Here's a little about my process:
I am usually working on several things at once. I shoot for a balance between reading for book reviews (which isn't writing, but still feels like my writing life), writing book reviews, and writing short stories or essays. Probably an even third each.
Currently in the reading for reviews category, I'm about to start reading The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter for a review. I reviewed Fridays at Enrico's for The Rumpus a few months ago, and I enjoyed that. I'm hoping I feel the same way about THT.
As far as review writing: Tuesday night I started collecting quotes from Justin Taylor's Flings and organizing my notes so I can write a review. I'm sort of midway through the process, which is to say I've been doing all the grunt work before I sit down to actually write anything. But assuming I've done all my work in the reading and note-taking and organizing, the act of writing reviews is usually very enjoyable. I'm hoping I can carve out a few hours after work and before I pick up my kids today so I can get a draft done.
I'm busy, so my creative work is suffering a little bit. It's always the thing that I put off when I have a deadline for a review or a lot of grading at school, but I make an effort to work on something each week. Lately I've been alternating between nonfiction essays and short stories, but I don't feel like I've had enough time (or attention, maybe?) to do a good job of starting anything new. I've mostly been revising old things for submission and keeping notes in my phone for new stuff.
Why do you write what you do?
I like what Joan Didion says:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.I think I write narrative for the same reasons everyone writes narrative. To figure out what I think about what's happened to me, and to imagine myself into other people's lives, which is both fun and a challenge. And because I can't help myself.
But in the last few years I discovered my niche of the literary world. Or, at least what I want my niche to be. I love writing critical work. Book reviews. My background in teaching English and my love of reading and my desire to be creative somehow combine to make this something I am suited to do. I heard David Ulin speak at my first residency about how critical writing is creative writing, and something just clicked. As I worked my way through my two and a half year MFA program, I began to notice I was one of the only students who didn't hate writing critical papers. I found that I even enjoyed writing about books I didn't like. I loved the act of writing in order to figure them out. It was a lot like teaching, which I love. My thesis advisor, Tod Goldberg, suggested I should start writing book reviews. At that point I didn't even know being a literary critic was a thing. But once I figured that out, I felt very strongly that critical writing was a thing I should be doing. I spent all the time I had left in the program trying to learn as much as I could about critical work.
Now I write critical work because I love it. I want to be a part of the literary conversation with so many writers I admire. I want to push myself as a reader and as someone who can organize her thoughts into something worth reading.
How does your work differ from the other works in the some area/genre?
One thing I learned from reading John Leonard's Reading for My Life is that a critic's work is only effective if it's filtered through the writer's individual voice and experiences. I was really moved by how unique his reviews were, and how together they became a kind of autobiography in books. I like to think about my own work like this. It's really only about my own experience with a book, and nobody else's. In the very beginning I struggled more with why anyone might want to read what I think about a book. I worried too much about getting it "right"-- What if I misunderstood a book and identified something about it that was different than what other people thought? Reviewing is an exercise in standing up for your own opinions. It's a struggle still, sometimes, but I really try to let that go. And I try to just write from my own little corner of the world.
I suppose my work is different because I try to specifically speak to my own experience and perspective. That's all I can do, anyway. It reminds me of when I was dancing. You can only work effectively if you embrace your own movement style. Worrying about how you're different from others doesn't accomplish anything. You just have to do good work and hope you keep improving. Eventually you figure out how your body moves and it works better. It's being different that makes you interesting, anyway.
How does your writing process work?
I have such a routine, because my life is so busy that if I don't I won't get anything done. And oddly enough, the thing that helped me the most for creating a writing routine was training for my first marathon. I learned a lot about how I need to know what to expect, and how I need small, manageable deadlines to get anything accomplished. I also learned that if I try to force myself to do something and it goes against my natural rhythms, I will fail. Miserably.
And writing is supposed to be enjoyable, right? I wanted to make it possible for myself to enjoy it.
Anyway, I'm so driven by routine. This is good, because book reviewing is a complicated dance of pitching to editors, requesting advance review copies from publishers, reading, and meeting self-imposed deadlines. I map out reviews and pitches months in advance. I sit down every Sunday and look at what I have "due" in the week ahead, and then I break the work down into hourly increments. I probably work somewhere between 10-20 hours a week on writing and writing-related tasks, depending on how much work I have.
I know it will take me about an hour to read 50 pages, and I know about how long it will take me to write and edit a review, based on length. I schedule everything on my calendar. Things like read 50pp Taylor or write review Carpenter. Or sleep. The benefit of this is I never wonder what I should be doing to get everything done by Saturday. I don't have to look too far ahead and get worried. And this way I never feel overwhelmed by a whole task. If I just wrote TO DO: read and review The Hollywood Trilogy, that would make me want to die (respect to the author, it's not about him, it's about the 450 pages he wrote), which would make me want to read and write nothing.
Once I've carved out the time, it's not so hard. It is something I enjoy, after all. And if I tell myself I only need to read 50 pages or write half of a review, it's not overwhelming. I can relax and enjoy the book or relax and let myself be creative. Often I find myself doing more work than I need to accomplish, because I'm so into it. This is dorky, yes? But it works for me. I think once I realized how I work I have been a much happier writer. No more trying to finish something at midnight, because midnight is my sleep time. If I'm awake and trying to write, I'm probably going to be crying, and whatever I'm writing won't be any good.
I've also learned lately that it's important to take days off. If I plan to work 365 days a year, I'm going to fail. This is also like running... I think you get stronger when you take a rest day, sometimes.
Continuing the blog tour: I tag Jenn-Anne Gledhill and Emile Barrios.
About JA: JA has called Chicago "home" since June 1, 1995. She relocated from Orlando after receiving a "message" to do so during the Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon version of the film "Little Women." (She is fully aware it could have been the booze fumes talking, but those fumes were on to something if that's the case...) She sometimes works on her novel tentatively titled "The Branson Novel," but so what, right? Everyone is working on something. She wants you to know that she digs you. Like, kinda hard.
About Emile: Emile Barrios is a graduate of UC Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program. He the author of the memoir Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple, and is currently at work on a novel about his native South Louisiana. Emile’s writing career began after thirty years as a TV news producer, industrial filmmaker, corporate executive, and PR consultant. He lives and works in San Diego.