By STEPH AUTERI
For Montclair Local
Steph Auteri is a full-time freelance writer and editor who has written for The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE and other publications. Her memoir, “A Dirty Word,” was released in October 2018. She is a member of Montclair’s The Write Group. For more, visit stephauteri.com.
There’s a short story sitting on my laptop that’s over a year old. I completed a first draft last spring. Brought it to my critique group. Collected feedback. And then? Nothing. It now languishes in this state of in-between-ness, and may remain that way forever.
I have several pieces like this in varying states of disrepair. Pieces with no home and — therefore — no clear purpose. There is no sense of urgency driving me to complete them. Because with everything else I juggle — assignments, my 4-year-old, my household, my extracurriculars — it’s hard to set aside time for the more aimless writing, the work that has no deadline.
But now, with the days warming, the folders within folders on my laptop call to me. I’ve been spring cleaning my home, and my virtual clutter makes me just as twitchy. Pieces need to be finished. Polished. Re-critiqued. Pieces need to be sent out on submission in order to fulfill the dreams I once had for them.
But how? Self-imposed deadlines just don’t do it for me because, deep down, I know there’s nothing at stake. Rewards don’t work either. I will eat those Cheez-Its before finishing that paragraph. When it comes down to it, the only things that truly motivate me are shame and fear and guilt. Where do I get that when I don’t have an editor-imposed deadline breathing down my neck?
Critique Groups. Sure, an editor strengthens your work, shaping it, drawing out more depth and nuance and insight when needed. But just as important is the accountability an editor provides. While there’s not nearly as much on the line, I can sometimes get that same sense of accountability from a regular critique group. The group I’m in now meets on a weekly basis and, though not everyone submits something every single week, the more weeks that go by without me submitting a new piece, the more I feel like a giant goober.
Writing Partners. A writing partner can be many things. A sounding board for your ideas. A person with whom you brainstorm new markets or promotional strategies. A colleague with whom you complain about the state of the publishing industry before really getting down to business. A critique partner. But most importantly, a writing partner is someone who will yell at you when you don’t follow through on all of those fabulous plans you made together the previous week. The best writing partners won’t let you get away with that crap.
Continuing Education. Taking a writing class can be an effective way of powering through that big writing project you’ve been grappling with for far too long. Or conversely, if you’re fresh out of ideas, regular writing assignments might give you the kick in the butt you need to start writing again. Whenever I teach — even if just a one-day workshop — I try to have students leave with the beginnings of one piece they can eventually send out into the world.
Calls for Submissions. I’ve written in the past that, when my brain feels empty, I stalk my favorite publications in order to see if they’re soliciting submissions for themed issues. Because when you don’t know what to write next, those calls for submissions can act as great writing prompts. But even if you’re already in the middle of something, that work in progress may be perfect for an upcoming magazine issue or writing contest. And if it is, that deadline might be the one thing that finally pushes you to finish your piece.
Residencies. In the past, I’ve hesitated to apply for writing residencies. Could I really afford to take time off from work for that long? Would my child survive without me? Would my husband feed her anything other than pizza and gummy bears? Would life as I know it fall apart without me? Then I went on a cruise with my family and, after a full week of more togetherness than I could handle, I applied for a one-week residency — and was actually accepted. Here’s the thing. The application process required me to draw up a proposal for exactly what I intended to work on while there. And if I don’t follow through?
Well, there’s my sweet spot. A hefty dose of my three favorites — shame, fear, and guilt — should carry me through.