Tossing off about writing being work

I just started A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi, which I’m considering using this fall in my advanced fiction writing class. One of my favorite craft books of all time is Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi and also tied to the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

I’m only an essay or two into this one and already I see lots to like here. This in particular struck me in the essay “Self-Awareness and Self-Deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator” by Sharon Stone:

“The longer our history with writing, the harder it becomes in many ways. Young writers imagine that gaining knowledge means being able to work with greater pleasure and certainty, but most writers work more slowly as they go on; the five pages they could once toss off in a morning session may now take several days. It takes time to get at the complex truth of a character. Less experience writers (and also experienced writers in early drafts) will often manipulate characters; for example, a central character may be presented as the only sane or sympathetic one in the story, and everyone else in that person’s family/workplace/love life/apartment building is self-deceived and otherwise problematic. It takes a painful digging into the unconscious of both character and writer to produce a work in which all of the characters are as layered as we are in life. . . .”

This strikes me as so incredibly true and is something I’ve long tried to explain to students: the longer you write, the harder it gets. I always have to resist a little bit of eye rolling when student stories are praised in workshop and the author responds by gloating he or she wrote the story in a day or two. Imagine, I tell them, what you could have done in a month. This gets to a central belief I have about talent versus hard work too. I have a daydream where students ask me who I think will have a publishing career out of their cohort, and I get to tell them it won’t be the writer with the best story but the one putting in the hours and revising (in my daydream I don’t name names, but they’ll all know who I mean both good and bad). I think when I started writing I did have a natural inclination for it, which was why it was somewhat devastating to go forward and find out how much work it was really going to be, and I have to constantly remind myself that it’s work I enjoy doing, and that hard work and fun aren’t mutually exclusive.

On another note: I had a friend in graduate school I kept trying to convince that “toss off” was a term for masturbation (it totally is, right?), and we very maturely used to giggle whenever anyone would say it in class. “I tossed off a good rhetort” for instance, or “you can’t just toss off that story overnight.” I don’t remember us going out of our way to use this term in class, but it wouldn’t surprise me. When I read “the five pages they could once toss off in a morning session” I about giggled myself out of my chair.


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