What We Teach When We Teach Writers: On the Quantifiable and the Uncertain

October 29, 2010 | 11 books mentioned 25 6 min read

Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week.

Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO.

But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.”

One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel:

I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective.

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,”  I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology  (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user.

When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we’ll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can.

The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile.

As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time.  So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it.

A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!”

Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life:

From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!)

cover Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death).

While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps:

I love this book. I’m writing it for myself and an audience composed of me’s […] It’s going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet […] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman.

The book received mixed reviews – two bad ones in the NY Times – and sold modestly.

cover Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it:

I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write […] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future… well, great. But I knew I couldn’t go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn’t […] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing […] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don’t have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it.

The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic.

As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.

It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do.

Hang in there.

Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. This article appeared at a very good time for me, as I am reflecting quite a bit on the uncertainty of being a writer. I am at one of these crossroads where I’m sitting with the pencil trying to make a list of things other than a writer I can be and coming up with a blank sheet. I seem to have one overriding party trick– the ability to write.

    Yet I’m still uncertain about my future ability to make a living. There are times when this uncertainty is more comfortable, and times when it is less comfortable. Right now it is a less comfortable time.

    I recently completed a novel that I had been working on, on and off for 10 years. In the last year, a new source of inspiration came to me, and I found myself writing in flow in a torrent and doing what I feel is the best writing I am capable of, the best story telling that I can. It filled me with great satisfaction initially.

    Now in the hands of my agent, I can only wait and it feels like a little death. As long as it remains unread, it is as if I accomplished nothing at all. A book doesn’t exist until it is read.

    It has been a short time, but no new inspiration has come to me to work on something else. It’s like I need an answer first, before I can move forward. If this, that is the best I am capable of, can’t sell or be published, then there doesn’t seem much point in writing anything else. And yet I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve had the same aspiration most of my life, and I can’t envision a replacement for it.

    I also have the worry that this is all I have, that I have written what I was supposed to write and there is no more in there. I don’t know if it will take another decade before that kind of inspiration– that felt spiritual and made everything else fall away– will come back. Having experienced that, I want to experience it again.

    I am a person who has been comfortable with a lot of uncertainty, but there does come a time when you’ve had such a high level of uncertainty for so long that it becomes hard to keep your balance with everything constantly unmoored. You just want some solid ground on which to set your feet. Uncertainty with hope is easy to endure. Uncertainty with doubt is not.

    It was extremely helpful to me to hear writing defined as comfort with uncertainty and to know that I am not alone in this dizzying state. Seems as though there are people out there who might know what I am going through.

  2. Laura, I hope your book gets published, but even if it doesn’t, you will, in time, come to appreciate that you simply wrote it. Ten years is a long time, and to have written something for the entirety of it is no mean feat. You should be proud—though I obviously understand your inability to sit still at the moment!

    Me: I’m about six months into writing my first novel—that is, after three years of struggling with shorts and poetry—and I’ve learned that a lot of what this article says is true; that to be writers, we must allow ourselves to be defeated. After all, only when we’re broken and surrounded by the shattered remnants of our ‘potential’ can we begin to build a more working structure.

  3. Sonya, thanks for sharing your view as both a writer and a teacher, and the unique perspective of seeing the process from both sides. It’s comforting to know the kind of uncertainty many writer’s encounter and overcome and the simple techniques many use, from setting and sticking to quantifiable goals (Egan’s 5 pages a day) to quantifying and reporting what was accomplished (posting word counts on FB).

    And I really appreciate what you write from the teaching perspective about supporting writers at various levels, especially when they are interested and motivated, because for many writing quality fluctuates over time, and audiences can be so subjective. This view is so much more generous than say, Flannery O’Connor who had little tolerance for anyone not in the top category. While I don’t teach, I will definitely keep this in mind when critiquing peers and providing feedback to friends.

    Sometimes I think that to be a writer and to create, it’s necessary to be a bit like a bull, to plow ahead no matter what gets in your way. I once knew someone who regardless of any setback or failure in her life always bounced back full of energy and determination – another friend likened her to a plastic blow-up bozo dolls, no matter how hard the plastic bozo is punched down, it always bounces back. While I can do without the punches, when uncertainty or fear feel like it may knock me down, the bozo image reminds me to bounce back up.

  4. I think this is an excellent article. Writing is about not quitting, or if you do quit, pick it back up again when you can. Whatever it takes to keep going, do that. If word counts help, then count them, if they distract, then don’t. There’s no magic bullet.

  5. “I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer” – I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing – “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

    I like this a lot. But should we assume a “high tolerance for uncertainty” starts and ends with staring at the blank page/screen? To my way of thinking, it starts with reading. And, impressionistic as this may be, far too many writers today do not read! The result is a literalness in their writing. Curiosity and creativity is cut off at the ankles because these writers have not walked in the shoes of other writers.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, everyone. I hope that I emphasized enough (perhaps not) how elemental a rigorous reading life is to good writing. There’s nothing that signals hopelessness to me more than when a student writer is lazy or even casual when it comes to his reading life…

    It seems to me important somehow to consider all the brilliant writers who have written mediocre books or stories over the course of their careers. This tells me that art is long (even as life is short), that we are always both succeeding and failing, and that every work is a risk, an act of faith. Also: Kate Walbert (A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN, National Book Award finalist for OUR KIND) shared in an interview a couple of years ago that the first novel she published was the third one she’d written. There’s something about the culture of literary celebrity that obscures these realities and oversimplifies the writing life as pure product, devoid of the richness of process.

  7. I envy your students. You sound like an exceptional professor.

    This article was comforting, in a way. Hearty. I love that you wrote writers must have a high tolerance for uncertainty. That is something I needed to read tonight.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.