Why “Just Write” Isn’t Exactly Sophisticated Advice by Miriam Sagan

Why “Just Write” Isn’t Exactly Sophisticated Advice

Although I’ve benefited from this advice—and no doubt given it—I’m starting to think it isn’t specific enough. And that’s because advice could be more tailored to who the writer is:

1. A professional or well-trained writer who feels “blocked.”
2. A person who has “always wanted” to be a writer.
3. Someone suffering from writing anxiety.

I have no idea how I learned to write. I can create a romantic version of my experience—dyslexic failing elementary school, strict but kind teacher, discovering poetry, etc. etc. But this may all be hindsight.

And so, “just write” may be good for the person who knows how to write but just can’t at the moment. This approach tends to the quick and spontaneous, to overriding self criticism, and to productivity. However, as a person who “wrote” at least three failed novels, I can say that filling pages really isn’t enough.
To write, a person must also read—and eventually, read as a writer. This involves deepening your relationship to structure, and actually understanding—on several levels—how a piece of writing is made.

For all three of the classic genres—non-fiction, fiction, and poetry—it is essential to know the rules of structure. And love those rules, engage with them, fight them, incorporate them.

So for the person who has always wanted to write—I suggest just that—reading and studying. Then writing. Then the uncomfortable questions—do I like this? Is this for me?

The bottom line is: I wish I’d learned earlier that writing is a relationship. Yes, it is a set of ancient productive craft rules, combined with pure effort. But it can also be showing off, slacking off, rebellion, and acquiescence.

And that is how I’d address anxiety. Get close. Don’t over analyze. Let the creative process soothe you.

Like all relationship, you tend to get what you give. But sometimes what you give may have to be partial, conflicted, or just plain weird.

That should work too.

Inside Story by Julia Goldberg

1. Julia–you’ve just published your first book–INSIDE STORY. The focus is a guide to writing creative nonfiction. I found the tone and approach very helpful. What in particular can the reader expect to learn?

My hope is that the book has appeal to many different types of creative nonfiction writers, from students to working writers and everyone in between. Inside Story delves into various categories of nonfiction—from memoir to journalism to the lyric essay. Each chapter endeavors to provide explanations about craft, writing exercises as well as references and resource lists. So, it’s a way to both learn more about the genre but also very much a practical guide to reporting and writing creative nonfiction. I have read many craft books myself, so I tried to distinguish my book in terms of it sounding like me—it has, I hope, much of the information one might find in a textbook, but it has a voice as well.

2. Was it easier–or more difficult–to write a book than you expected? You’ve been an editor in numerous capacities, including the Santa Fe Reporter but this is a different kind of endeavor. What surprised you?

I was surprised at how challenging it was! I’ve written on deadline my entire adult life and have written many long-form reported pieces. I worked as an editor on another book (Best Altweekly Writing, 2009-2010 from Northwestern Press). So I am familiar with many of the components needed to write a nonfiction book, such as research, reporting, organizing and, of course, the actual writing. But the accumulative process—writing for hours every day, day after day, and still not being finished, was a challenging—invigorating and difficult—experience. It set a bar in terms of my appreciation for the stamina it takes, for sure.

3. Anything else you want to add?
The book isn’t just my take on reporting and writing. I’ve been lucky in my career to both meet and read many amazing writers. I interviewed and reference numerous people for this book, whose own perspectives and experiences are in each chapter, and I’m very grateful for that.

4.How can readers buy a copy?
If readers are in Santa Fe, they can buy it at Collected Works. The book also is available on Amazon and all other online retailers. I’m also doing a giveaway on Goodreads May 24-June 23, so they can enter and maybe win one!

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Story-Everyones-Reporting-Nonfiction/dp/0997020776

Goodreads giveaway link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/237632-inside-story-everyone-s-guide-to-reporting-and-writing-creative-nonfict

More Recommended Books On Writing

Diana Rico Right now I am groovin’ on Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story.” It’s my third read-through and it is helping me make critical story breakthroughs on my first novel.

Donna Snyder On Becoming a Writer was one of the first I read and I recall at the time I thought it was great.

Liz Wallace Art and Fear

Janet Brennan Oh yes, I forgot about that one. The successful. Novelist ” by David. David Morrell. Highly recommended.

Paula Ambika Bromberg Of course that’s easy—all of Natalie Goldberg’s books..They rocked my soul….if that counts as helping me write…they inspire and delight…what’s yours?

Claudia Long Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Richard Peabody Sol Stein’s book on writing fiction. Taught Gardner, Goldberg, and Lamott for eons. Lance Olsen’s book and John Dufresne’s are also great for fiction.

Jennie Cooley Stephen Kings book on writing. keep going back to it.

Alfred Stanley The Elements of Style

Joyce Kornblatt ONE CONTINUOUS MISTAKE, Gail Sher

Linda Wiener Art and Fear is my vote too

John Roche I often use Writing Down the Bones or Susan Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy in classes. But the book that worked for me was Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.

Cinny Green one of my favorites is The Passionate Accurate Story by Carl Bly.

Marmika Paskiewicz Writing Down the Bones definitely was/is it for me – gave me the freedom to leap into it with all my fingers sticky without worrying “Am I really a writer?” or “Is it good enough?”

Marmika Paskiewicz I really want a writing guide with “snow” in the title…

Lauren Marie Reichelt The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It helped me to develop a concise and clear literary style.

Kate McCahill Dicey’s Song changed my writing life.

Terry Lucas I agree with all of the above. And I know you asked for “the best book,” but all of the following have been “the best” at different times for me: Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns; The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, Ordinar…See More

Charles Trumbull The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser. One of the most sensible books on writing IMHO.

Doug Bootes Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry. Seriously, I use this book more often than any to help expand and solidify my poetry.

Aline Tayar Kate Grenville and Sue Wolff’s Ten Australian Stories – interviews with famous Australian writers who talk about how they came to write one of their novels – from Jessica Anderson to Patrick White and Peter Carey. There are samples of early drafts as well as the final version of a piece of text. How an idea is born and how it gestates – this is the one book on writing that I’ve read and re-read.

Kelly Davio Scene and Structure. It’s dry, but incredibly useful. It’s a technical manual rather than a rah-rah-you-can-do-it book, and that works for me.

Thoughts on Reading by Karma Tenzing Wangchuk

No way i can narrow this down, to one book or one time in my life. nor can i bring up one technical book on writing as a craft that strongly influenced me. but words in print definitely had impact.

was it some now-forgotten book of nursery rhymes my mother read to me when i was two or three that got me started? the new yorker cartoons of james thurber and charles addams, which a nextdoor neighbor, lucy hill, introduced me to, along with ‘alice in wonderland’ and ‘through the looking glass’?

i’m sure sid ziff’s sports columns for the los angeles times, that i read as a child at the breakfast table, had something to do with my eventually becoming a journalist. and i know for sure that thomas wolfe’s novels ‘look homeward, angel’ and ‘of time and the river,’ which i devoured [a wolfean word] as a fledgling writer when i was 14, had a lot to do with my initial ‘serious’ efforts in prose, as a high schooler.

in college, r.h. blyth and harold g. henderson’s books of japanese haiku got me going in haiku, almost 50 years ago now. and, much later, in greece, odysseas elytis’s poetry collection ‘little mariner’ recharged my by-then low battery in poetry and haikai.

guess part of what i’m saying is that for me, books on writing haven’t been much of an influence or necessity. but books have–and spoken word, as in a parent’s handed-down rhymes [‘one little piggy. . .’] and reading aloud of grimm’s fairy tales or what-have-you. i could write a book on this.

What’s the best book on writing you’ve ever read–and did it actually help you write? Part 2

Jeanie C. Williams Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, gave me freedom to own the mundane.

Diana Rico One of my absolute faves as well. I’ve used her chapter on writing the Shitty First Draft in coaching blocked writers. Brilliant.

Barbara Mayfield Hands down: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. Yes, it made me a writer.

Grant Clauser Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Cirrelda Snider-Bryan William Stafford – You Must Revise Your Life.

Tanya Taylor Rubinstein Along with many of the books already mentioned, I’d add Inside Story by Dara Marks to the list. It’s ostensibly a book about screenwriting, but what I got from it was an understanding of archetypal structure that could be applied to any story based form.

Theresa Ann Aleshire Williams IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland

Janet Brennan For me it was ” Writing Down the Bones.” I read it over 20 years ago. Was already an author at that time but learned so much because that book is great for new writers and oldies like me. (Lol)

Steve Hodge Forget that he’s a horror or pop writer; Stephen King’s “On Writing” is quite good and contains a lot of useful information. I recommend it to writers of any genres.

Miriam Sagan King’s is one of my favorites.

Peter Cherches All the books of Paris Review interviews.

Diana Rico These are all archived online and they are a treasure trove!

Diana Ceres Anything by Natalie Goldberg.

Anne Hillerman David Morrell’s book is sensational

Rachel Ballantine If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

Miriam Sagan Love the War of Art–it helped me.

Russell Miller I enjoyed Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (though not strictly a book for writers) — I think mainly because I find him very companionable. And the Paris Review interviews are great (even when the authors are recalcitrant). (PS: Samuel Johnson hated parentheses.)

Arjuna Ranatunga There’s one called “The Artist’s Way”, by Julia Cameron. I have a friend who’s used it. It’s helped him to write & improved his spiritual life too, he says.