In a new special series, Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War and Still Come Home, debunks common and pervasive myths about writing. You may have heard at some point that you’re not a real writer unless you write every day. Think again:
When “Not Writing” is the Best Thing a Writer Can Do
It’s true that my first book, Flashes of War, was rejected over 40 times before being accepted by Loyola University Maryland, and going on to win IndieFab Book of the Year in 2013. It was even studied at the United States Air Force Academy and is still used in classrooms today, from the University of Washington to Germany, and beyond. It’s also true that I wrote my novel Still Come Home on “a hope and a prayer,” gut burned, but came out on top with a second book anyway—though I never would have guessed the hurdles I’d have to jump.
The truth is, I sent Flashes of War out way too soon. And there’s a good chance I could have saved myself a lot of heartache with Still Come Home if I’d just slowed down and gotten real about what’s really happening inside the publishing industry. But before the publishing industry, a writer has to look deep within and learn how to become her own best coach, decider, reviser, editor, and agent.
If I could go back in time, here’s what I’d tell myself:
FIRST: Let the manuscript sit in the drawer for at least a few months before embarking on a final revision and submissions. Confession: I put Flashes of War aside for 3 weeks over the course of 3 years—that’s it; but I put Still Come Home in the drawer for 12 months. What do you during your break? Feed your imagination in any way that you can, other than writing.
When you return to the pages, set your pen aside. Do not sit down. Do not turn on a computer. Read your work out loud, slowly, while standing or pacing, from a printed page. Listen to your own imagination rendered into syllables as they meet the air. Go slowly (I can’t say that enough) and understand that this may mean you can only practice this exercise in 20-minute intervals.
Learn from what you hear and feel in your body as you are doing this. Where have you said something you don’t believe? Where is there a gap? What word is exactly right and why is it right? What does that rightness tell you about where your story/plot/chapter goes next…and do you go there, or do you need to revise? Go slowly enough to apply thinking to language and actually ponder or freewrite answers to the questions I am posing here. Or as Verlyn Klinekborg says, “Search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say, hidden inside the sentence you’re making.”
Then make changes. Then wait. Feed your imagination and spirit yet again.
As you “feed,” it’s best if you can try something very new and/or fun (example: take a rock climbing class, go to a comedy show, explore a new city) to help yourself remember what beginner’s mind feels like. Alternatively, you can spend this “break time” doing something you’re really good at—maybe a pick-up soccer game if you used to play, or dusting off that old guitar for a few songs, or hosting a dinner club or weekend getaway with pals, or drawing. The point is to remember lightness, ease, play, discovery, and connection. If the activity you choose starts to be measured against standards—your own or someone else’s—stop and choose a different activity (or kick that Nosy Nellie outta your head!).
After you’ve fed your creative spirit, return to the manuscript refreshed. Do what you need to do—and trust me, you’ll know. Then submit your work.
For author Katey Schultz, sometimes “writing” looks like “not writing.”
SECOND: Don’t assume your career has to look like anyone else’s. Despite the immaculate and moving books on your shelf—books by Rick Bass, Alexandra Fuller, Trevor Noah, Thom Jones, Claire Davis, Diane Ackerman, Barry Lopez, Gwendolyn Brooks—these writers, too, composed “shitty first drafts.” They, too, dared to dream and, at some point, fell gravely short. But their lives and unique writing processes, from germination to book in hand, are largely invisible to you. The only thing that matters is what’s most helpful to you at the moment, and if that means going mountain biking for the day or making eighteen quarts of butternut squash soup, then that is what it means.
Which is to say, it’s your job as a writer to create your own standards. You define what “success” means and you get to have an evolving definition of success over the course of your lifetime as a writer. I’ll say that again: you decide, you define—and you do this based on your personal publishing and professional goals. You do not do this based on assumptions you make about the standards other writers have set in order to achieve their own accomplishments. In what way could that logic possibly serve you? It can’t.
In hindsight, I’m glad I learned the lessons that I did. But you don’t have to learn them the hard way. Because the truth is, writers need different support at different times. Would line-level revision assist you most right now? Or do you need an accountability group and a book list? Would a post-graduate level mentorship with structure and challenge give you the boost you need? Or are you starved for prompts and inspiration, ready to bring a sense of play back into your writing?
It’s your job to ponder questions like these and experiment with answering them for yourself. Those reflections and decisions are just as important (if not more so) than any daily word count goal or promise to “write every day.” If you’re in this for the long haul, curating your own breaks, sense of play, opportunities for fulfillment, and approaches to revision, submission, and success are all a part of what you do in your career and they’re all equally important. I believe this so firmly, I’ve built my business on it.
Next month we’ll dive into myth-busting “Write What You Know.” Until then, put your manuscript away and feed your imagination. Curious for a bit more guidance? Readers of this article on The Masters Review can email me for a pro-bono 20-minute consult to discuss goals and needs.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, IndieFab Book of the Year, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.