Work and Process Week 4: Writing Advice
Since I first started studying writing seriously in 2003, when I enrolled in my first creative writing course at UC Santa Cruz, I’ve heard my fair share of prescriptive writing advice: Eschew passive voice. Vary your sentence structure. Kill your darlings. Reduce your word count by doing a global search for every “that” or “just” or instance of filtering in your manuscript and delete them all in a sudden, wild exorcism!
I’ve seen this kind of instruction doled out on Twitter, in workshops, at lectures. I’ve had rules like show, don’t tell drilled into my head until I believed they were not only true but unassailable. However, the longer I’ve done this, the more I’ve found myself repelled by rigid decrees of craft. Perhaps it’s my creative and rebellious spirit. Or perhaps I’ve just learned that all of these edicts can be good advice, but none of them work as wholesale, unbreakable writing dogma, because for every craft “rule,” it's likely that there’s a situation where you can and should break it.
Adopt the passive voice when it suits the situation, narrator, or character. Hammer at a single sentence structure when writing from the perspective of an obsessive, unrelenting point-of-view. Keep your darling if it’s the beating heart of your work. Evaluate your sentences for rhythm, tone, or voice, and use every filler word with purpose. Summarize when you need a beat of exposition but a lengthy scene or description would be inconsequential to and therefore distracting from the story.
To me, it all boils down to studying and improving your craft. By all means, learn the rules, why they’re there and how they work and when they’re useful (or not). Then, if need be, break them.
That’s why, when I’m asked what advice I have for writers, there are really only two suggestions I think will apply, no matter the writer, no matter the journey, to anyone and everyone, and those pieces of advice go hand-in-hand.
The first: always keep learning. I’m of the mind that no matter how good your craft is, no matter how much you’ve accomplished, there’s always something more to learn, something new to try. I love challenging myself in my work. The Reader had eight point-of-view characters? The Speaker had ten. The Reader had three timelines? The Speaker had three timelines and one of them was told backwards. I wrote a trilogy? Next, I’m going to try writing a standalone. My books tend to be lengthy? Next, I’m going to try writing something under 100,000 words. I feel like there’s always something I can improve on, or something I haven’t attempted yet. For me, craft is aspirational. What else can I do with the written word? How else can I tell a story? How can I get better as a writer and an artist and also as a person?
Personally, I do all sorts of things to develop my craft. I read outside my genres. I take classes. I study books on writing. I comb the internet for tips and tricks. I take notes on stories I adore and dissect them bit by bit to figure out how I can write something half as good. I listen to discussions about representation. I learn about power and history and debt and colonialism and culture and oppression and people and the world. I interrogate my brilliant writer friends, trying to learn their secrets.
There is a danger to never being satisfied, however. With all of that input (from teachers, books, internet, colleagues, etc.), you can easily lose your own vision, that burning flame of an idea or inspiration that first made you want to tackle this story, this poem, this piece of art. You can try to write too much like someone else and not enough like yourself. You can listen to too many other voices and not your own heart. So what you create doesn’t end up sounding like you at all, doesn’t really belong to you as the Thing That Only You Could Have Made. Which is why my second piece of advice is: stick to your guns.
When I was in graduate school, I was working on this short story of deliciously experimental upside-down fairy tales. I was repeating scenes, switching settings without clear logical reasons, doubling back on my own timelines, and boy did my classmates not get it at all. I once sat through an hour-long workshop of readers telling me to write something a little less weird, a little less difficult, a little more inside-of-the-box, a little less me.
After class, however, one of my colleagues came up to me in the hallway and told me I was doing things that were challenging and different and exciting. He told me not to listen to the haters. He told me to stick to my guns.
So I did. And I have ever since. That’s why I write ambitious multi-POV, multi-timeline, meta-fantasy epics like The Reader Trilogy. That’s why I tackle daring projects that play with narrative structure and question how we tell stories. That’s why I’m always trying to find that Traci Chee twist and will only attempt a project if I have a clear sense of what my own personal magic can bring to it.
I’m not saying that your vision or your instinct is always right. I’ve abandoned ideas I was in love with when I realized they weren’t mine to write, or that I would be taking the place of another writer who could be speaking for themselves or to their own community with more authenticity and nuance than I could ever hope to have, no matter how much I learned or researched. I’ve let go of ideas because I didn’t feel like I could bring anything new or worthwhile to them or the ongoing cultural conversation about them. I've dropped stories because they simply wouldn't work, no matter how much I revised them. That’s the learning part. Learning when you should step back. Accepting when your genius idea isn’t so genius after all. Peering into your own blind spots. Knowing when not to do something as well as when to dive into it with all you’ve got.
As an artist, I try to maintain that curious and seemingly contradictory balance: being open to change and growth while, at the same time, remaining true to my vision and my voice. And: Knowing who I am as an artist while, at the same time, being ready and eager to keep learning and improving.
This is all a roundabout way, I suppose, of saying that while part of Work and Process is reflection (like I’ve done these past few weeks), another part of it is craft work. In the months ahead, I’d like to share some writing advice with you, what works for or has been helpful to me, but I’m not interested in being prescriptive. I’m not interested in telling you what you can or can’t do with your own storytelling. I am, however, interested in sharing approaches to craft, techniques that I’ve found useful, perspectives on writing that I’ve incorporated into my own process. Please, adopt what’s helpful to you! Leave what isn’t. I look forward to sharing and learning with you in the weeks to come.
Next week: TIME TO BEGIN. After all the thinking and the ruminating and the researching and the pondering and the percolating, when do you know it’s time to start a project? How well-developed does an idea have to be before you approach it? What do you have to know before you put the first words down on the page? How much research do you complete before writing a word? How well do you understand your world, your characters, your conflicts, themes, or plot by the time you tackle that first scene or chapter? In other words, how do you begin? Let’s do this thing next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. Peace and progress. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings, examinations, meanderings, discoveries, bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.
I turned in a project last week, and for the first time in months, I don’t have a deadline to meet. I’m not consumed with producing words, accumulating pages, anxiously checking off chapters as I count down the days.
I mentioned this in my first post, but I have a tendency to get caught up in Doing Things. I love completing tasks, the feeling of accomplishment and the concomitant self-confidence of knowing I am A Person Who Can Get Things Done. So after I finish a project, my first instinct, of course, is to leap headfirst into a new one (like one of those long-simmering ideas I’ve had on the backburner for years). But I try not to. In fact, for a few days at least, I try not to do anything.
Well, kind of. I try to practice a certain type of not-doing, of not-making, where I’m not creating things but absorbing them, where I’m more still than in movement.
I’ve heard some people say that creativity is a resource, like water. You can only use so much so fast before you run out, and once that well of artistic energy is empty, it needs to refill before you can draw on it again. Other people think of creativity more like a muse with whom you’re building a relationship--I’ve heard my friend Diane Glazman, one of the best readers I’ve ever worked with, talk about her creativity this way.--and as with all relationships, it’s reciprocal. You have to care for your muse. You have to build trust. You have to show up for your art so your art will show up for you. However you think of your relationship to your creativity, I believe the idea is the same: You can’t continually take without giving back. You have to feed your muse. You have to refill your well.
Perhaps, given enough time, my creativity would replenish itself naturally, through the everyday wonder of living, but at the moment, I have the privilege of writing for a living, so I’m almost constantly drawing on my artistic resources, which means that I need to find ways to refuel and recover my artistic energy when I can.
To that end, I try to cultivate some rejuvenating practices, especially when I’m between projects, activities that help me to regain my artistic equilibrium, that tranquility Wordsworth says is necessary for poetry, or to collect new influences and perspectives, or to delve deeper into the things that inspire me. Here are some of those practices:
Meditating. I took up meditation a couple years ago, on the advice of my acupuncturist, at a time when I’d worked myself so hard, I could have slept all day and still awoken exhausted. Since then, I haven’t always been great about doing it (especially when I need it most), but in the spirit of my word of the year (breathe), I’m trying to make meditation part of my daily practice. There’s something beautiful and focusing about it, and when I’m railing against my self-imposed inactivity, it reminds me to slow down, to take it easy, because I’m going to need this rest later. I recommend the Calm app, which features guided daily meditations as well as meditations for specific purposes, like dealing with stress or falling asleep.
Observing and journaling. In addition to meditating, I’ve been trying to sit still for ten minutes a day, observing what’s going on around and inside me. What’s the character of the light today? How am I feeling? Where is my mind going when I allow it to go anywhere it wants? After sitting for a while, I usually jot down my thoughts in my journal, not for rereading later, but for the benefit of getting my thoughts and emotions outside of myself, where they don’t feel so tangled up and overwhelming.
Cleaning and tidying. I suppose journaling for me feels like cleaning, like clearing the dusty corners of my mind and sweeping the floors of my heart, so I’m mentally and emotionally ready for whatever comes next. That’s also why I clean my workspace every time I turn in a project. I recycle and organize old notes. I sort my research books. I dust. I clean the slate of my desk for the next load of books, drafts, and research notes, so I can tackle my next project without clutter or baggage from the old one.
Reading for pleasure. When I’m working on something, I have a hard time getting any significant pleasure reading done and I’m usually only able to get through a couple pages here and there, usually of something far outside the genre I’m working in. (When I was working on The Reader Trilogy, for example, I liked to read poetry, like Milk Carbon Black by Joan Naviyuk Kane or short story collections of adult science fiction like The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu.) So I end up doing most of my reading when I’m between projects, picking books off my shelves to settle down for hours with a long read and a cup of tea.
Reading for research. I also read to research my next project. Like I said last week, my ideas need to simmer for years before I can really start working on them, and part of that process is filling myself up with influences from history and art and literature. I try to read around three books for research (depending on the length) during each break, so the ideas I find there can continue to mix and cook inside me until the next time I can look at them.
Making something that isn’t at all related to writing. There’s something really restorative, I’ve found, about using my artistic energy in a different way. Drawing, music, baking, and egg-painting (some of my oft-neglected but still-enjoyable hobbies) all require a different quality of creativity than writing. It’s so refreshing to make something with a different part of my mind/heart/senses, something sweet or nourishing or beautiful that isn’t at all related to my work.
Naturing. For me, there’s almost nothing as rejuvenating as being outdoors. I love the rocks and the mountains and the water and the sound of the wind in the trees, the birds in flight and the predators padding along the paths, the work of the body, the way everything tastes better with a little dirt in it, the bigness and oldness of things out there, the indifference of the wilderness and at the same time, the need for us to care for and respect it. It makes me feel small and alive and connected and vulnerable. It soothes my nerves. It wakes me up. It makes me more appreciative and more grateful.
Traveling. I’m not always able to do this, but I love traveling between projects. Like getting outdoors, seeking experiences outside of my usual mental/physical/emotional space readjusts my perspective. I like seeing new places, learning new things, tasting new foods, expanding what I think of the world and how we are in it. There is so much to this planet and its creatures, and every part of it is a new inspiration, a new idea, a new ingredient, a new question, a new thing to learn and respect and value and wonder at.
Museuming. In addition to travel, attending museums is a great (and often more time- and cost-effective) way to broaden my intellectual/artistic/emotional horizons. I love immersing myself in other disciplines--visual art, history, culture, science--because they offer other ways to engage with the world, other lenses with which to see what’s going on around me and what my place is. If you’re in San Francisco, I highly recommend checking out some of my favorite museums: SFMOMA, the Asian Art Museum, the DeYoung, and the Cal Academy.
Fellowshipping. I’m an introvert and a workaholic by nature, so usually when I’m working, I’m working, and almost all my thought and intention is bent toward whatever story is inside of my dying to get out. But writing can be so isolating if you do it this way, and therefore lonely, stressful, and even depressing. It can be really hard holding a world inside of you, diving into the difficult emotions of your characters, navigating the intersections between art and business, and dealing with the fears of making and sharing something so intensely personal with what can seem like an indifferent or even hostile world.
But the truth is we’re not alone. At least, I don’t think we don’t have to be. And for me, that alleviates the strain of pursuing a career in a creative field to connect with other writers. To commiserate. To celebrate. To brainstorm. To get out of my head and my heart and my self-doubt. During breaks, I try to reconnect with friends and fellow artists. I aim to have long, leisurely conversations, over hot beverages or on the phone, about our personal lives and what particular anxieties are plaguing us and how our art is going.
And not only does this fellowship remind me that I am not alone, it also inspires me, hearing how people I love and respect and admire are going about their creative endeavors, how they’re making and rethinking and revising and pursuing things that are so beautiful and compelling and startling and new.
Maybe that’s what it is, for me. Maybe that’s what I need to refill my well, to nourish my creativity, to keep doing this art thing month after month, year after year. Connection. Connection with myself, whom I can so easily lose when I’m in the middle of a story. Connection with nature. With the world. With people. A sort of reaffirming that we are here and we are here together, and there is this deep ocean of art and science and humanity and and music and culture and philosophy all around me, all the time, and nothing I make is made in isolation but wholly part of/drawn from/in conversation with this vast sea of history, and when I refill the well, I’m returning to the waters--restored, reinvigorated, replenished, and ready for the next project.
Next week: WRITING ADVICE. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst? What rules did you hate as soon as you learned them? What rules have become so integral to your practice that you couldn’t imagine doing without them? What is the relationship between the rules of writing and artistic freedom? How do you know when to follow the rules and when to break them? Have a think with me next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. Onward. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings, examinations,, meanderings, discoveries, bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.
Work and Process Week 2: Genesis
Where do you get your ideas? I’m asked this question a lot at events, and I never quite know what to say because the very truthful, very unhelpful answer is: everywhere.
From movies, TV shows, books, video games, walks in the woods, travels across the ocean, adventures in foreign cities, the quality of rain on the streets, conversations that last into the night, art, music, feelings. In my experience, inspiration can and does come from anywhere, from anything that strikes me, moves me, sways me from wherever I was before to who I could be.
But ideas are a dime a dozen. They wink and sparkle and distract. They pile up in drawers and hard drives: ten pages, fifty, unfinished outlines, half-plotted quests, characters without stories to inhabit. Getting an idea is easy.
Settling on the idea that I need to pursue, the one that haunts me, the one that I’ll keep chipping away at, even when the work is hard, even when it feels like I’m going nowhere, even when I know it would be easier to give up, that’s the real trick.
Personally, I can’t figure that out without time and a little magic. You know, that magic that happens when all your inspirations and ideas get inside of you, when all the disparate sounds, textures, and flavors of your experience get shaken up in the great tumbler of your chest, fusing and combining in all sorts of unexpected ways. That’s one of the beautiful things about art, I think. That wholly individual synthesis.
For me, that synthesis takes time. I’ve learned that my ideas have to percolate for years before I can even begin work on them. They’re there--I can feel them bubbling quietly in the back of my mind--but I don’t look directly at them. Maybe I’ll daydream about them as I drift off to sleep or scribble down a character name or a piece of the world-building here and there. I’ll add these things to the simmer. Continue not to look. Wait. See what sticks.
The Reader Trilogy, for example, came out of a long and unlikely confluence of Things That Wouldn’t Let Me Go:
It was years of experiences. Years of ideas. An outlaw with an honor code. A magic book. A fantasy heroine that looked like me. An ending that would rip your heart out. I jotted down the first sentences of what would become The Reader in 2008. I didn’t finish the first draft until 2014, ten years after the story’s first character came to me (it was Captain Reed, if you're wondering!).
I had a lot of fears while I was working on The Reader. Would I get an agent? Would it sell? Would anyone understand it? Would it find a place out there, in readers’ hearts? But the one thing I never feared was that someone would write it before I could.
Because putting together these inspirations in this way? That could only be done by me, and it just took time before I figured out how to combine them, how to synthesize them with my wholly individual magic. See, I think ideas get shaken up inside you, and when they emerge again, at your fingertips, they’re something totally new, something only you could have made.
Is this process slow? Oh yeah. At any given time, I only have two or three books inside me: the one I’m actively working on; the one that’s slowly taking shape, like some creature out of the primordial ooze; and a flicker of an idea that’s little more than a premise (or sometimes not even that).
But for me, these slow-cooker ideas are the only ones worth pursuing. Actually, I think they’re the only ideas I can pursue, the only ones that I can sustain over the year or three or ten that it will take to bring them into the world. It’s the ideas haunt me, before I’ve even started working on them, that are the ones I know I can make into books.
My current project, for example, has been floating inside me, like wisps of cloud, for years. I remember capturing the first piece of it when I was twelve years old, even though I didn’t start serious research on it until 2015, and the story didn’t coalesce until 2018, when I finally figured out how to write it in the way only I could.
Of course, it probably doesn’t work this way for everyone. Other people have six novel ideas cooking at once. Other people can write two or three or five books in a year. In the past, I’ve wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I produce like that? What if I only had one story in me to tell? Why am I so slow? But the more I come to understand my process, the gentler I am with myself. Because this is my process--this is how the work gets done, how the art gets made--at least for now, and I’m learning to embrace it. If you’re like me, and you’re reading this, I hope it gives you a little more patience with yourself and your muse. I hope you believe in the magic inside of you, the experience and perspective that only you can fuse into something wholly and beautifully new. I hope you write the stories that won’t let you go, and make the things that only you can make.
Next week: REFILLING THE WELL. I just turned in a project, and I’m in desperate need of a brain break! What do you do to recover your creative energy? Do you have any restorative practices that keep you from burnout? Where do you go to feed your muse? What rejuvenates you as an artist? How do you refuel yourself between projects? Come sit with me next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. As my friend Steve Stormoen, author of The Pros comics says, love and solidarity. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings/examinations/meanderings/discoveries/bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.
Work and Process Week 1: The Project
I’ve been thinking seriously about writing and the craft of writing since I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz in 2007 (longer if you count the hours I put in during middle and high school), and I am still in love with it. The process, I mean. The challenge. The work of art. Every year, I’ve gained new skills, refined old ones, attempted and aspired to things I didn’t know could be done with the written word. They say every book teaches you how to write it, and I’ve found that to be true. Each story I write (even the ones that will never see the light of day) teaches me something new about writing. And I dearly hope I never stop learning.
I’ve actually been wanting to write about writing and art and work and the creative life for years now. I’ve been tempted to make Twitter threads on voice or teach a class on foreshadowing or share techniques and tricks I think could be helpful to other writers out there. But I never could seem to carve out the time, the energy, the space to do it properly, to give my craft the thought and care I think it deserves.
Then I saw my friend and fellow creator, Wes Sam-Bruce, posting at Where the Questions Live weekly meditations on art, nature, wonder, and the myriad, complex, exquisite relationships between people and each other and people and the world, and I was inspired. What ambition! What time and thought and care it must take to create something like this every week to such beautiful results! (Click the link above to read through some of the meditations and visit Live the Curious Life to see more of Wes’s art.)
There’s a practice, at the beginning of a new year, of choosing a word, an idea, an intention that will focus and guide you toward who you want to be and what you want your life to look like over the next 365 days.
This year, mine is breathe.
Those of you who know me know I get so caught up in doing things: writing, revising, trying new recipes, learning to garden, redecorating my living space. And I never give myself enough time/energy/space to breathe. To be present. To celebrate. Or savor. To live in the world, right here, right now.
Enter: Work and Process, a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings/examinations/meanderings/discoveries/bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.
On the one hand, this project is yet another thing to do, another chore, perhaps, but I hope it’s more than that. I hope it becomes not another item on my To Do list but a more rejuvenating practice that ultimately connects me more deeply to my art, my muse, my work, and my reading and writing community. I hope it’s something that teaches me to pause. To dream. To exhale. To nurture my creative soul. To share what I’ve learned. To investigate what I haven’t. To think about where I’ve been, how I got here, where I’m going, who I am, and who I want to be. To work and to process and to savor them both.
Next week: GENESIS. What sparks your creativity? What sowed the first seed of your current work in progress? Where do you get your ideas? What makes a project so captivating that you’re willing to pour years of your life into it? How do you open yourself up to new creative endeavors? How do you choose an artistic path to walk? What really makes you want to sink your teeth into an idea? Join me next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. Let’s go. <3