Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Benjamin Newgard. Enjoy!–LV
After three fun and illuminating days at the One Story Summer Conference, we arrived at the fourth, which began with the writers’ penultimate workshops led by authors Anna Solomon and Will Allison. The focused, creatively charged morning soon segued to delicious sandwiches and a moment to kick back and chat before the next big event: a lecture about organizing—or “crafting”—the writer’s life by our very own Ann Napolitano, associate editor of One Story and author of the books A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.
Napolitano separated this task of “life-crafting” into three primary components, or “legs of the stool”: paying attention, maintaining the writer’s inner self, and tailoring their practical routines and principals to allow for the most unimpeded dedication to their work. While the first of these—paying attention—may seem like common sense, Napolitano argued that it is anything but. In fact, by learning to “pay attention to what she paid attention to” (an adage borrowed from Amy Krouse Rosenthal), Napolitano gained heightened clarity not only in her writing, but in her life at large.
To help illustrate how she accomplished this, Napolitano urged writers to imagine that a magnetic board rests inside them, one to which their interests and curiosities, whether fleeting or lasting, “stick.” The latter, more persistent of these interests comprise a writer’s “obsessions”—the very foundations, she explained, of an artist’s themes and inner voice. “Leaning into” these obsessions—meditating on them, letting them linger and marinate in the mind—can only make the writer’s unique imagination all the more pronounced, even when the given interest seems like one the writer wouldn’t normally choose. Some everyday methods she recommended for honing “self-attention” included include keeping a journal, making lists, and taking photographs.
Beyond becoming more familiar with a writer’s own curiosities and attention, Napolitano stressed that a productive creative life also depended in a large part on self-kindness. Pursuing a serious writing career inevitably involves an often staggering variety of trials and travails, whether those pertaining to the writing itself (rejection, self-doubt, artistic slumps), or those exterior to it, such as family, health, and financial needs. Yet however easy it might be to acknowledge such difficulties from a rational standpoint, writers often treat or think of themselves harshly when trouble disrupts their work. On this point, Napolitano offered an encouraging reminder: “Any day you sit down to write is a good day.”
When you approach the writing—and yourself—with kindness, generosity, and dedication, Napolitano said, “it goes better.” More than that, she insisted “the fact you created something on the page” is, in itself, “amazing.” Even if the piece you’re working on seems like a mess, “you created this thing,” and “that’s wonderful.”
Napolitano concluded her lecture by discussing some of the practical lifestyle changes and practices that might help writers approach their craft with all the more focus and persistence. Some of these include:
- Pursuing a job that the writer doesn’t have to ‘take home’—one with definite, constrained hours.
- Simplifying everyday routine so the writer arrives at the desk as fresh and energized as possible.
- Locking in a certain amount of time or part of every day specifically for writing—and doing so consistently. Whether this means writing on the subway every day, or early in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, this time should be honored and protected fiercely, tenaciously.
No matter what system or routines to which the writer adheres, the essential thing, as Napolitano put it, is that the writer “keep going. If you want the work inside you to grow and deepen, you have to keep writing.”
These sentiments found emphatic echo at the final event of day four: a Q&A with bestselling author Min Jin Lee, hosted by Hannah Tinti at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. Much like Ann, Lee emphasized the vitalness of exhaustively exploring a writer’s obsessions and natural, unceasing curiosities. In fact, her recent novel, Pachinko (finalist for the National Book Award), traces its earliest foundations to just such an obsession—a harrowing story she came across as a college student.
Transforming this kernel into Lee’s formidable novel, however, proved a decades-long process, one fraught with countless hours of research, interviews, and work alone at the desk. And as both Lee and Napolitano emphasized in their respective presentations, long and arduous journeys from idea to publication—should this ever be achieved—are overwhelmingly the rule, rather than the exception.
“Writing good fiction is really hard,” Napolitano said. But unless writers “put their heads down and take themselves and their work seriously,” they can never realize the “brilliance” of which they might be capable.