Writers on Not Writing: Clif Travers and Dave Patterson

June 30, 2024

Writers pour so much energy into their craft that sometimes we forget that creative pursuits other than writing can fill us up in other important ways. Here, we’ll look at what writers do when they aren’t writing, and how those pursuits affect the return to the page. This month, we hear from writer and visual artist Clif Travers and writer and musician Dave Patterson on how other forms of creativity open space for words on the page.


I fell in love with the visual arts long before I was a writer. My first graduate degree was in painting and sculpture, and I’d been showing my work for about twenty years before I considered writing. It seemed to happen without my awareness that words started coming into my visual work until they nearly dominated my paintings. A shift occurred about ten years ago when I began spending more time on writing, and it soon became my dominant passion.

I find the concentration required for me to write is exhausting. It’s like being in a tunnel with the brightness directly ahead and nothing at all on the edges. That intensity, at least for me, is only sustainable for a few hours. But the creative spirit is still there, and I’m often able to go into the studio after five hours of writing. It’s as if I haven’t been using my brain at all. It’s fresh. The experience is completely different. Instead of that intensity of focus, my vision is wider. Whereas writing can sometimes be mentally draining, visual art fills me up again. After a couple of hours in the studio, I can sometimes go back to writing for a few more. For me, they seem to balance each other out. I feel very fortunate to have both passions in my life.

My art is about color, texture, and detail. Instead of struggling sometimes to find the perfect words to describe those qualities on the page, I can squeeze them out of a tube. And there are no rules in art. It is what I say it is.

Painting and sculpture settle my mind. I can think about other things while I’m painting. I can listen to a book or have a movie on in the background. It’s a break from that intense concentration that I feel when I’m writing. And in that more relaxed state, ideas come to me. I’m always making notes about something I’ve left unfinished on the page. Sometimes—not often enough—I’ll have a revelation while painting. It might be that one element I’ve been struggling with, and I’ll rush back to the laptop to get it down. I suppose it’s close to meditation for me.

Clif Travers


Before I had the guts to write a short story in my early 20s, I learned to play guitar on a $100 Alvarez I found at a garage sale. This knockoff Martin acoustic guitar was a portal into creativity and self-expression that informs my fiction writing in ways I’m still discovering decades after I spotted it on a stranger’s front lawn. In grad school when I began to flirt with telling stories of my own, I had already spent years in dim barrooms plunking through Tom Petty and Sublime cover songs. Before I dissected the brilliance of Annie Proulx’s Close Range and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, I’d taken a master class in Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and D’Angelo’s Voodoo. For a long time I kept the two artistic practices separate in my mind, but now they seem entwined, as impossible to tease apart as the trunks of two towering oak trees that grew around each other as they rose toward the sun.

At the book launch for my debut novel, someone in the audience asked how being a musician influenced my practice as a fiction writer. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it was the first time I’d actually thought about it. The answer that came out of me: I listen intensely to the sound of my sentences. As long as I’ve written fiction, I’ve spent the final stages of the editing process reading my sentences out loud over and over. Before I submitted a final draft of my first novel, I spent sixteen hours over two days reading the entire book out loud. It’s the only way I know how to get the sentences right. I listen for rhythm, repeated sounds, the way words create a unique timbre when placed next to each other. Robert Frost said, “The ear is the only true writer.” I now realize he’s talking about making music on the page.

Being a musician also makes me a more playful storyteller. The verb associated with music is play. As in, one plays music. In writing fiction I strive to play language, characters, and conflict. When I start getting too earnest or bogged down in my fiction practice, I tell myself, Stop writing; start playing! This opens me up. Frees me from the myth of being a serious writer of literary fiction. It allows me to go hog wild.

As I write this, I realize I could go on ad nauseam about the interplay between my musical practice and my writing habit, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll entertain one more connection. There are only twelve notes in Western music. That means there are only twelve possible choices at any point to make when constructing a melody. Twelve! Yet somehow, Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday,” and James Jamerson crafted the transcendent bassline to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And artists like The War On Drugs and Taylor Swift are still finding fresh combinations of those twelve notes to break our hearts. In 2018 researchers at Washington State University and the University of Vermont analyzed 1,700 novels and concluded there are only six basic story plots. Our job as fiction writers is to find inspiration and new space inside these six notes of storytelling in the way that Beyoncé renewed the genre of country music with her recent album, Cowboy Carter.

Okay, I know I said I was done, but I’ll share one more music/writing connection—a bonus track, if you will. Playing music for me is a physical experience. When I play guitar I move around, undulate, shake my hips with a Presleyian vigor. It’s how I feel the music, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it. Writing fiction, especially novel writing, can be a pretty sedentary endeavor, even when I’m deeply feeling what I’m writing on an emotional and empathetic level. Some days, after hours of sitting at my desk writing scenes, I make myself move. I put on Prince’s “Sexy M.F.,” and I dance in my writing studio. I’m alone, so I really let rip. Dancing allows the pathos roiling in my body to escape. There’s a catharsis to the movement that only music can pull out of me. When I place my hands back on the keyboard after a “Sexy M.F.” dance session, my body is more attuned to the story, and I’m ready to play fiction.

Dave Patterson


Clif Travers is a visual artist and writer living in Portland, Maine, and he’s an editor of
Portland Magazine. His writing has been featured in multiple literary magazines and anthologies, and his collection of linked stories, The Stones of Riverton, was published by Down East Books in September of 2023. Clif received his MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, and he teaches creative writing at Writerfest in New York, The Writing Center in Gloucester Massachusetts, Maine Writers and Publishers in Portland, and Maine Media.

Dave Patterson is a writer, musician, and teacher from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He holds an MA from the Bread Loaf School of English and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. He is the author of the novel, Soon the Light Will be Perfect (Hanover Square Press), and the winner of the 2024 Maine Literary Award in short fiction. When he’s not holed up in his writing studio, he’s playing guitar and singing with his wife in the duo, The High Spirits, at breweries, bars, and backyards around southern Maine. www.davepattersonauthor.com

Curated by Jen Dupree


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved