Smelling the Reading Right Under Your Nose May Open New Doors In Your Writing

Sometimes the best writing, the writing you need to read, is where you least expect it.

It’s not news to most writers that they should read if they want to improve their craft. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing.

We read books, maybe venturing outside our preferred genres, but usually sticking to what we know and love. We may read magazines, blog posts, perhaps even vehicle owner’s manuals. (Hey, that counts!) And if you’re reading this, you probably read Medium articles.

The New Yorker is part of my regular reading rotation. Doing so requires diligence as the magazine comes out most weeks of the year. Miss one week, and you’ll never catch up.

But I don’t read every issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover. Who has the time?

Instead, I read only the stuff that interests or relates to me in some way. At least that’s how I used to read The New Yorker until I discovered something.

It Was Under My Nose This Whole Time

One section of The New Yorker I skipped every issue is titled Talk of the Town. These are short, roughly 500-700 word pieces about something or someone somehow connected to current events, often about New York City. 

Not living in New York, I figured I could ignore Talk of the Town and not miss anything. The other day, though, I read this Susan Orlean article about how she mentally approaches her writing. 

When Orlean first started at The New Yorker, she wrote for Talk of the Town. Learning to write for that section of the magazine established a writing framework she follows still today.

“The metric I live by is the Talk of the Town,” Orleans said.

Realizing that today’s Talk of the Town writers could be tomorrow’s Susan Orleans, and recognizing how Orleans compartmentalizes her writing is similar to my mindset, I decided to give Talk of the Town another chance. Good thing I did. 

The pieces are quick, engaging, entertaining, informative, and short. They are perfect templates for online writing, which is how I make my living as a self-employed freelance writer. And, newsflash, that’s the kind of writing we do here on Medium. 

Plus, as Orlean points out, it can be wise to tackle any writing project as if it’s a Talk of the Town vignette.

“I find myself sitting down and writing the equivalent of a Talk piece and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so hard, was it? and then writing the next and the next, and then suddenly I’ve written a piece or a book,” Orleans said.

Switch Up Your Reading, Open New Doors

No longer do I skip Talk of the Town. The pieces in this section of The New Yorker are ideal reading for those of us writing for an online audience. And, as Stephen King said, good writers read a lot. 

So, I stopped to smell the writing right under my nose. Now I’m enjoying well-written, professionally edited content that is a good example of my writing.

What about you? Is there writing you could be reading that will help you grow as a writer?

Try reading something different, maybe a newsletter you’ve heard about but ignored, or a book you’ve been putting off reading. You never know what doors in your writing you may open by switching up what you read.

Writers, We Gotta Slay This Bad Habit to Produce Our Most Profound Work and Find Our Audience

Here’s a trap that often snares us, writers. Instead of writing in our voice, we write to people’s expectations.

Post-it notes with words like "norms" and "expectation" on them
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

We give people what they expect, not what we can create. Other artists do it, too, including country music singer Mickey Guyton.

A recent New Yorker profile of Guyton relayed a conversation Guyton had a few years ago with her husband.

“I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’” Guyton says in the profile. “And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’”

We writers do that, too. We run from what makes us different and instead deliver writing that looks like what others expect from us. And we do that for a few reasons.

For one thing, the experts tell us to produce writing that meets others’ expectations. You know as well as I do, there’s plenty of writing guidance that tells us to understand our audience so we can publish what they want to read. 

That advice makes sense in a business context. If you’re writing a client’s blog or publishing on Medium only to earn money, then, sure, you should probably only write what your target audience wants to read.

Many of us writers, though, want to produce—dare I say it—art. Writing for us turns inside out our existences, from our memories to our present feelings. We write poems, stories, articles, novels, and stuff we can’t even categorize.

But we sometimes let others’ expectations dictate our art. We, like Mickey Guyton, run from what makes us different so we can produce writing we think others want to see.

This challenge is perhaps the most significant obstacle I face in my writing. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or disappoint those closest to me. 

And that’s a pitiful mindset for an artist.  

There’s a scene in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which an officer’s trying to help a private overcome his fear.

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead,” the lieutenant says. “The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.”

Writers need a similar mindset. We need to accept that we’re going to offend people. We’re not going to meet everyone’s expectations, and not everyone will like or approve of us or our writing. 

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can function as an artist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All art depends upon it.

That acceptance is not easy. I’ve struggled with it my whole artistic life, even today as a middle-aged man who’s finally committed to his art. And I can’t today tell you exactly how to overcome the compulsion to write to others’ expectations.

What I can do is let you know you’re not alone if this is your struggle. I can encourage you to fight the desire to write for others without first writing for yourself, and in doing so, I remind and support myself to do the same.

Write in your voice, from your perspective. Tap your deepest veins and give us what lies inside you. 

That is the art you want to produce, the art you need, for your sanity and enrichment, to create. That is the art we need you to make.

The Company Writers Keep

“You are the company you keep,” parents, often mothers, say, usually when they heard bad things about the family of someone you’re hanging out with at school or they don’t like your college roommate.

Your folks aren’t crazy about the people you spend time with because they don’t want you to become like them. And there might be something to this idea. For example, a review of research found “that peer-related stimuli may sensitize the reward system to respond to the reward value of risky behavior.” 

Set the stage for the writing you want to do.

What if a similar idea applies to writers? Maybe what we read influences our writing.

It’s a widely accepted concept for new writers.

Stephen Pressfield and Joan Didion learned started by writing sentences Ernest Hemingway wrote. Poet Billy Collins began his career copying Wallace Stevens. 

And J.K. Rowling says on her website, “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”

But there might be a connection between what we read and what we write, even when we’re no longer writing rookies.

Sometimes, when I need to write something with a specific tone, I’ll read something similar. Doing so gets my mind in the right place.

For example, if I want to write a humorous piece, I’ll read something funny. The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs items are excellent for this. 

I still write in my voice, and I’m certainly not copying anything from these influencing reading sessions. Yet, they make it easier for me to tap into the right tone of creativity I need to deliver in my writing.

It’s difficult for me to write something funny right after reading a serious news article. I need something to transition my brain from being sad, stressed, etc., to positive and lighthearted, making room for jokes and funny analogies.

Singers do vocal exercises before performing. Athletes stretch before taking the field. Why shouldn’t writers also benefit from a warmup?

And when doing your warmup, consider picking something that sets the stage for the writing you want to do. We are, after all, the company we keep.

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Following Joan Didion’s Footsteps

Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.

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Nicole Eisenman’s Lessons for People Who Like to Create Stuff

Painter Nicole Eisenman’s recent New Yorker profile covers a lot of ground, from being gay to doing heroin, and all the art she’s made along the way.

The piece also has some handy missives for all creatives, including writers.

For example, many of us plug away at our art, hoping to create something that deserves attention, that causes people to feel something and to see us. We tweak, edit, and practice, never knowing if we’ll make it to where we want our art to be, which is in a place someone might call, “Good.”

In the excerpt below, Eisenman talks about how, after years of being an artist, something clicked in her work.

"In Nicole’s account of her career, things changed about fifteen years ago, after she found ways to infuse her paintings with some of the looseness of her drawings. She expressed this in the form of a question, her voice shrinking with each word: 'The paintings started getting good?'"

One day, if you keep at it, your art will start getting good.

And when it does, when others start taking notice, you may get busy. You could get overwhelmed. If that happens, it’s crucial that you step back, return to center, back to where you can create the art that makes you happy, that you have to make.

"She missed working alone, without hourly consultations with fabricators and assistants. (The list of materials used in 'Procession' includes a fog machine, mirrored Plexiglas, a telephone pole, a bee, tuna-can labels, and 'various twigs.' One figure wore socks knitted by Roeck’s mother.) She wanted to “push the world out.”

As you work, never forget that nothing in the creative process is wasted. You never know when that thing you made ends up being not something you toss, but a piece of the larger puzzle of your creation.

"In her sketches, she had drawn someone carrying a barrel, and someone else with a belt of knives. The barrel made it into the potato painting."

Drafts, sketches, extras, whatever you call them, are steps creatives take along the path to art. As John McPhee wrote:

Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

John McPhee

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