Eight Pieces of Writing Life Wisdom I Received as a Beginner (And They're Still Schooling Me, Eleven Years Later!)

This is the kind of foundational wisdom you can build a writing life on. | lucyflint.com

I tumbled into the writing life with a lot of ideas and a lot of advice.

Luckily for me, I wrote all that early thinking down as one of my final class projects before graduating from college: a long essay spelling out what I hoped and expected the writing life to be.

And at the beginning of this month—eleven years after writing it—I dug out that paper and reread it. After all this time, I was curious. I wanted to sift through the mix of hopes and fears that filled my transition from the student life to the writing life, and see what I thought I was getting myself into! 

Some of my expectations were pretty ridiculous—even damaging. I'm so relieved to have chucked those old beliefs and to have learned a better way forward.

Today, I'm looking at the other half of the paper—at the best tips and advice that I compiled after interviewing writers and professors, and reading a ton of articles and writing books before taking the plunge. 

Because I was surprised: there was some advice in there that I'd forgotten, some tips that I'd discarded without thinking, and some points that could breathe new life into my writing practice.

Who would have thought??

So I've pulled the best of it together to share with you: the solid stuff that still rings true. This is what I want to keep applying to my writing days.

Read on for some of the best, most lasting advice about the writing life!

1. Love of the work = the very best fuel. Eleven years ago, I had just read Julia Cameron's incredible book The Artist's Way for the first time. And, I'm ashamed to say, I totally blew her off.

So I casually wrote in my paper:

Julia Cameron warns that discipline can be seductive and counter-productive. One danger for artists is over-focusing on the discipline rather than their love of the work.

I cheerfully scribbled that down, and then went off to do precisely that: I overfocused on discipline. For, um, eight years.

Instead of focusing on my love of the work. Love? What did love have to do with it? I was used to doing assignments and handling deadlines—who cares about love?

Better to hold myself accountable for every single five-minute period of my life, and rate my output with pass/fail grades all the way, right? 

Hahahaha. Nope. 

It's taken a long time, but I am finally, finally applying Cameron's excellent advice to my writing life. I'm aiming at love and enthusiasm in my work.

How about you? Being super disciplined is all the rage right now, and it definitely has its points ... but it can also backfire.

Let's bring discipline back into balance with enthusiasm and love of writing.

2. Long live the daily brain-dump! Another brilliant piece of advice from The Artist's Way is Julia Cameron's classic practice of writing morning pages: three pages of stream-of-consciousness, written longhand, first thing in the morning.

I tried them for the first month after graduation. With a lot of griping. And then I decided "they did not work."

But I'd forgotten their whole purpose: to just clear your mind first thing in the morning. They aren't supposed to be nice. They aren't supposed to even be readable. They can be as whiny and grumpy as you feel: that's their job. To just catch what's in your mind.

Now that I've relearned what they're for, and now that I've been practicing them for a year, I can't not do them. If I skip a day, I feel more mentally cluttered. I get off-balance.

They're every bit as essential to my mental hygiene as brushing teeth first thing is to my mouth.

Have you experimented with adding morning pages to your days? Even if you've given them up like I did, they're worth trying again. I promise!

If three pages feels daunting, try starting your day with at least one, or even half of one. Do them simply to do them, to clear your mind.

3. Our MAIN job might not even be actually writing. So, fair warning: rereading this forgotten piece of advice blew me away. And it's been seriously messing with my mind ever since.

In the paper, I quote from an interview with Gary Paulsen (anyone else grow up adoring Hatchet?), in which he said:

You can't learn to write in a workshop. You can't learn in school or through a class. Writing is not going to help you learn to write. ... You have to read, and I mean three books a day. ... Reading is the thing that will teach you. Make it an occupation.

Holy moly! Can we just, uh, take a moment? Because he just said "writing is not going to help you learn to write," and I'm reeling at that.

Because, well, it kinda makes sense.

I don't know about you or what your writing journey has looked like, but it's so easy, embarrassingly easy, for me to downgrade the importance of reading fiction.

Over the past decade, I've been writing and writing and writing, and yes, it is gradually getting better, but I'm wondering if some of my rather slow progress is because I've been reading-starved?

Possibly?

Rereading this quote re-convinced me. Or, actually, it kicked me in the pants: I need to turn the dial way, way up on my reading life.

"Make it an occupation," he said. Ooooh. 

How's your reading life been lately, my friend? Are you, like me, a bit under-fed in that area? Let's dive in, big time, this summer! To a HUGE stack of books.

4. Respond to everything you read. As far as reading goes, one of my professors recommended that I keep a kind of Reading Journal.

She said that I needed a place to respond to what I read—where I could talk back, critique, delight, and explore.

This is one of the pieces of advice I actually stuck with, I'm happy to say. As I read (not as fast or as much as Gary Paulsen recommended, but I did still read), I took plenty of notes on lines I enjoyed, on what didn't seem to work, and on the overall feel of the book.

I compiled all these notes in a series of Word documents, in a huge and ever-growing folder on my computer. All very tidy, searchable, cross-referenceable.

But rereading that line in the paper, I suddenly have this wistful wish that I'd kept it in a physical journal. Something that feels more warm, more personal, instead of the lab-note feeling of my digital files.

Hmmm. Maybe a change is in order.

Tell me friends, do you take notes on what you read? Do you ever come back to those notes? How do you organize them?

And are you for digital or analog reading journals?  

5. Make good self-management a top priority. One thing that I was rather accurately worried about was burnout.

In that paper, I wrote,

I routinely hit a point in each semester when it feels as though I can't go on: I become very sure that every assignment will fall lifeless to the ground, that my GPA will plummet, and that there will be no recovery, not this time. I'm afraid that if I'm my own boss, I won't be able to pick myself up and keep on keeping on.

I always knew that managing myself well would be a key part of the writing life ... but I didn't really know what that looked like for a long time. It's taken a while, but I'm slowly learning to be much more kind to myself, and to trust my instincts (instead of automatically assuming I'm lazy).

This is why I want to keep asking questions about how to manage well. What does it look like to be a good boss, a kind boss, a wise boss? I never want to stop learning about that.

How do you feel about your own self-management style? Where do you most want to grow as a boss?

Let's keep working toward sustainable creativity and kind productivity. Let's keep learning how to manage ourselves well!

6. We are not machines. When I get overfocused on my work, on all that good reading and writing and time management and productivity and focus ... I kinda forget that I live in a body.

Which is why this bit of advice still rings true: Several professors pointed out that I'd need to balance reading and writing with plenty of actual physical stimulus.

Oh, the body. We don't just live in words!

I read a lot of Annie Dillard while at school, especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I was captivated by how Dillard's time in nature and her time spent reading all poured into her writing.

Which is probably why one of my writing professors recommended I follow Dillard's example: read, write, and roam.

To be honest, that's something I really haven't done much.

It's one thing for me to remember to take good care of myself. And another to remember to take good physical breaks, like stretching it out on my yoga mat, or shaking it off with a dance party. I'm doing pretty well at those things, though I always want to get better at health and movement.

But what I most want to come back to is that idea of a clear, even balance between read, write, and roam. To do that kind of wandering and watching.

As spring spills into summer, I want to really sink in to the habit of taking long walks, and spending as much time among trees and lakes as I do around words.

Sooooo many writers swear by the power of walks, of spending time in nature, of honing their ideas on long rambles. I don't want to just shrug that off anymore. 

How about you? How do you balance all the time around words?

7. The order of occupations is extremely important. This is one of my favorite, favorite pieces of advice. It can clear up 90% of my troubles when I get panicky or anxious.

One writer I interviewed made this lovely point: that if everything I did was in pursuit of Great Art, and The Writer Within—then I would collapse under the pressure of becoming that snooty kind of "Writah." (She said it like that, nose in the air. Writah.)

She said: never forget this.

She said, "You're a person first. You are a person who writes."

There in the coffeehouse on campus I earnestly scribbled down what she said, sensing the truth in it, the reasonableness of it, the way it would save me from my extreme moods and punishing systems...

... And then I spent far too many months trying to become a writer, and forgetting to be the person. Any non-writing thing that fell into my life, I tended to see as trouble, as distraction, as difficulty.

I'd forgotten this so-important truth: We are people first. We have to learn to be good humans before we're good writers.

Personhood has always interrupted me, as my family rode through years of change and illnesses and sadness and hey, even more change.

I did, eventually, remember this advice, and when I remembered the truth of it, I could let go the panic, the deadlines, the dented plans I'd made.

We are not machines, we're not robots, we're not heartless Writahs.

We are people. People who write.

And I think that's lovely.

8. How to defeat the obstacle of all obstacles. In spite of my eagerness to take the plunge into the writing life, and in spite of all the preparation I did beforehand, I was still terrified. 

I wrote: 

The humming of insecurities is building to a roar. Despite all voices of encouragement, I wonder if I'm being frivolous and ridiculous after all.

A roar of doubt. Before I'd even begun.

(Hands up if you've felt this!)

One of my professors warned me that the hardest thing for me would be to take myself and my ideas seriously. Confidence, she said, will make or break your writing life. 

Confidence! I had maybe a teaspoonful. 

Another interviewee put it this way: "Ignore your own insecurities. Act like you have direction."

This still makes me laugh, because in one way or another, I have done exactly that.

Sometimes it took a while for the ignoring insecurities part to kick in, but acting like I had a direction and moving forward, carrying my teaspoonful of confidence—yes, that I've done.

And in spite of the doubts and insecurities, and the ways they've shapeshifted and reappeared year after year—in spite of all that, I'm still here! Still writing!

Still picking words out and setting them in sentences!

Which is why I can say that perseverance is everything it's cracked up to be. We really can keep on keeping on, and if I can do it in the face of withering doubt, so, my dear lionhearted friend, can you.

But how to make it practical?

There are five little tips for dealing with doubt that I kinda slipped into my paper (and more or less acted on, actually, right at the beginning), which came from an article in The Writer magazine, written by Polly Campbell.

She recommends blasting away at doubts by: 

  • surrounding yourself with people who encourage you;
  • learning about the challenges of famous writers;
  • saving all positive feedback in a file; and
  • writing an essay that explains why you write.

She also says to "set a regular writing routine and keep to it. To succeed, you've got to believe. Act like you do, until that belief becomes reality."

And finally, she says, "Nothing destroys doubt like a good day at work."

That. 

That, my friends, is oh-so true. 


Mmm. There's nothing like a good Advice Festival to get me stirred up, ready to re-evaluate how I approach my work, how I think about it and structure it.

I'm definitely looking forward to reading a LOT more (thanks, Gary Paulsen!), to adding more roaming to my writing days, and to let myself be a person more than I'm a writer.

And too, I'm looking forward to using those tips for defeating doubt. You can never have too many tools in your anti-doubt toolkit!

How about you, my friend? What's some of the best advice that you've heard about writing? What kind of tips did you fill your pockets with, when you set out on your writing journey?

And, because surely I'm not the only one, what good advice did you actually ignore at first? 

What would you tell someone who is just starting out as a writer?

How to Mind the Gap: Shedding Old Expectations and Embracing the Real Writing Life

What did you think you were getting into, when you started this writing journey? | lucyflint.com

Welcome to May, the month of graduations! I'm not graduating from anything this year, but I always love this season of grand finishes and completions.

And too, each year I wave to May 20 as it goes past: the anniversary of my graduation from college a few years ago. (Okay, okay, eleven. Eleven years! How did that happen?!)

It always makes me a bit nostalgic. And by nostalgic, I sometimes mean the happy-warm feelings that bubble up as I remember late night pineapple pizzas, the view from my apartment balcony, and the fantastic discussions in my literature classes.

Annnnd sometimes when I say nostalgic, what I REALLY mean is: I thought I'd be further in life than I am.

Eleven years after graduation, I was supposed to be somewhere, you know what I mean? More things figured out, more shiny accomplishments lined up, more bits and pieces I could point to and say, Look! I've done so much.

This year, as I eyed the approach of May 20, I made a deal with myself: No self-abuse allowed. No kicking myself for not being the impossible version of myself that I'd dreamed up.

It's true that I'm not as far along as I thought I would be in some ways... but in others, I've come a long, long way. I've learned a ton about self-understanding, being kind to myself, and working with wisdom.

In other words: I'm kinda glad I haven't reached all the impossible heights I'd dreamed up for myself, because if I had, I wouldn't get to be this version of me. This Lucy, who has let go of a lot of poisonous beliefs (yoo hoo, perfectionism!!), a lot of choking shame, a lot of the wrong reasons that would have driven those nice accomplishments.

I still hope to do a lot, write a lot, reach a lot of people. I'm still working on excellence. But it's so nice to be in this place.

To celebrate that, I found myself wanting to get a clearer picture of what I thought the writing journey would look like, versus what it actually looked like. 

Lucky me: Just before I graduated I wrote a paper about exactly that topic. I wrote a complete picture of what I thought my writing life would/should look like.

I was a bit terrified at the time, so I interviewed professors and professionals, read tons of articles, gathered and assimilated as much advice as I could. And then I put it all in paragraph form, and kept it.

So the other day, I was wondering: What did I think the writing life would look like? Where was I right, and where was I way off base? 

I did a little digging around, I managed to not drop a filebox on my head, I got a little dusty, but I found the paper. I read it through, and sure enough: there were some expectations that were nowhere close to reality.

But also? There was some really, really quality advice buried in there. Stuff that made me lean forward and actually jot down a few notes. Ooh.

... It's the month of graduations, of that ceremony we call "Commencement." A month of endings that create beginnings. Commencement, after all, means beginning, means Start!

So I thought: Why not?! Why not celebrate all our graduations, our endings, our beginnings, our big transitions, by looking back at this huge educated guess I made about the writing life, and where I actually ended up?

Are you up for joining me on a little time-traveling exploration?

Let's do it. Because, no matter how long you've been on this writing journey, I'm guessing that there were ideas you had about how it would look, and then ... well, then there was reality.

I think it's healthy, now and then, to take a closer look at what we thought we were getting into, you know what I mean?

So I'll get this conversation started. This is how I thought I would be as a writer.


1. The overactive writer: It's a little thing, but I found this pretty surprising. Turns out, I had grand ideas of being very active in my community—joining societies and clubs, volunteering in several places, tutoring kids.

I thought that this was how I'd find inspiration and material. And too, I was scared of adjusting to a life of more solitude—what would happen if I was alone at my desk a lot?

Annnd let's face it, it also sounded nicely grown-up, responsible, and unselfish. Pointing to my secret terror that, by charging into a writing life, I was pledging to be childish, irresponsible, and selfish.

I'm an introvert's introvert, which means that signing myself up for a lot of things is exactly the way to drain every ounce of energy away from writing. So all those ideas of being a busy bee in the community... not so much.

But what's even more interesting to me is what it said I was afraid of. I still fight off a fear that I've chosen to be childish, selfish. Most days, I know that's not true: the act of creating is a generous one.

And as anyone knows who's charged through the steep work of revision again and again, well: there's nothing childish about doing the hard, meticulous work to hone your words.

What about you? What were you afraid a writing life said about you?

2. The Jane of all trades: Okay, this one just makes me laugh. After writing in a variety of forms all through college, I expected to just keep right on going, with basically every format I'd tried.

Poems, short fiction, medium-length fiction, short reflective essays, longer pithy and intellectual pieces, blogs, as well as learning to write a novel. I expected to keep doing all of these at once, with deadlines and goals and charts and such.

I would overflow with words!! And find homes for all of them!

I'm so glad to report that this fantasy died after about six months. It took me half a year to realize that, while I could write in all those forms, I didn't necessarily want to. And certainly not all at once.

Instead, I've learned the joy of focusing, of choosing the few forms that I thrill to, that I thrive in. Long-form fiction and blogging. That's my sweet spot.

And I've realized that focus isn't a negative restriction; it's a way to make my writing life more my own.

How about youdid you think you'd be working in a different form? Have you made a shift, from one type of work to another?

3. The serious literary lady: Even when I started focusing on fiction, I still wasn't clear on what kind of fiction I'd be writing. At school, I immersed in a more literary style, so I assumed I'd be writing literary fiction.

As I tried to get going, though, I kept being swamped by Resistance. Good little writer me, I knew to expect Resistance, so for a while, I didn't realize what was truly going on:

I don't enjoy literary fiction as much as I thought I did.

Whoops.

There are exceptions, for sure, but it's just not my main love. I had to force myself to read it, force myself to try to appreciate it. (No offense, my literary-fiction friends!! You keep doing your thing!)

We each have genres that we're more drawn to, and I didn't realize that mine lay in pretty much the exact opposite direction.

Finally, finally, I found my way to middle grade adventure stories: the best fit with my voice, with my sense of what's fun to read and fun to write, and the best fit with all the characters and worlds roaming around in my head.

I might still try my hand at other genres (why not?) but I'm requiring that I genuinely like those genres first. Otherwise, it's not fair to the readers who love that genre, and it's not fair to me, writing in it.

Oooh. How about you? Ever charge out in a writing direction that just wasn't a good fit? Have you found the right genre for yourself?

4. The staunch traditionalist: I also assumed I'd be following the traditional publishing model.

No, not assumed: I was adamant. Absolutely 100% certain.

See, I'd actually worked for a while as a proofreader for a self-publishing company, and I had a pretty dim view of the manuscripts that came through. I thought that self-publishing was only for work that was too rough and too damaged to go to an official, real publisher. 

(Ahem. Excuse me, I'm blushing.)

Imagine the craziness, then, of this complete change of heart, when a few summers ago I had my mind turned inside out as I learned from amazing professionals like Joanna Penn and Chandler Bolt and Tim Grahl.

And I realized: this whole do-it-yourself thing can actually work, without sacrificing quality, without giving up anything you don't want to give up!

You can even actually sell books. And, you know, make a living.

Woo! I went from adoring the romanticism of the traditional publishing world, to being thrilled with the prospect of making my own way as an independent author-entrepreneur. 

Who could have guessed?

5. The ascetic: This is a small one, but it surprised me so much that I had to tell you.

For some reason, I had heard that a writing workspace wasn't supposed to be pleasant and comfortable.

How crazy is that?! I've obviously turned that completely around too. Anything I can do to beautify and add comfort to my workspace, I will absolutely do

I'd like to enjoy my work and where I work. Is that weird? I don't think that's weird.

6. The quick turnaround: Okay. This is one of the biggest differences between how I thought my writing life would start, and how it actually did.

I thought that 15 months would be long enough to decide whether or not I was going to stick with writing novels. By which I meant: 15 months was long enough to learn how to write my first publishable novel. And, you know, sell it.

I mean, seriously: How hard could it be?

Ha! Hahahahahaha!!! Woohoohoo!

Ahem.

Here's what I've learned since then: I am not a straight-line learner.  And learning to write a novel is pretty dang different from learning to write a five-page short story for class. 

(This is one of the many reasons why I love the Story Grid Podcast. Because you get to literally eavesdrop on the learning-to-write-a-novel process. And even with a super-smart professional editor helping, it's still not instant. SO much comfort in that!)

So did it take me 15 months? No. No, it did not.

7. The ultra-successful superstar: And finally, there's the thing that I didn't write in the paper ... but which I still wanted. I wanted it so badly I could see it, so much that I wrote about it again and again in the journal I began after I graduated.

I wanted to write three bestselling novels in my first four years of writing. 

They needed to be amazing. Traditionally published, hardcover, beautiful works of art. They needed to win attention, interviews, money.

I put this incredible, outrageous pressure on myself, hounding myself, never forgiving myself if I felt like I'd slacked off.

Why? Because I had to prove myself.

That's what I thought, anyway. I had to show myself as successful, in a way that no one could contradict.

Otherwise—what was I even doing? Otherwise—why even take the plunge?

Otherwise, I figured my life didn't make sense.

If it wasn't going to pay off, dramatically, superbly, with a ton of fanfare and confetti—then maybe I was being lazy, idiotic, and foolish by choosing a writing life.

It makes my heart beat a little quicker to confess this, but if graduating-me had a picture of current me, of the actual Lucy who is typing this right now... 

Well, I don't know if she could go through with it. 

Because her definition of success was so narrow. She had a completely unrealistic idea of what it took to write an incredible novel. She thought she understood more than she did.

And she didn't think she could tolerate even a whiff of failure.

Three bestsellers in four years: I hung my heart on that, and left it there for far too long. That was what "real talent" looked like, I decided.

That was my outrageous threshold for success, and if I reached it (I had to reach it!) then it would solve the Fear Problem, the Money Problem, the Did I Make the Right Decision Problem.

It's taken me such a long time to learn to value success differently. To decide that real talent is not necessarily flashy. 

To learn to love the writing life because I actually love writing: that is what feels like success to me now.

To be swept away by the thrill of a story, as it unravels out of my heart and mind and life—that is the thing that proves to me, again and again, that this is the work I am meant to do.

Joy and a sense of calling: this is the currency that I'm paid in.


Okay, my friends, over to you: What did you expect the writing life to look like when you began—whether that was twenty years ago or twenty days ago? 

Some misconceptions are funny, laughable—like why did I ever think a workplace needed to be cold and boring?

Some are just interesting—like my complete about-face from traditional publishing to independent.

But other misconceptions can stifle you. They can strangle your creativity and your joy if they go unquestioned, unchallenged, and unchanged.

So in this month of celebrating endings and beginnings, of tossing caps in the air and swishing around in robes, it's worth having a graduation ceremony of our own.

Let's move on, move forward. Let's be done with believing the wrong things about writing, about success, about what progress looks like.

It's worth doing a little digging, my friends, and pulling up those toxic old ideas by their roots. Yank them out, let them go.

Move your tassel to the other side, and start the next phase of your wonderful writing life.