A lot of us in this Connecticut town got our start as creative writers in one of Carol Dannhauser’s Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield groups. Carol is an award-winning magazine writer and TV producer, author of three books, a former big-city newspaper reporter, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, a dedicated foodie (that’s a persimmon gelato cone she’s eating in the photo on the right, incidentally) and a determined if fledgling fencer. She also is an indefatigable, effervescent writing coach of groups and individuals of all ages and levels of experience.
So when she appeared as guest facilitator at the Library’s first monthly writers’ salon of 2014, the turnout overwhelmed the capacity of the lovely writers’ room and the group had to move upstairs to a much larger space. Carol’s topic was “tips, tools and techniques for actually writing the pieces you need/want to write this year.” In her inimitable idiom, here are highlights of what Carol told us:
“Have a deadline.” Read on to learn why.
“Figure out your motivation.” Writing, Carol says, “is fun. And it’s hard. It’s fun and hard at the same time. What is it about this project of yours that will help you derive satisfaction? What makes you do it, on top of whatever else you do, when your kids are still sleeping, when you get up an hour before everybody else gets up, when it’s Wednesday night and everybody else is watching ‘Modern Family.’ Something has to be nudging you along to pick up the pen. The fact that maybe you should do it isn’t the right answer. I make my living as a writer of nonfiction. I dabble in fiction. . .[but] I am determined to finish a draft of a novel this year.” Why? “I want to see if I can do it. And it’s a great story. It’s a great story and I think I can do it, but maybe I can’t.” Of course, that thought process gets in the way of every writer, she says. So…
“Get rid of the judgment.” Carol admits she’s a terrible fencer. “But every single week I devote a certain amount of time to becoming a better fencer. I get my ass kicked, by children, including my own. I will leave and go, ‘I’m terrible.’ Then, in a couple of more days, I’ll try it again.” Many of us don’t approach writing that way. “There’s all this judgment that comes with writing,” most of it from yourself. “You write it and, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ It’s terrible now. Every single thing I write is terrible—until it’s not.” That’s why. . . .
“You have to have the faith that it will get better.” Writing takes practice. “If you do it long enough, sooner or later it will get better. Yes, you go on a wing and a prayer sometimes. Try really, really hard to tell your inner critic, ‘I know it sucks. Give me some time, and it will suck less,’ and less and less. And then maybe it won’t be so bad. Then maybe pretty good, then good, then maybe it’ll be great. But you can’t give up. How many people have half-finished projects? A third finished? That’s my big one. You just can’t give up.” Eventually, though. . .
“You need to be done.” Why? “Because if you wait for you to be done, you might not ever be done.” So refer back to her command about a deadline. “I would suggest making a deal with yourself: ‘Self, I’m going to finish this piece of something by March first. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be finished. And then I’m going to do something with it by April first.’ If you are a perfectionist, you will never finish it.”
“Give your writing respect.” That means writing something every single day. It “needs to get the same little bit of respect as your other projects in life. It doesn’t have to be a whole production. But it has to be a commitment to writing in some way on a regular basis.” One way to do that is to keep a log of every time you write. “Not that you read about writing, or read someone’s blog. That’s all great. [But] you’re not writing.”
“Make your goal smaller.” Carol says, “Yeah, I want to write a novel. But my goal yesterday wasn’t to write a novel. My concrete goal was to figure out how time was going to elapse in this little novel of mine, and how to split it up.” Over the course of a two-day writers’ retreat, she did just that, as well as figure out how to amp up the conflict and reach a resolution in the last quarter of her story. Again, your goal “doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m going to write my whole memoir.’ Like Legos, you don’t have to build the whole thing in a day.”
“If you’re stuck, skip over that part.” As she says, “What do you do in traffic? Detour. You can sit there all day, and it’s not happening. Go around. Skip it. [If you want to], put some piece of crap on the page. The beauty is, you can go back and fix it. I think of poor Michelangelo when he was sculpting. ‘Oh my God! You wrecked the nose. You’re screwed.’ And I just cut and paste.” Once again. . .
“You have to stick with it.” Mixing her artistic metaphors a little, Carol says, “In creative writing, you have to understand that it’s going to be a piece of clay for a long time. Maybe you don’t get the nose right 15 times. You try it again. How many guitars did Picasso paint? Again and again and again. How many horses? Again and again and again. Till he got it right? He never got it right. And every one was a masterpiece. People will spend a million dollars on one of his sketches. So try, try, to let the judge go.”
Deal with procrastination. “The first thing I’d do was play Scrabble against my computer,” Carol confesses. “I would not begin writing until I had won. Sometimes 25 minutes would pass and I’d think, ‘Well, this is good. It’s words. It’s priming my brain. Like warming up at the track.’ No, it’s not. It’s playing Scrabble. I have quelled my Scrabble habit. Not like going cold turkey. Since January 1, now I play after writing 500 words.” If procrastination is your problem, Carol told us, Hillary Rettig’s website may help. It offers an online newsletter with tips and tools for overcoming procrastination. Carol took a two-hour writers’ workshop with Rettig at Hartford’s Mark Twain House (a very writer-friendly locale with a calendar of events worth considering) and says, “Go check her out. And if you ever contact her, tell her I said hello.”
“Get a partner.” Before we left the room, Carol asked us to introduce ourselves to a person we didn’t know and exchange email addresses. “Tell them what you’re going to write, then check in later,” she advised. The focus should be on what you plan to do next. As for what you accomplished between check-ins, a simple, “Did it,” will suffice. “Because I have promised my partner that I will be writing, that’s what I do,” she said. “Or you can meet up. But the commitment is what’s important. It’s so helpful. Writing is so solitary. That commitment to somebody, it’s magical.”—Alex McNab