Attacus Atlas & Other Inventions: What I Wished I Knew When I Was Starting Out

Missing my poetry-mom Lucille Clifton especially today. Here she is reading aloud a poem of hers that I love. Until I got to graduate school, until I got to the people who would become my writing family and my writing community, I wasn’t encouraged much by my peer set in creative writing classes. Especially while I lived and worked in the Deep South. I always felt out of place, out of step. I always felt I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t deserve to be heard, to tell my stories.

Writing Tips:

1. Know that you have the right to tell your stories.

2. Know that you have the right  to tell your stories any way you want.

I wish I had known that I had to be my own champion, that I had to figure out my own best practices — that I could start by borrowing what more established writers were doing but I had to reconfigure their advice so that it fit my skin, my body. I started writing out a time when very few people of color were represented in the books I read and no matter how many times I put people of color in a story there was a lot of pushback. People kept asking why does a person have to be brown, why can’t you just write about white people?

I wish I knew how to answer them back then, I wish I knew how to remove their unkindnesses and not let them into my secret writing space. But I can speak to what I do now, and hopefully, you’ll read this and come up with your own version, tailored just for you.

Practice does not make perfect, but practice does make pretty darn good stuff.  I wish I knew that I was a creature of extreme habit and that it was ok for me to be this creature. I can’t pull things out of a hat, I am not a magician. But I am a former reporter, I am used to deadlines and I thrive under deadlines and I wish someone had validated that for me way back when. It took me a while to figure out that I write my fiction and my poetry in the same way that I write my journalism. It takes a different part of my brain to access the imagination and to access ideas for a poem or for a story but the way I finish something is exactly the way I finish any of the journalistic pieces I ever did, with a known deadline and knowing that someone was waiting to read it, edit it, give me a suggestion, send me back to rethink.

3. you have to come up with your own writing practice and your own reading practice.

4. As much as people say you shouldn’t have to write every day, in the beginning you really do need to write every day day – even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

Same time roughly. Same place roughly. The Café or your kitchen table or in bed. It doesn’t matter.

I know it takes about three weeks to solidify a habit: you have to do the same thing at the same time every day for 21 days. The next thing I would say is I wish people had told me to take breaks and not to give up taking breaks and not to equate taking breaks with giving up – and having to start over.  Everyone has a life and everyone has many things they are responsible for & many things they are accountable for professionally and personally. But when you love something you can do it. You can take a few minutes each day and do it. You owe it to yourself, to that dream you had of writing. Think of when you take a shower. In general, people shower at the same time every day — find a time every day when you’re not exhausted out of your mind, and set the timer on your phone or watch or microwave — and write.

5. I want to say that you should make yourself a new home at the library and read whatever you can get your hands on: fiction and nonfiction, news articles, long magazine pieces, children’s books,  literary criticism, investigative reporting. These days a lot of articles are available free online, and my advice there is to print out the pieces you want to read and read a hard copy, something you can write all over, and circle phrases with a pencil. Get away from the screen. Writing longhand, especially in the beginning, helps get the habit going faster.

6. In your notebook, your cheap $.99 notebook with spiral binding, and with your cheap 10-for-a-dollar-pen (because you don’t want to buy expensive stuff, it’ll block you from writing because you’ll be worrying about whether the words match the cost of the paper) I want you to write down all the phrases you wrote in the margins of the articles you downloaded. Write down anything that makes your heart sing, that makes you stop and wonder. Keep a little list of the vocabulary words that interest you, phrases, ideas, quotes.

Think about it: 15 minutes is a short amount of time. I feel like 15 minutes of putting your pen to paper and not stopping and just writing and writing and writing whatever comes to your mind will eventually lead you to a writing practice and I wish somebody had told me that when i first started. By the time somebody had told me that I was much older and I had bad habits and it took a long time to break them.

7. cheap pen and paper and write by hand for 15 minutes a day until your notebook is full.

After you fill that cheap notebook, take a weeklong break. Read some good books, then come back with a highlighter and underline, circle and mark up all the phrases and sentences you have created that you like and then make something out of it,  a poem or short story or a nonfiction piece. Whatever interests you, and do this over and over again. Rinse and repeat until you have a body of work.

8. don’t share your work with just anyone.

Be sure to work with only someone you really trust. Think of this person as your midwife. You’ve just birthed something amazing, don’t hand it off to just anyone. Find someone whose opinion is tempered with fairness and kindness and compassion — because anybody can rip up someone else’s work and it’s not fair to you to share something that’s brand new with a class or writing group — you want to resist that urge and find a person or two to help you. You want a trusted reader, someone who can offer you constructive criticism and someone who can tell you what’s working as well as what’s not working.

 

Books to consider this week:

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin

and

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. It’s a fantastic book, and congratulations to her for the winning the National Book Award.

It’s a novel but it’s a meditation on the writing and the creative life as well.

Classic Book: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

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Devi Laskar

Poet, photographer, soccer mom, VONA & TheOpEdProject alum, Columbia MFA, former reporter, debut novelist!

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