One Story Summer Conference Day 4: Lessons on Life-Crafting

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.

One Story Interns Benjamin Newgard, D.J. Kim, and Stephanie Santos with author Min Jin Lee.

Annotated Pages Auction

Bidding is now open for One Story’s online Annotated Pages Auction! We invited writers to hand-annotate a manuscript page from one of their published books and are auctioning off those pages online. Participating authors include: J. Courtney Sullivan, Min Jin Lee, Dani Shapiro, Jim Shepard, Peter Carey, Darin Strauss, Claire Vaye Watkins, J. Courtney Sullivan, Jami Attenberg, Vendela Vida, Michael Cunningham, Karen Shepard, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell. Own a piece of contemporary literary history and support One Story.

Bidding is open  through 1pm EST Thursday, June 28th. Bids start at just $25. One Story Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and all winning bids are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Visit our auction page for more information, and to place your bids!

Pictured: Annotated page from “Popular Girls” by Karen Shepard, from her collection KISS ME SOMEONE.

Annotated Pages

One Story is a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization, and the Debutante Ball is our biggest fundraiser of the year. Donations help us keep our doors open and support our mission to celebrate the short story & support the writers who write them. For this year’s event, we’ve asked a few authors to annotate (by hand) a manuscript page from one of their published books. We’ll be making these available to on-site donors at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball this Friday, May 4th. Thank you to all of the wonderful authors who have so generously sent us pages: Jami Attenberg, Aimee Bender, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Min Jin Lee, Celeste Ng, Ruth Ozeki, Ann PatchettRichard Russo, Patrick Ryan, Dani Shapiro, Jim ShepardKaren Shepard, Darin Strauss, J. Courtney Sullivan, Hannah Tinti, Vendela Vida, Jess Walter, Claire Vaye Watkins, Colson Whitehead, and Meg Wolitzer. We can’t wait to see you at the ball!

Pictured above: annotated pages by Ann Patchett, Ruth Ozeki, and Hannah Tinti