After a multi-year drought, I finally have some time to dig into fiction again. Reading it has been refreshing and even restorative in surprising ways. A recent treasure was Tayari Jones‘ Silver Sparrow. It was a delicious, complex and emotional read, although the purpose of this post is not to review the book.
I met Tayari in person last night, as she read from her book and answered questions from fans and writers assembled at the Athens-Clarke County public library. She shared great nuggets and pushed back hard against the notion of a writer’s life belonging only to those of privilege.
The Four-Hour Writing Week
“People who work everyday have stories to tell too,” she explained. There’s a myth that “real” and “published” writers spend all day writing and have unlimited amounts of time to devote to their craft. This is false. A writer is one who writes. Tayari has a job aside from her writing (she’s a professor at Rutgers Newark). “You can finish a novel writing four hours a week,” she said. It may take you a bit longer – she estimates it takes her about two years – but it’s doable. “It’s like going to the gym. You have to find the time.”
No Aspiring Writers
Unpublished writers often call themselves “aspiring writers,” but in fact, publishing is not the mark by which “true” writers are measured. You should not call yourself an aspiring writer, she urges. “Claim it!” If you fancy yourself a writer, you are. “You can say you are an unpublished writer, but you are a writer.”
Dealing with Disappointment
Would-be professional writers have to be able to deal with disappointment. The truth is, a great piece of writing may not be published, or may take a long and windy road to get there. But don’t commit to the publishing, commit to the writing. As you commit to your writing, opportunities will open up. But it’s important to know, the writer’s life isn’t a glamorous one.
Writer’s Block Does Not Exist
Tayari doesn’t like to talk or think about writer’s block. It’s like insomnia, she explained. When you can’t sleep, you make it worse by looking at the clock, counting back the number of hours left before you must wake up, and so on. In reality, if you just relax, eventually you will fall asleep.
The same is true of writer’s block. We make a big deal about it. We name it. We embrace it. We complain about it. Tayari’s solution: just write anyway. Eventually, you’ll move past it. When you find it difficult to write, it’s usually in response to some external pressure, she explained. You’re worrying about what “they” may say about your writing, for instance. Ignore “them.” It’s your story to tell. Commit to it. Write anyway.
On Finding the Perfect Idea
Tayari compares finding the right idea to finding the right mate. “I spend a lot of time on bad dates with ideas.” She tries things out to see if they work or don’t work. She writes her way through them, sometimes committing countless pages to the effort. But once she realizes the idea isn’t working, she lets it go and tries anew with another. “But when I get a good one, I’m spoken for.” It’s better that way, she thinks. She loves the idea of waking up and knowing exactly what she’s working on for the next year or two. Coming up with ideas is for the birds, but committing to, and writing through a good one is the sweet spot.
It was pleasure to meet Tayari in person. I learned a great deal from her talk and felt inspired and encouraged to continue my writing journey. Her new book, Silver Sparrow, really was a great read, but she won’t call herself a gifted writer. Instead she said, “I was given a story to tell and the means to tell it. I have to honor that.”
Every word on paper becomes a tiny step forward, so here’s to the next one.