From Begun to Done: 5 Questions for Sara Kocek

At the end of the day, I’m not writing to be published. I’m writing because it’s my art—a sacred ritual that helps me process and synthesize the world, and occasionally even enjoy myself.-Sara Kocek

Sara Kocek is the author of Promise Me Something (Albert Whitman, 2013) and the founder of Yellow Bird Editors, an Austin-based collective of independent editors and writing coaches. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates and worked as a full-time editorial intern at Random House and Penguin. Prior to pursuing her MFA, Sara graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale University, where she worked as Writing Fellow, tutoring undergraduate and graduate students in academic and creative writing.

On Wednesday, November 29th, Sara Kocek is teaching a class for the WLT called “From Begun to Done: How to Edit Your Own Writing. In this class, you’ll learn to read and revise your own work the way a professional editor would.

Here’s what Sara had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Sara Kocek: I knew from the time I was eight years old that I wanted to grow up to be a writer, but it wasn’t until one afternoon during my freshman year of college that I found out I already was one. I was home for Thanksgiving break and found myself in my childhood bedroom, poking around through my cluttered desk drawers. Buried under some old flash cards and colored pencils was a small diary with a flimsy lock. When I pried it open, I was amused by what I read on the first page: What a stupid little diary. My life is too big to fit in these dinky little lines. However, as I read further, I grew mildly disturbed. There was an entry about a mean piano teacher—I never took piano lessons. There was an entry about my dog’s funeral—I never had a dog. There was even an entry about my trip to France—I’d never left the country.

I hadn’t written about space travel or magic. Instead, I had filled pages with stories of utter banality—a complete fictional account of what could have been my life. That’s when I knew that on some fundamental level, I was and always would be a fiction writer. It wasn’t something that I would become someday after practicing a lot (although practicing helped me get published). It was something I already was. Just like I had brown hair, just like I had weird toes, just like I was five-foot-three. I was a writer. And proud.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

SK: I don’t challenge myself to produce a certain number of words every day or every week. I know that works for many writers, but it’s not for all of us. My approach is to simply show up at the page every day and make space for the creative process. I put my butt in the chair, I open the document, and I wait to see what happens. Sometimes I’ll go into a flow state and produce multiple pages of new work. Other days I’ll just tinker with whatever I wrote the day or week before. I try not to put too much pressure on myself to crank out new material in part because I think combing over old material and improving it little-by-little is an equally worthwhile way of spending my writing time.

As for business-related challenges, I find it’s best to compartmentalize. You can’t think about the business of writing during the process of drafting or revising; it completely kills the creative spark. At the same time, if you hide your head in the sand and refuse to ever think about the business end of writing, you’ll never get published. I remind myself frequently that publication is only my secondary goal, not my primary one. At the end of the day, I’m not writing to be published. I’m writing because it’s my art—a sacred ritual that helps me process and synthesize the world, and occasionally even enjoy myself. 🙂 Dividing the process this way (into art vs. commerce) helps me keep my priorities straight.

 Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

SK: When I’m actively working on a novel and consistently showing up to the page on a daily basis, I tend to experience that euphoric feeling approximately once a week upon producing some sentence or paragraph that I’m particularly proud of. The other six days of the week I wonder if my time would be better spent climbing Mt. Everest or scaling El Captain or circumnavigating the globe solo…or any number of easier tasks!

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

SK: Be the most you that you can possibly be. Listen to the songs that make you feel alive. Read the books that make you feel less alone. Observe yourself from afar. Go to parties and pretend that you are floating above the room, looking down at yourself as you talk to people. What do you see? That is your material.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

SK: A sizable chunk of the class will be spent going over the ten most common problems I see in people’s manuscripts in my day job as a book editor, and how to fix them. (I’m talking about developmental & stylistic issues, not grammar or punctuation mistakes.) I hope people will walk away with concrete, practical tools and techniques to help them edit their own writing so effectively that they won’t ever need to hire me! Just kidding. 🙂 The truth is that all writers eventually need someone else besides themselves to edit their work. But in the meantime, you can and should do as much self-editing as possible because the stronger your manuscript is when you seek out professional editing, the stronger the end product will be. So I hope people will walk out of this class inspired to sit down, roll up their sleeves, and do a substantial round of editing and revision on their own manuscript.

Thanks, Sara!

Click here to learn more about Sara Kocek’s upcoming class.

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