Here’s What I’m Learning From This One

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As those of you who follow my work know, I’m dead keen on process. I think it’s important for writers not just to write, but to watch themselves writing and observe their evolving approach to their craft. That, I believe, is how a writer goes about growing. So with every new novel I write, I ask myself, “What am I learning from this one?”

Here’s something that’s not news: I have to keep writing. I have to keep working, for I self-define as a person of doing, not being. Persons of being, those lucky Buddhists, get to relax and chill and feel okay. Not me. I’m relentless – driven – and not necessarily in a good way. I would say that my compulsion to write is almost unhealthy, at least as it manifests itself in the worried lament, “I’m falling behind in my existence!” Well, healthy or not, I will write more words, even these words here – in fact exactly these words here – because my active practice of writing demands it. So I write for compulsion, and that’s me, but whatever: I write for utility, too. I write to get immersed in the worlds of my stories. I pile on the words because they take me to the places I want to go most. The math of this has been irreducible since my writing career began: The more words I write, the better I get at writing more words.

In this new novel (The Seattle Straddle, sequel to The Texas Twist, which is due out in June from Prospect Park Books) I’ve taken on the challenge of telling five or six stories at once. I’ve never done this before, yet I feel completely in control. I don’t know where all the stories are going, but I do know that they’re guided by my professional understanding of such things as conflict, passion, and legitimate storytelling choices. My stories will be tight, rigorous, because that’s what my craft demands of me, and that’s what I’m now prepared to deliver: the serious-minded work of a practiced craftsman. This is new for me, this sense of looking at the page and thinking, “Well, I have this all under control.” Trust me, campers, I have not spent my writing life thinking I had things under control. So, yeah, this is new, but I feel like it won’t go away. With this novel I’ve completely stopped fearing the blank page or doubting my storytelling choices. After a lifetime as a working writer, I’ve finally arrived at my job.

Here’s what else is new: I finally love research. Now I’m the guy who’s always said he hates research like a cat hates baths, but I realize that I’ve been going about it all wrong. I always thought you had to dive into a subject and study it like a scholar until you got bored and antsy and had to get back to writing because, you know, that’s what a person of doing has to do. Research never felt like doing to me. I was just burdened by it. So I decided to lighten it up. I just started exploring stuff I was interested in – history’s dark corners mostly – and let my studies inform my stories in a general way. Without effort and without expectation, I started to let my stories, as it were, marinate in data. That makes a mess, I can tell you, but it’s a hot mess, so yay me. Anyway, I’m learning more about research, and treating a former enemy as a practical tool.

When I put these two revelations together and cast them in simple terms, though, they seem not to be revelations at all. What, after all, am I really saying? 1) Write more words. 2) Use better tools. Well, who didn’t already know that?

1) Write more words. 2) Use better tools.

Maybe knowing it and feeling it are two different things. Every writer knows to write more and  every dedicated writer wants to use better tools. But when you experience yourself doing it, that’s the real revelation. That’s the money spot for writers. Or let’s call it the face of the wave, and define face of the wave as the place where the words end and the blank page begins. That’s where we want to spend our lives, you and I writer. Right on the face of the wave. For all of my writing life, the face of the wave has always been exciting but also scary. It’s not scary anymore. Writing has stopped being scary. I don’t know when it happened – probably longer ago than I realize – but the Elvis of my fear has left the building of my brain. For good. Again, if I may, yay me.

Well, yay you, too, because I don’t know you but I know that one of two things must be true of you. You’re either there already, on the far side of the fear – yay, you – or you’re going to get there if you just keep writing. And when I speak of “there,” you need to know that I’m not just talking about the mechanics of a writing project but also – very much – its heart. To be a writer is to be emotionally authentic on the page, say I, and that is a matter of craft, but also of courage. To be a writer is to be brave on the page.

So sally forth in your writing life. Keep working on your craft and keep tracking your practice. There’s an old saying, “Practice makes perfect.” I think that nostrum does a disservice to writers, or to anyone following it, since “perfect” is an unreachable goal. How about instead we say, “Practice makes progress.” Progress, really, is all this writer asks.


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    While your revelations may seem obvious to you at this point, I’d guess that it’s the specifics (and not the generalities) that you are pointing to. Yes, a writer needs to write more words and yes, we need to use better tools. But what is a better tool? How do you get more words (or better words) to flow onto the page? The answers are specific to each of us, and clearly to you. Yay, all of us!

    I wonder if in 5 years (or 5 months) you find that what you consider to be a better tool or the process to getting more words changes from what that means to you?

    I’ve found that how I write changes, even when I think I’m on the face of the wave. Reflecting and analyzing on how my process is serving my writing it essential. Thanks for the terrific post!

  2. Carmel says

    “To be a writer is to be emotionally authentic on the page, say I, and that is a matter of craft, but also of courage.”

    These words should be engraved somewhere!

  3. Denise Willson says

    As always, John, great post. Your voice is loud, clear, and appreciated.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  4. says

    John I love this: “I self-define as a person of doing, not being.” I have been working seven days a week for as long as I can remember trying to make a living from my writing and editing skills—but when you’re doing what you love, the work refills your well for you, I’ve found. On “vacation,” I simply work in a different place. And even when life demands full immersion, I know that intense living will some day feed my writing. A big difference is that research to me has always felt like “doing”—I love the surprises it always holds for my work.

  5. Judith Coopy says

    I went back to university at the age of 50 and did a BA in Spanish and minored in Writing. One of the best things I learned from my professor was about process and looking at our writing by creating a list called Personal Heuristics, a list of strengths and weaknesses. I still consult this list even though that was in 1990. Over the years, I have developed my own method of writing after reading hundreds of books, not necessarily about reading or writing, but from many genres. Ever writer must also be a reader!
    Having one’s own method (process) can be a great help when getting ready to write an article or even a book/s as yet unpublished.

    Judith Coopy

  6. says

    With every book, I do learn something – even if it’s something about myself. With my latest, I challenged myself – not that I said, “I’m going to challenge myself” – I just took myself out of my old comfort zone, kicking and screaming I may add *laugh* – and the result is/was that I thought, an almost ulcer and torn out hair later, “Huhn. I didn’t know I could do that.” :D

    Nice piece here; thank you.

  7. says

    What a brilliant, brilliant post! I love it! I am going to book mark this and keep re-reading it until the day that I know it deep in my bones. By then I will have experienced the deep shift of transformative knowledge. Yay you!

  8. says

    Doing research in an intuitive meandering way without expectation? That sounds pretty Buddhist to me. ;) Happy to hear you’re beyond your fear. I’m crossing that threshold now, though I still have the habit of fear to kick.

  9. E H Kern says

    “I am falling behind in my existence.”

    I share that same experience! Ironically, I have not been able to put into exact words until now.


  10. says

    John, I really enjoy the verbs you use in this post. You don’t consider yourself a writer who can just “be,” but it’s clear from your post that you are always “becoming.” Same verb, different form . . .

    More comfortable “doing,” are you never quite “done?” Even the static “research” got a new life when it turned into “exploring.”

    Thank you, most of all, for naming the enemy–“Fear” in this post. I personally am still waiting for the Elvis of my fear to leave the building of my writing brain, but your post here has encouraged me to keep actively driving him out.

  11. says

    I like what you had to say about learning from your writing. I learned a lot from my first book. Mainly that words are important to the reader so they can picture what’s going on; yet I found in too many places I neglected to create a clear picture. I expected the reader to read my mind. It’s probably a good thing they can’t.
    Another was that I don’t know squat about comma usage. I did not know that punctuation changed between formal and informal writing.
    Writing is therapeutic. In psychology, they recommended writing down experiences, feelings, and emotions. It helps you to work out your issues and problems. I had one patient tell me her psychologist told her to write her feelings down after the death of her husband. She said she did not want to, but after a few weeks she started making some notes. It made her feel so much better. I thought I might have a character do that; only mine was not going to stop. He was going to write until he had a book.
    I need to see about getting at least one of your books. That was another thing I learned. I did not want to take time from writing to read, but I quickly discovered it helped my writing.
    Like you, when I’m writing I want to write. I’m constantly interrupted with housework, dishes, laundry, cooking, paying bills, studying, church activities, and shopping. Oh, there’s also facebook and emails.