July 24, 2019 § 14 Comments
By R.L. Maizes
I’ve learned a lot from my cat, Arie. No, I don’t spray the furniture, chew electrical cords, or howl at the neighborhood Tom (well, not unless I’m feeling especially lonely). What I’ve picked up are these ten tips to improve your writing life.
- Be indifferent. You don’t need your story to appear in Most Prestigious Journal to be successful as a writer. You don’t need Famous Writer to follow you back on Twitter. You don’t need to win prizes or even to be nominated for them. When you get a rejection, yawn, then lick your butt. You’ll get the point, even if whoever is rejecting you won’t.
- Scratch an itch. Write about what nags at you, whether it’s your difficult childhood, the miserable state of our state, or the elegance of ballet. There’s no subject too small for writing. In her lovely memoir, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes about the snail that lived on her nightstand while she was bedridden. The success of epic novels such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which follows four generations of Koreans, proves there’s no subject too large.
- Throw up. Working on my novel-in-progress, I had the brilliant idea to give the main character a blind cat. (I know, cats.) I was so excited, I immediately began researching how a vet would diagnose blindness in a cat, what treatments were available, and how a person would raise and care for such a cat. I crafted scenes around the animal. Time passed and the concept began to seem less, well, brilliant. My gut told me the blind cat was a distraction and didn’t serve the story. But what about all the research? The carefully written scenes? And how much readers would learn about blind cats? I made a hacking noise over the manuscript, drooled some yellow spit, and got rid of it all.
- Knock things over. Break at least one rule. Your main character shouldn’t be a writer, I’d heard from so many publishing sources, and then Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for Less, a novel about a writer, and Sigrid Nunez won the National Book award for The Friend, about a writer mourning the death of her author friend. Cause disruption. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shook up the meat-packing industry. Books like Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett changed how I and other readers view mental illness. Make people uncomfortable. If they question why they brought you home—you aloof, couch-shredding creature—you just might be doing your job.
- Clean yourself. Constantly. Check your spelling and punctuation, your grammar and usage. Readers will notice the difference between affect and effect, if a subject agrees with a verb, if you misspelled potato. A spellchecker can do only so much for you. Print out a draft. Read the work aloud. (Not “allowed,” as I first wrote.) On shorter pieces like this one, read your work from last paragraph to first to see it fresh.
- Leap. If you can elevate your subject matter, illuminating a part of history or a social issue, so much the better. I’m glad we have books like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to describe the plight of refugees. But don’t forget to also…
- Play. Entertain yourself and your reader. If you find yourself laughing while you’re writing, chances are some readers will laugh, too. Experiment with different elements of your story, varying point of view and tense, inserting flashbacks and flash forwards. Try epistolary devices, such as the diary in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, the PowerPoint slides in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the videos in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ story “Whisper to a Scream,” or something no one has tried before. Write in collective first person like Rajesh Parameswaran does in “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan.” (“None of us were surprised…” the story begins.) Try something new even—or especially—if it makes you uncomfortable. You might end up with a failed experiment or you might discover just what your work needs. You might even catch the feather at the end of the stick. But I doubt that. I really doubt that. You keep trying, Kitty.
- Be mysterious. Surprises are one of the joys of reading. Rebecca Makkai’s Pulitzer- finalist novel, The Great Believers, contains a bombshell. There’s an excellent twist in Pachinko, one Lee perfectly prepares the reader for, but you won’t claw it out of me. Read the damn book!
- Purr. As important as tension is to a story, readers periodically need a break from it, a time when things are going well for the characters. Have a character achieve a goal and enjoy her success or have her remember a past or imagine a future that is problem free. In one of the stories in my collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, the protagonist, who is Jewish, fights with his Protestant girlfriend about whether they should celebrate Christmas. Tension rises when the woman brings a spruce tree into their apartment and bakes Christmas cookies. It eases as the main character remembers the couple’s romantic first date. On Christmas Eve, it escalates again.
- Nap. Take breaks from your work-in-progress. You’ll come back to it refreshed, full of new ideas, and seeing the writing more clearly, what’s succeeding and what isn’t. You’ll be less attached to the words on the page and more willing to revise them. I wrote this essay while taking a break from working on my novel. Actual naps are good, too. Throw your paw over your eyes, whistle softly through your nose, and let the world disappear. Most of us are sleep deprived, which makes us less able to handle the stresses of life, including those of being a writer.
R.L. Maizes is the author of We Love Anderson Cooper, a short story collection about outsiders that naturally also includes cats. Her novel, Other People’s Pets, is forthcoming from Celadon Books July 2020. Find her on Twitter: @RL_Maizes.