The Best Gift for Writers

You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.

The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, is apparently fond of quoting Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How utterly true!

But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.

We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.

There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.

Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
Books are some of the best teachers

Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.

But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.

Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.



  • Cassandra Jade

    Uninterrupted time? Does such a thing exist? Well it does when I get up at 4:30 in the morning. I usually get a good hour or two to myself before I need to start interacting with the world.
    If anyone ever figures out how to bottle extra time, they are going to make a fortune.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Judith

    Hi, Cassandra. Thanks for joining us! I find the harder I fight for time, the more it slips through my fingers. But even short bursts have their purpose. 4:30 AM, huh? I’m a midnight writer myself.

    Hope to hear from you again.

  • Chet

    Using time is the lesson I set myself to learn this year. All my life, I have had the very bad habit of allowing myself to drift through projects instead of settling down and getting them done. My efforts to write on my train ride each day helped me to change because time was bounded and limited, just the minutes between the moment I got a seat until the moment the conductor announced ‘next stop is Maplewood.’

    The gift of time is the first gift any of us receive. I will not ask for more. But I will ask of myself that in the year to come, I be more passionate about what I do with the time I am given. If I can gift that spirit to myself… well, then we will see…

  • Sandra

    I have the time but I lack the focus. I wish I could force myself to be in the zone when I have time on my hands but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Monkey mind, I guess. Maybe more yoga and meditation would help? Oy.

  • Christi Craig

    Great post, and great reminder that we don’t need an MFA, just more time, practice, and a critical eye.

    Also, love the link to the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best. I’ve read a few books published by the Modern Library, and I always love the brief history on the author they include in their books. With time being so limited, I rarely get the chance to study the lives of authors, which are as intriguing as their works!

  • Judith

    Time is indeed limited, and getting worse all the time. Besides life’s inevitable responsibilities and pressures, we’ve been inundated with endless, generally worthless opportunities to fracture our attention and time.

    I was dismayed and comforted when I read “The Endless First Chapter” by Michelle Slatalla in the December 7, 2009 NY Times. It starts:

    “I AM reading a book. I mean, I am trying to read a book.”

    I’ve never been a particularly quick reader, but these days – with two kids, too much work, and all the joys and pitfalls of my computer obsession – I’m lucky to finish a single book a month. My invaluable reading time has shrunk to a couple of bleary-eyed pages before bedtime. And I’m a NOVELIST!!!! What’s the world – my world particularly – coming to?

    In any case, if we can only eek out time enough to read one or two novels a month – or a year – then following the Modern Library’s list at least guarantees that our time will be well spent.

    Happy holidays. Here’s to more time for what matters to all of us!

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