Guest Post: Michelle Rafter on Writing Lessons from Five Accomplished Authors

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the WordCount Blogathon, a challenge in which over 250 bloggers from all niches attempt to blog every single day in May. Today, bloggers are swapping posts. My post today is over on Michelle’s blog, where I’m talking about mobile devices and blogging. I was thrilled when Michelle offered to guest blog on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, as she is a very accomplished writer and journalist who always has wonderful insights that she’s extremely generous about sharing. I know a lot of voracious readers are also aspiring writers, so Michelle’s thoughts on the lessons she’s learned from writers at the top of their game should be wonderfully useful to many of you.

The main difference between you and me and famous writers is that they’ve produced a work or works that through talent, ambition, hard work or good fortune have become well known.

When it comes to the process of writing, though, they’re just like us. They get caught up doing research. They get writer’s block. They’re not always sure of themselves, or organized. They write about what they know.

I learned those lessons and more from writers such as Annie Proulx and Stebastian Junger who I heard speak this year as part of an author lecture series sponsored by Portland Literary Arts, a local organization that promotes literature and literary. I won season tickets to the series in a Multnomah County Public Library summer reading program contest.

In addition to Proulx and Junger, since last October I’ve seen Stacy Schiff, Tom Brokaw and Abraham Verghese.

Here are 10 lessons about writing I picked up along the way:

1. It doesn’t matter where you start. Proulx, author of The Shipping News and several collections of short stories about Wyoming (including Brokeback Mountain), didn’t launch her writing career with fiction. She started writing after turning 53 when her kids were grown, and some of her first efforts were articles for horticulture magazines and books on rural living. Her inspiration for writing fiction came from feelings of “looking for some unspecified place, something out there,” she said while in Portland. “I think everyone has those feelings, but it’s difficult to know how to get them on the page.”

2. To do good writing, read — a lot. Proulx has a life-long love affair with books. When she built her current home in Wyoming, she says she finally got a space with enough room for her books. At any given time, she’s got eight or 10 stacked on her night stand. “It’s like oxygen and the air to me,” she says.

3. If you want to stand out, find an under-developed niche. Schiff had worked as an editor in the publishing industry for eight years, but when she decided to write a book, she was too intimidated by the competition to try fiction. So she wrote a biography - of French aviator and writer Saint-Exupéry. That led to biography of Vladimir Nabakov’s wife Vera, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.

4. Use whatever organization system works for you. When asked how she keeps track of the copious notes she compiles while researching books, Schiff confessed to not being very organized. She keeps notes for each chapter in an “Ur document” in Word, she says. Then, when it’s time to write, she prints out the file and uses it to write the chapter.

5. Aim high. Brokaw, the NBC Nightly News anchor from 1982 to 2004, was a kid living in the middle of Nowheresville, South Dakota when he caught the news bug. Encouraged by his mother, he graduated from college and held a series of jobs in a small market TV stations before making it big in 1973, when he became NBC’s White House correspondent.

6. Never underestimate the ability to spin a good yarn. I have no notes from hearing Brokaw when he stopped in Portland last December. I was so mesmerized with his stories (and hadn’t planned to write about it at the time) that I couldn’t bring myself to take my pen and notebook out of my purse. When it comes to telling stories, the man is that good; he had the audience hanging on his every word as he described his years before, during and after his NBC Nightly News years in that instantly recognizable anchorman voice. He also talked extemporaneously for close to 90 minutes, and looked like he was having fun the entire time - good to remember if you’re ever asked to speak in front of a crowd or do a signing at a book store.

7. Forget what you don’t know. Junger had worked a lot of odd jobs, including as a tree trimmer, before deciding he wanted to try being a freelance war reporter and heading to Bosnia to cover the civil war there in the early 1990s. A decade later, he was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and won a National Magazine Award for Reporting.

8. Know when it’s time to tackle something new. Junger worked as a war correspondent for more than 20 years, but the War and The Perfect Storm author told his Portland audience last February that he’s ready for a change. Maybe it had something to do with his friend photographer photographer Tim Hetherington being killed by Libyan forces while covering the civil war there in 2011. Since Junger’s lecture, he’s started Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), an organization that aspires to teach first aid training to freelance journalists working in high-conflict assignments.

9. It’s OK to fit writing in around the edges of your life. Verghese, author of the widely acclaimed novel Cutting for Stone, two nonfiction books and numerous essays,  is a doctor as well as a writer. Except for the time he spent at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he has always worked a day job and written on the side. And that’s the way he likes it. “There’s something absolutely holy about work, it’s my inspiration to write,” he told crowd at his Portland lecture.

10. It’s also OK to be slow. Verghese says it took him eight years to write Cutting for Stone. “Joyce Carol Oates has probably written two books since breakfast.”

Michelle V. Rafter is a Portland journalist coverVerghese says it took him eight years to write Cutting for Stone. “Joyce Carol Oates has probably written two books since breakfast.”ing business, careers and other issues for print and online publications. She blogs at WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age and hosts the annual Blogathon blogging challenge and #wclw writer chat the last Wednesday of the month at 10 a.m. PDT.



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