Guest Post: On Being Stuck


“Deep where the writing lies,” is how Martha describes the Source of her writing. Three times I’ve tried to lowercase the S in source and failed, so I’ll leave it and let it tell us that the place from which writing comes does feel as if it connects to the divine. I often think of that writing source as my personal underground spring. I imagine that it’s been there since before I was born, and that it’s cold and pure. Too good to waste by hooking it up to a lawn sprinkler that sprays everywhere all day long.

Congratulations, Martha. Great title.

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My 4th novel “The Taste of Salt” will be published this fall. The publicity machine is gearing up, I’ve opened a twitter account and a facebook account and am getting my website refurbished and preparing for a book tour and considering whether or not to blog and chasing down electronic rights and…what does all this have to do with writing again?

Um…nothing? But as writer Tony Perrottet noted in his recent piece in the New York Times, “How Writers Build The Brand”,  it has been ever thus. Many of the greats were shameless self-promoters. What’s different now, is the number of avenues a writer has at his or her disposal and what’s more, the number of avenues that the writer is advised both by their publishing house and by friends and colleagues, that they really must use. It’s overwhelming—if you’re not careful, which no one is, all the time.

It can overwhelm not only your life but also your writing with extraordinary ease. After all, you’re doing something to help your career with every tweet, every post, every newsletter and public appearance. It’s so easy, and there’s so much feedback. The mentions! The comments! The little “thumbs up”! You sure don’t get that after a painstakingly crafted sentence. Plus a painstaking sentence takes a LOT longer to compose than a tweet. So really, what’s easier to do?

We all know the answer. And that’s one of the things I’m struggling with these days, even as I get caught up in the excitement of preparing for my book to come out and the hopes that go with it. It’s true that before the advent of the internet, there were always ways to get stuck—fingernails to examine closely, a fridge to be cleaned, that laundry that had to be done right this second. But the internet, and the illusion that it’s actually helping you as a writer—is seductive in a very particular way. So I’ve tried to put into place some strategies (not necessarily original ones) to keep me writing, at least a little bit, during this tense and hectic pre-publication time.

1) Do it first. I find, that if I don’t start writing first thing in the morning, as the first work I do, there is little to no chance that I will write that day. This morning, I didn’t work on fiction. This was due, I shopped for shoes on Zappos, there were a million chores to be done at home. By not sparing even 30 minutes first thing to write, it’s gotten away from me.

2) Make a schedule. So many of us dream of “quitting the day job” and spending all of our time writing. Well, you know what? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, the hustle to earn enough is always there, always gnawing. For another, structuring your days well is a large and ongoing project, one that some of us (and I’d include myself in that number) are only kind of good at. One thing I’ve found very helpful is this book: Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer. He lays out a number of ways to manage both what he calls your “public” booklife—the publicity, etc. – and you’re “private” booklife, the quiet place where creativity dwells. Amongst much good advice in this book, there is an awesome example of how to schedule a day. Though it’s daunting at first, I find I always feel better at day’s end if I’ve at least attempted to follow a carefully laid out schedule, a schedule that contains time for a bit of writing and then not-open-ended time for all the tweeting, blogging, phonecalling…whatever.

3) Turn it off.   This is not news but sometimes you’ve got to back away from the computer, quiet the noise in your head. I know that while I can’t blame everything on the internet (see Colson Whitehead for more about that), if I’m not careful, it does scratch the deep part where the writing lies. So I try to make ample use of Freedom, which makes it difficult enough to log on that it acts as an impediment.  And I put the iPhone in another room, preferably under a pillow. There’s just no other way around it. Writing isn’t surfing. It’s as simple as that.

So what I say here is partly an attempt to give myself a pep talk—I’m going through a rough time, taking all this good advice I’ve outlined above. But I have faith, which is a crucial part of making it as a writer and finishing a project of any heft. And tomorrow is another day. One day at a time, I’ve written 4 novels. And I know that one day at a time, I will find my way to the next story I want to tell.

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, will be published by Algonquin Books in fall 2011. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  Her July 2007 essay from the New York Times Book Review, “Writers Like Me” appears in the recent anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Premiere, and Essence. She also has essays in the recent anthologies Behind the Bedroom Door and Heavy Rotation: Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. You can visit her website at www.marthasouthgate.com

Follow Martha on Twitter: @mesouthgate

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