Are you a writer who becomes obsessed—or worse, discouraged or demoralized—with the struggle to meet arbitrary daily page or word quotas? Is your quest to reach a magic number having an averse effect on the quality of your storytelling? Perhaps you should change the way you measure success.
Karen Russell’s (right) first novel, Swamplandia, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012 (the judges decided not to award the prize). Her new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, has just been published and is featured on the cover of the February 10 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Reviewer Joy Williams writes of Russell, “Her work has a velocity and trajectory that is little less than dazzling and a tough, enveloping, exhilarating voice that cannot be equaled.”
In a recent “How I Write” Q&A at thedailybeast.com, Noah Charney, art historian and novelist (The Art Thief), interviewed Russell. (A note to locals: Charney will be the speaking at Fairfield University on Sunday, March 24 at 3 p.m. as part of the Open Visions Forum). One of his questions was, “How much do you have to write, in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?”
Russell’s long reply is worth reading in its entirety.
“I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or ‘research’ some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer? For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways—I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s ‘going good.’ There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Is that setting the bar too low. . . ? Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.”
Let me try to boil Russell’s wisdom down to bulletin-board length—
Stay inside your story and move it forward.
Whether we count pages or words or neither, Russell’s daily measure of success is one we all should embrace.—Alex McNab
Click here to read the entire Russell interview at thedailybeast.com.