The Writing Life

A Writer’s Life Revealed: Kathryn Benson

This is the fourth post in the series A Writer’s Life Revealed, where authors and writers share insights into their writing lives. Last week Kirby Larson took us through Week 3 of the series. Today, Kathryn Benson, our fourth contributor, joins us on Blogging Story!

Kathryn Benson and The Writer’s Life

Kathryn Benson writes for children and young adults. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a dog named after Pippi Longstocking and several thousand books. She holds a BA from Grinnell College, an MLIS from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @bensonka.

What is Your Writing Routine?

There are two answers to this question: first, there’s my ideal writing routine, which I’ve managed to stick to in the past for weeks or even months at a time—and then there’s my current reality.

In a perfect world, I wake up early, take my dog for a walk, and come home and have breakfast and a cup of hot tea at my desk. Before diving into my current project, I spend some time reading, and do morning pages (a stream-of-consciousness journaling practice I picked up from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to ease myself into a writing frame of mind. Then I get to work—on research, side writing, outlining, drafting, or revision—and try to fit in at least two or three hours before moving on to the rest of the day’s obligations. As a librarian, I work primarily in the afternoons and evenings, which is by design: I know that I’m at my most focused and creative in the morning, and so I try to protect that time however I can.

But, inevitably, life gets in the way. When I first established this ideal writing routine, I was working towards my MFA, and I had plenty of external deadlines and accountability to keep me on track. At the time, I was convinced that if I could just find the right time of day to work, the right kind of tea to drink, and the perfect notebook to draft in (I do most of my drafting longhand), everything else would follow. But I’ve learned since then that this kind of obsessive dedication to a specific routine can be as much of a hindrance as a help.

Here’s why: in the year or so since finishing my graduate program, I’ve lost a close family member to cancer, dealt with overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks, and supported my mother through her own cancer diagnosis and the beginning of treatment, which is ongoing. I share all this because I want to make one thing very clear: It’s okay to not write. Sometimes other things are more important. Sometimes you won’t be able to think past tomorrow, let alone hold the whole arc of a novel in your head.

But also, even when things are harder than you thought you could stand: It’s okay to keep writing. For a time, I abandoned my works-in-progress entirely, in favor of Netflix and romance novels. I felt frozen by grief and fear and change, and I couldn’t imagine finding the time or the willpower to write ever again. My situation was, of course, deeply my own, but also universal: everyone experiences loss, and family illness, and days and weeks when thinking about anything other than the crisis at hand feels impossible. Some days, I sat down to write morning pages and felt so selfish—how could I give myself the gift of time inside my own head, dwelling on my thoughts and feeling and problems, when I wasn’t the one who was sick and in pain?

But then I realized something. I once heard someone describe meditation like this: “When I meditate, I go somewhere—to an internal, psychic space—that will be the same when I’m eighty years old as it was when I was five years old.” Writing is kind of like that. There’s nothing wrong with setting up schedules and systems (normally I love schedules and systems) but, when you feel adrift and you don’t have room in your life for deadlines or word count goals, it’s okay to write simply because you need to, because writing helps you remember who you are.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Many of the habits I established when my life was simpler are still in place. I tend to write in the mornings, with breakfast and a hot cup of tea. I start with morning pages, which have become a crucially important way for me to sort through my thoughts. And then, if I have the time, and the energy, and nothing more pressing that has to be done, I write. Lately I’ve been revisiting a novel I abandoned last October, and even reading through old pages and making revision notes feels so good. I do what I can, and if that’s not much, it’s okay.

What Accomplishments do You Celebrate, and How?

Some of the best advice I’ve received (from my first semester VCFA advisor, the very wise Cynthia Leitich Smith) is to take time to celebrate your successes. I’ve certainly been guilty of not doing this in the past, and I’m trying to do better. I’m not published, or even agented, and sometimes it seems like just isn’t that much to celebrate until I reach those milestones. But, of course, that’s not true. Every step of the process is an achievement: finishing a first draft, finishing a revision pass, sending your manuscript to friends for critique, writing a query letter, and being brave enough to get rejected.

I have a few ongoing group texts with VCFA classmates, and those sustain me. I know my writer friends will be there to cheer me on when I’m struggling, and to say “JUST WRITE ALREADY” when I’m making excuses. They understand how long and frustrating the process can be, and they understand that even the smallest of successes (“I wrote for TWO WHOLE HOURS this morning!”) deserves celebration—or, at the very least, a dancing-girl emoji. So I guess what I’m saying is: we all need friends to keep us honest, and to force us to give ourselves credit for our daily triumphs.

What Advice do You Have for Writers Out There Who Feel Discouraged or Unmotivated?

It’s okay to quit. Really, it is! Take a break, try something else, give yourself time to get bored and restless. And then, when you come back to writing (because you will), take a minute and ask yourself: why do you write? I keep a picture on my desk of myself as a very little girl, clutching a Peter Rabbit board book. When I look at it, I remember that I write because I love stories. Because books have always been magical to me, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be one of the magic-makers.

It may sound a little starry-eyed, but that thought keeps me going, especially when I get bogged down with practical concerns. If I spend too much time thinking about how long it’s going to take me to finish a draft, or get an agent, or sell a book, I’ll never get down to work in the first place. Writing is hard, almost always, and taking some time to remember why it matters can go a long way towards making the daily struggle of getting words on the page a little easier.

Check Back Next Week for More!

Thank you so much for your wise words, Kathryn. I love the idea of morning pages—I think that’s something I need to start doing. I also hear you on celebrating even the milestones that don’t seem important—I will literally throw myself a party when I finish a first draft of the YA novel I’ve been trying to write for three years now.

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