Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I've taken many fiction classes. In a university, you know you're done when you get the degree. Since I'm not working toward a degree, how do I know I'm done?

Writers are never finished learning. Take it from a master of the short story form, Flannery O’Connor, who once said, “the more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it.” Each new poem, essay, or story presents its own unique challenges and its own demands on the writer’s ability to combine the elements of craft. Writers learn with every new project, every success, and every failure. Even a degree doesn’t mean a writer should abandon close reading, deep thought, and the benefits of thoughtful commentary.

Learning may be life long, but that doesn’t mean the mode of learning always remains the same. Some writers dip in and out of workshops, gravitating toward them when they feel nourished and challenged by structure and community and staying away when they would prefer the solitude to noodle around in the imagination or explore literature on their own. Some writers leave the classroom and share work with trusted readers or meet with a group of like-minded writers to exchange and discuss recent works. Still other writers find they are content to work mostly in isolation.

There are also other opportunities for writers beyond classes. You might look into a writing residency, conference, or online forum. Think about what you need—at any given stage in your writing life—and find the resource that will help you meet those needs.

When you feel lost or stumped, seek out other writers. When your inner critic is getting in the way of your progress or your writerly isolation is suppressing your imagination, seek out other writers. When you hit a slump or wake up one morning and realize you haven’t written in a month (or a year) and this makes you feel anxious and upset, seek out other writers. You might find these writers in class or workshop if you’re looking for structure, deadlines, and guidance, or in a more casual gathering if you already have a strong network of writers.

Don’t let your perception of where you should be in your learning process get in the way of progress. If you find a class offers you the tools and motivation you need to write, then by all means take one, even if you’ve taken several and think you should be finished with them. If you want to return to the conference you went to last year because you found it so inspiring, then go. These experiences are not rigid repetitions. There will be different writers and leaders and you’re likely at a different place in your writing, making it an entirely new experience.

If you’re waiting until you’re “done” learning to start something—like a longer or more ambitious project—then you’ll probably never get to it. Start now. You will learn through the act of writing and the thoughtful assessment of that writing. Once you’re in the thick of it, you’ll be better equipped to decide what kind of writing community—if any—will be most helpful.