Last month, I decided to print all 28,000 words of a novel I started last November during National Novel Writing Month. I hadn’t added to it or even looked at it all year. I’d even started another novel in the meantime. But something in me was itching to return to it. Since I don’t own a printer, I looked up the nearest Kinko’s (now owned and rebranded by FedEx, RIP) and sent it off. The first step would just be to read it all the way through. I collected the pages on a rainy day, thankful that Kinko’s-Now-FedEx had put it in an official-looking cardboard box.
I guess that was the key — it was official-looking.
Holding those pages reminded me of authors I admire who shared pictures of their books at various stages, from the first draft to proofs to the finished copy. It felt a little bit like role-playing a real author, but then I caught myself. Isn’t this what a writer does? On a very literal level, separating the writing from the editing was helpful and allowed me to look at the material with clear eyes. Alexander Chee has written about how he prints a manuscript, marks it up, and retypes it with corrections in order to “reproduce the same mix of energy, continuity and decision making.” But I also think this was an affirmation.
As this year draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on this advice: “give yourself the gift of taking yourself seriously.” Sadly, I can’t remember where I heard this or who said it. (Googling the phrase only turned up results that told me to not take myself too seriously.) The gist of it being that if you want to be a certain kind of person — author, illustrator, artist, engineer, etc. — then it’s up to you to start taking concrete steps in that direction.
It means making plans, tracking progress, and seeking opportunities. It doesn’t mean you go at it alone or without help, but it orients your focus. It prompts you to adjust your priorities and behaviors. This phrase is a cousin to the idea of “fake it till you make it” but I like that it frames this as a gift that you can give yourself.
I think this can easily get confused with a consumerist hyper-productivity mindset. What are the things that are going to make me write? Sure, paying for Scrivener made me want to put Scrivener to good use. But it’s important to separate what will genuinely help you vs. what gives the illusion of helping you. The reality is that there is no magic tool or workflow. It’s structure and sustaining a practice. It’s working realistically within the constraints that you have. It’s being kind to yourself about your work and why it’s important.
I spent a week brainstorming a new character arc and arrived at something that feels more in line with my goals for the book. (Never underestimate the power of intuition.) Now, I’ve been slowly revising the draft, chapter by chapter, with this new storyline in place. The printed draft sits on my desk, highlighted and adorned with notes in the margins. Small things like this help me feel like I’m taking the work, and myself, seriously.
If you’re wrestling with questions like, “Can I call myself a [writer/artist/whatever you want to be],” I hope you know the answer is “yes” and that you continue to find ways to affirm that.
Thank you all for subscribing and reading this year! If you like this newsletter, please consider sharing it with friends. If there are topics or questions you’d like to see covered, hit reply with your feedback. This newsletter is taking a little break for the next few weeks! *Terminator voice* I’ll be back on January 13!
- "Let Me Finish" by Alexander Chee
- Gift ideas for yourself and/or fellow writers: gift cards for online writing classes at places like The Center for Fiction and Catapult, subscriptions to news sites or literary journals, and writing tools like Baron Fig notebooks (my personal favorite) and Scrivener.
- Nitya Rayapati on health insurance as the new American happy ending: "Of course nihilism is not new, and fiction has always dealt with illness, and suffering. The nihilism is because of mortality, not insurance. Health benefits can’t remove this anxiety. But not having insurance, or having other barriers to care, can press this anxiety into every day, and we already live so precariously now."
- Just how white is the book industry? Of the 7,124 English-language fiction books published between 1950-2018 where NYT identified the author’s race, 95% were written by white people.
- If you’re a writer who’s not yet established in media, apply for Ann Friedman’s AF WKLY 2021 Fellowship. She’ll be offering mentorship and editing, a small annual stipend, regular check-ins, and space in her amazing newsletter to publish and promote your work.
Recent reads & other media
I’ve been reading 52 books every year for the last 7 years, and I typically write a blog post reflecting on my year in reading. Here’s my 2019 roundup, which I just got around to writing (almost one year later than I had planned, oops). I’ll be writing my 2020 reflection to include in the newsletter next month.
But to conclude the last newsletter of 2020, I thought I’d select some of my favorite reads in categories loosely modeled after Roxane Gay’s year in reading. You can find a full list of these books on my Bookshop.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Most gifted book
Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Slow burn romances featuring unlikely roommates
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
A book that made me spit out La Croix laughing so hard
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Books where there is little capital-P Plot but so much gorgeously written prose and inner turmoil
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Best childhood rereads because I regressed this year
American Girl: Addy Book Series by Connie Porter, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
A book that haunted me (in a good way)
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
A novel that made me want to throw the book across the room because the writing is so good and nothing I write will ever come close
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Favorite book club discussion
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Wildly unrealistic and delightful romances I recommend to everybody
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
A book about New Orleans East that is also an excellent examination of American cities, race, and inequality
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!
~ meme myself and i ~
Daylight savings life. The cutest sled dogs. What your morbid-niche childhood interest says about you (mine was the Titanic). I vibe with this post-surgery iguana. Delightful Christmas cake decorating and latke making. Pump up the jam!