to move on. It's all part of a bigger picture.

Now start writing.

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