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Writer Wednesday: Ann Patchett Shares Tips About Writing And Avoiding Doubt

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Bestselling novelist and essayist Ann Patchett recently wrote "The Getaway Car" (Byliner), "a practical memoir about the agony, ecstasy, and occasional lunacy of the writing life." She shared writing tips and thoughts about the philosophy of creation via email with The Huffington Post.

Why do people want to be writers?

I never felt like I was making a career choice – I could be a doctor, an accountant, a writer – it was just something I was always good at when I was a kid. I was good at it, I got attention for it, I therefore put more time into it, got better at it, received more positive reinforcement, so forth.

By the time I was in high school, I felt like I had one real strength and I just kept following it. I think most people who want to be writers have a desire to communicate what’s inside of them, to make their point understood, which is funny because I doubt there are many careers that can make a person feel as misunderstood as being a writer.

What is the definition of a good subject about which to write?

For me, it’s a subject that can hold my attention for a long period of time, something complicated, something I don’t entirely understand going into it. It can take me two or three years to write a novel. If the idea is simplistic, I’m never going to be able to stay with it that long.

How do you deal with the demons of doubt?

Save doubt for later. This is something I talk about in the Byliner piece: I have to divide my brain into two parts - one that makes art and one that judges art. They cannot coexist. When I have doubt about what I’m doing, I shut the doubt down. I tell myself that this is not the time to judge.

Write the essay, write the book, make the thing, whatever it is, be fully present as an artist and then put it down for a while and come back to it later with a critical eye. Fortunately, once a piece is finished and I have a little distance on it, I very rarely doubt it.

How do you know if something you write is any good?

Believe me, there are loads of people in the world who are ready to tell me if my writing is good or not. All I have to worry about is doing my best.

That sounds like excellent advice for a third grader but it works for me as well. I made a decision a long time ago to do the best work I am capable of doing at this point in my life.

How do you know when to stop making changes?

I put a lot of thought into a piece before I start to write it. Writing is less an act of discovery for me, and more a process of getting what’s in my head onto paper.

I do a lot of polishing as I go along, but when I get to the end it’s pretty much finished. I’m not someone who writes eight drafts of a novel.

I studied visual arts when I was young. I did a lot of printmaking all the way through graduate school. It’s very easy to kill a print or a painting through overworking it. I took that same lesson into writing.

I’m always going to err on the side of stopping a little too soon rather than a little too late. I’m the kind of person who likes to leave a party when I’m still having a good time.

Do you read to help your writing?

Reading and writing are completely intertwined for me. It’s like walking with two feet.

I don’t think about reading a book in order to help my writing, any more than I think of eating to help my writing. If I stopped eating, I’d stop writing eventually. The same is true with reading.

What is the definition of writing success?

When I was young, my crazy dream was being able to support myself as a writer, so on a very basic level success feels like paying the light bill with money I’ve made writing.

I recently met the spoken word artist Shane Koyczan. We were both speaking at the opening of the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia, and before we went on, I said to him, "What is it you do out there?" And he said, “I can’t really explain it, but I make my living doing it. I bought a house doing it.”

I don’t mean to say that success is about money, but the fact that I take care of my writing and my writing takes care of me is what makes me feel successful. (Shane Kayczan is a genius, by the way.)

Is writing a pastime or a career?

I’m always amazed when people say they feel too shy to write. It’s a completely private act. You write for yourself. If, down the road, you decide to share it with other people, that’s your choice.

Writing is a great career, but it’s also a wonderful pastime. It works well on both a professional and amateur level. It can be strictly for your own enjoyment, even if you wind up getting paid.

The Getaway Car, A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, is available as an ebook from Byliner.

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