Skip the Cotton Candy: Writing Is Sweeter

by Julie Riddle 

“You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story…if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

– Harry Crews

On making time to write

I’m working on a manuscript, a collection of memoir-based essays developed from my MFA thesis. My current writing schedule is Monday/Wednesday afternoons and Tuesday/Thursday early mornings. This fall I began feeling like I wasn’t making enough progress on the manuscript, so I started writing on the weekends, too. I aim to get in an hour and a half each time. Sometimes two hours will zip by before I know it. But any longer than that and my brain starts to fade.

I don’t always feel like writing; I think my avoidance tendencies are mostly due to fearing failure. Early on, I was tempted to “fudge.” But searching online for writing conferences to attend and literary journals to submit my work to is not writing; reading essays about writing isn’t writing; editing other people’s essays for literary journals isn’t writing. Reading literature is important and necessary to writing, but reading isn’t writing. I read during lunch and evenings/weekends.

After writing regularly for six years, I’ve learned to trust that even when I don’t feel like writing, if I just sit down and get started, good things will happen within the work. I keep a card by my computer that reads, “Focus on the action, not the fruit of the action.” I read this just before I start writing. It reminds me to focus on the work – on the words – and not worry about whether what I produce that day will be worthwhile.

It’s easy to let daily life get in the way; I have to be diligent about protecting my writing time. I’m not very social. Two good friends and I get together for coffee a couple of times a month, and my husband and I enjoy quality time together, but I spend a fair bit of time at home, alone. I don’t turn on the TV and rarely play music – I do best with silence. When I’m not writing, I’m usually thinking about writing. When my mind is free to wander, that’s when I problem-solve – untangle a sentence, get an idea for how to structure an essay, locate an elusive descriptive word.

Now that I’m in the habit of writing, I feel uncomfortable if I’m not able to write regularly. I miss it and want to get back to it. Sometimes I’m too worn out to write, and I try to honor that and give myself a break. Unexpected things happen – the dog gets sick and has to go to the vet; family emergencies hit. The important thing is to get back to writing as soon as you can.

On being persistent

Earlier this fall I had been struggling with an essay and was making little or no headway on it. During this time I found author Mary Clearman Blew’s advice to be helpful: “Sometimes, when getting the words to the page is slow and painful, allow yourself some space. Sometimes writing a hundred words a day is enough. Anyone can write a hundred words. Sometimes a hundred words are all I can write. But often those hundred words will lead to more.”

One afternoon, as I was trying to write those hundred words, I made some surprising connections, and the essay revved to life again and I could move forward. In that moment I thought, “This makes me so happy.” It was such a satisfying experience, and it motivated me to keep going.

Writing is often a lonely endeavor; it’s helpful to have a support group. For me, it’s Laurie Lamon (poet and Whitworth English professor) and several grad-school friends I keep in touch with. We encourage each other when we’re struggling and celebrate the successes.

Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, said in a Poets & Writers interview, “Hard work, hard thinking and hard patience [are] what we must seek and demand…If you are truly serious about doing distinctive work that will make its mark, slow down.”

Last winter I submitted an essay (from my manuscript) to The Georgia Review. In reply to my submission, the letter from an associate editor read in part, “This piece is close to being a finished essay, but it’s not quite there yet.” I had worked on the essay across six years, and I thought it was finished several times. But I learned that it takes a lot of time and hard mental and emotional work to peel back the layers of experience and memory to get at the heart of meaning.

The editor was right – there was still more depth to plumb. I revised the essay over the next four months and then the journal accepted it. It’ll appear in the March or June 2013 issue. It’s my first publication – it’ll be exciting and a bit of a shock to see my essay in print.
Well…a gentle but persistent voice in my head is telling me that writing about writing isn’t writing. Time to get back to the manuscript!

Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling: A Journal of Witness, published by Whitworth University, and the craft-essay editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. By day she works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth and associate editor of Whitworth Today magazine. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her essay, “Animals,” is forthcoming in The Georgia Review in 2013.
Image at the top of this post is from

5 thoughts on “Skip the Cotton Candy: Writing Is Sweeter

  1. Hi, Julie,

    Thank you for your blog (and writing about writing)! Thank you also for Shadow Animals which I read yesterday evening. I, too, am in the process of working on some essays that can be gleaned from my own manuscript – a first- and am applying to MFA programs. I was shocked to find a lot of striking cognitive associations to my own story and the experience of living deeply rooted in animalistic metaphors. I am writing to thank you for your gorgeous portrayal of your story. Your essay has an incredible healing quality. I had to pause and meditate on some of your own revelations that felt much like some of my own catharses.

    Beautiful work and congratulations on the publication.

    Thank you,

    1. Hi, Lindsay,

      I’m very sorry for such a belated reply – I just today discovered your post to the Rock & Sling blog. Thanks so much for your lovely comments and feedback on the essay. I’m glad to learn that it raised connections to your own story and experiences. Similar responses from readers have been a welcome surprise. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about creative nonfiction, and personal essays in particular – the connections we make on the page and with each other.

      I hope your writing and MFA applications are going well. I attended the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University (a low-residency program) and loved it. In addition to all I learned, the relationships I formed with my classmates and the faculty continue to sustain me (and my efforts to keep writing) well after graduation. I hope the same occurs for you.

      Thanks again for your message, Lindsay – I really appreciate it.

      Best regards,

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