Christine’s Note: The last Take 5 Friday of every month will be a 5 question interview with a writer. I send 7 questions so they can choose their favourites. This week’s writer chose to answer all 7, just for fun, so today we have Take 5 (+2).
Julie Duffy is a writer and the host of the StoryADay.org creative writing challenge. Her website’s slogan is ‘Write today, not someday’ and her approach to encouraging writers fits in very nicely with our philosophy here at 10 Minute Novelists.
Julie’s focus is mostly on short stories but, just like us, she wants writers to persist, to find ways to squeeze their writing into their daily lives, and to be gentle with themselves about the whole process.
1) Where and when do you write?
I love to write late at night, but my lifestyle doesn’t really allow for that now, so if I can write first thing in the morning, that’s usually when things go best. (I have a wicked afternoon energy-slump!). To be honest, though, any time I can get myself to sit and actually write for 30 minutes, I usually find that things start to unspool nicely.
I like to write in a bright space, on a desk big enough for me to spread out. I do a mix of frantic scribbling on paper, and furious tapping on keys, mixed in with a lot of staring into space. That latter part means it goes best if I’m alone in a room, so people don’t see me staring and say ‘what are you thinking?’ at which point I have to fight the urge to strangle them…which is sooooo distracting.
2) What aspects of writing are easiest for you?
Hmmm. I think the answer is “whichever aspect I’m currently immersed in”. If I’m planning out the next phase of a story I can write pages of notes. If I’m drafting a story and it’s flowing, I’m in heaven. I even love revising and cutting words. But if I try to jump between different tasks, that’s when it gets frustrating.
3) What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your writing?
Great question. I find that my characters tend to be outsiders, fish-out-of-water, observers. I moved around a bit more than most of my friends as a kid, so that probably feeds some of that. It’s a useful position for a writer, but I do have to watch that my protagonists don’t become the least interesting person in the scene…
4) Do you find yourself compelled to write or do you have to coax yourself into it?
I definitely feel compelled to write, but quite often that comes out as non-fiction or blogs or letters to friends. I do have to coax myself into writing fiction, which I do in part because it’s so satisfying to complete a piece and be able to share it. I’m not an epic storyteller. I like efficiency and small bites. This means I am constantly having to invent new characters and new situations/problems for them. This, in turn, means I can stall for quite a long time between projects. I like having a novel on the go at all times so that I can go and play with the characters I already know, if a short story isn’t coming.
5) What are your obstacles to writing and how do you get around them?
My obstacles to writing are my own lack of focus and resistance to routine and discipline. I’m great when I have a deadline or outer accountability, so I’ve spent a lot of time investing in putting those things in place. Like, for example, hosting an annual writing challenge…
6) What practical advice do you most often share with other writers?
The most practical advice I most often give falls into two buckets: one is about mindset and the other is about the craft.
Most of our problems as writers (at least the ones I meet) come down to mindset. We say we don’t have time, but what we really mean is we haven’t given ourselves permission to make writing a priority. We say we can’t get started or we finish anything, but what we really mean is we’re afraid to let our writing be imperfect. Getting people to give themselves permission is possibly my most powerful weapon. I ask people to give themselves permission to write, to suck, to change what they’ve been doing until now, to try something new,, to take time away from their family, to delegate household chores, to write even though they have no idea if they are any good, to write even though they don’t have New York publishers banging down the door, to write just because they want to, to be weird in their writing and their life…after all, many people DO think it’s weird to prefer to stay at home with your imaginary friends than to go to a social gathering…
In terms of the craft, the advice really doesn’t get much better than Anne Lamott’s exhortation to allow yourself to write lousy* first drafts and take it bird by bird (if you haven’t read that book, people, run to the nearest bookstore. Run!). Without following her advice on those two issues, nothing else happens. Lousy* first drafts aren’t always necessary, but the willingness to make allow them to suck, is. And it is so easy to find yourself getting overwhelmed as you write. Remembering to focus on just the next step, the next scene, the next character, is the only way to make progress.
These pieces of advice sound easy until you try them. And try them you must.
7) What non-writing activity do you do that most helps you with your writing?
Until recently I probably would have said ‘knitting’ and, most of the time I still would (though I also recommend juggling). But exercise, as it turns out, is a wonderful thing too. (I know, I know!). It turns out that our brains are not, as we probably inferred from the way our school days conditioned us, separate from the meat-sack we walk around it. It doesn’t much matter if you have an IQ of 340 if you can’t make yourself produce anything because you’re a bundle of anxiety and your back hurts.
I’ve been doing some high-intensity interval training a couple of times a week and it helps me in so many ways, mental and physical.
But if that’s not your bag, a walk can be a wonderful thing too. Striding along the streets or a beautiful path is a fabulous way to get your blood pumping to your brain, as well as to make connections. Don’t put headphones on. Just walk. Take in the sounds, smells and sights of the word, while your legs and arms pump away in that repetitive motion that induces a trance-like state in your brain. Famous authors throughout history have recommended walks.
If you have limited mobility this might be more difficult to replicate, especially if you have to take someone with you to help you negotiate a world that is less forgiving than it should be of mobility issues. But getting outside when you can certainly seems like a good thing.
And I think that trance-like state is the reason why knitting and juggling (and even playing exercises on a musical instrument) work to stimulate creativity too. They require a certain amount of focus, but leave the higher parts of your brain free to roam and make new connections.
Oh, and reading. Is that a non-writing-related activity? Let’s expand it to ‘being insatiable curious and absorbing new ideas from books, podcasts, documentaries and conversations with new people (I know I said I’d rather stay at home than go to parties, but sometimes it’s fun to get out and meet a bunch of brand-new people and pump them for information about the things that make them passionate!).
So, knitting, juggling, playing music, moving my meat-sack, and feeding my curiosity. Those are the things that help the most. Thanks for asking. I may have to put that on a sticky note near my desk for the days when I wonder what they heck I’m doing…
*Neither Anne nor Julie used the word lousy, I chose that one as a substitute in honour of our family-friendly language policy.