Find The Writing Life Right for You

By Heather Sellers

How to stay limber, how to make the writing not grim, how to enjoy writing. How to make room in real life for a writing life. These are my goals. Are they yours, too?

I want my readers to be able to set up a positive, happy, easy writing life. One that is fun. I believe you can (and fairly quickly) create a writing life where the writing process itself is so enchanting and delicious, you want to write. You go to the desk willingly, stresslessly. In my dream vision for your writing life, you don't have to make yourself write. It's not work. It's not tedious or punishing. It's what you do. A happy productive writing life is like a simple, perfect dinner, or prayer and meditation. It's soul food.

So many of my students practice a weird, contorted relationship to writing. In fact, many of the (struggling) writers I know have adopted or internalized a bunch of rules that they then proceed to break every single day. They set up regimens, word counts, page goals. They nurture secret fantasies of prizes and publications. Then, they say they aren't disciplined. They say they are lazy. They say they have a terrible procrastination problem. They claim they want to write, and they act as though they can't understand why they don't write. Ultimately, they don't write very much, but they wish to, very badly.

I'm surrounded by non-writer want-to-be-writers. Probably, you are too. I see so many of my students, friends, and colleagues pushing themselves lower, lower, lower. I saw my mom do it. My dad does it. My students do it. So many of us use writing as a way to keep ourselves down, limited, stuck.

This book aims to help the person who wants to write learn how to simplify and clarify the habits and states of mind conducive to writing. It's easy to use mystery as an excuse. It's tempting to say we don't understand the muse, the artistic process, greatness. But really, we do. My hope is that I can present, in practical chapters, a course of lessons that will help stuck, nervous, scared, lazy writers (is that not all of us?) break through to their best material, and welcome into their lives a writing practice that feeds rather than sucks and demands.

Almost anyone can write good stuff.

It's a matter of sitting down, conjuring a state of complete dedication and complete openness, and writing. Putting pen to page.

Okay. So, I know. This writing business--it's really, really hard to do. Like anything that looks effortless and beautiful--cliff-diving, horse-racing, dance--writing takes an almost inhuman ability to focus. Creating a writing life requires growth and self-knowledge on your part. There will be bumps in the road as you become a writer: parts that are boring, lonely, tedious, silly, selfish, and extremely frustrating. That's all a part of writing. And in truth, writing is the most difficult thing I do in a day. But it's not the writing that is so hard. Good writing will flow out of us, easily. It's the set up, the preparation, the habits of mind, the thoughts you think before and during your writing—that's what is so hard to get right. Preparing is complex. Writing is simple.

My method asks you to look gently at what you love. If you love writing, it helps you stay in a good mood, a happy mood. Writing helps you know who you are, and how you think, and what you need. For many of us, it's not just a way to express, impress, or vent, it's a whole spiritual practice. The stuff you have to do to get good at writing is the exact same stuff you do when you want a relationship--with a lover, a parent, a child--to go well. It's how you become a better, healthier, more balanced person--it's the same work, this work we have to do to become "real" writers.

The life part is hard.

The writing part does not have to be hard.

Clearing out bad habits and weird mindsets can take a lot of bold confidence. What will come out of you once you are ready to write, once you are prepared to see writing as a way and not an end to something? I don't know. That's between you, the muse, and your compost pile of fabulous material.

What I can teach you is how to set up your life in a clear way so you can actually get some writing done. I want to help people keep the pleasure in writing. I want to help people avoid a lot of the dull mind games that come with trying to make a writing life.
So, here's my proposal:

Invite yourself into your writing life like you invite a lover upstairs. Want to see my best stuff? Want to play, all night, want me to lavish myself on you?

That is the right attitude toward your new writing life. Seductive, pleasure-seeking, and fun.

Now, you might be a shy lover. You might not wear satin, red slinky things. Or, you might be a monogamous, in-the-dark-only quiet kind of person. You might be wild on the page, and quite conservative in your daily life.

You might be bold in bed, and feel like you are really good, and why has no one discovered this and married/published you?


Good writers are writers with a few tricks up their sleeves. I want to show you some of the sleeves and some of the tricks. I want to show you that your tricks—for staying in your writing chair, for getting there in the first place—are ones you will need to keep sharpened. Your whole life.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that "to do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life." In Page After Page, by showing how I have navigated, for better and for worse, the challenges of writing, working, teaching, publishing, loving, friending, owning a dog, doing laundry, I hope to inspire you to first get past your initial, perfectly normal counterproductive resistance, and on to words, your words, on the pages.

Your words, your pages.

The lessons here are the ones I learn again and again. This book is also a kind of autobiography of my last fifteen years writing and teaching and publishing. An alternative title could be Girl Poet Takes on the University Life! It's in part my coming of age memoir, a book about how I learned to learn. It's also a window into my classroom, where I hope you, alongside my students, will learn how to take useful lessons from any class, any teacher.

The chapters in this book explain how I found out what kind of writing life was right for me, and what kinds of exercises and books I found useful along the way. This book is, I hope, like sitting down with me, in my living room, over tea. I'll tell you my story and ask you for yours, dragging books and writing down off the shelves. You might be looking over my shoulder at the wonderful art on my walls. I'll say this: try to get past your taste. Try to learn from everything.

Every writer is a little different. But all people who write have similar fears and blocks about writing. Most of my writing students fall into predictable pits and traps. I want to tell you what I know about the writing path, and, I hope, give you some equipment so you can build bridges over the traps. There are fabulous treasures and wondrous rewards and great wise people along the way.

How do we begin?

By writing!

Heather Sellers is an associate professor of English at Hope College. She teaches fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and writing literature for children and young adults. Dr. Sellers is the author of several books. Her book Georgia Under Water (Sarabande, 2001) won a Barnes and Noble New Discover Award. Two books of poetry, Your Whole Life (1994) and Drinking Girls and Their Dresses (2003) feature poems set in the Disneyfied south of her childhood. Her first children's book, Spike and Cubby's Ice Cream Island Adventure! features the antics of the real Cubby Jones, her faithful corgi companion. Page After Page, Discover the confidence & passion you need to start writing & keep writing (no matter what) is a self-help book for writers. She is at work on a novel/memoir (it can't decide) and a textbook for the introductory multi-genre college creative writing classroom.

Excerpted from Page After Page Used by permission. © 2004 Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc.