Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Finding Time to Write - Day 5

Today, my guest is Matt Briggs who works full-time as a technical writer
and writes fiction in his "spare time." He has published five works of fiction, including Shoot the Buffalo, just re-issued by The Publication Studio in Portland. His second novel will be released in early 2010.

"I write when I first wake up, before I begin the work that people pay me to do. I work as a technical writer. I do okay with technical writing in terms of pay. I am paid very little or nothing for my fiction. I would starve dead on the proceeds from my fiction writing.

"I average about 800 words a day. Sometimes I spend the time revising. I feel guilty if I am not actually typing and making new word combinations. Revising is enjoyable but feels to me sometimes like I'm cheating because usually I'm just organizing or even removing what I've already written. On those days my overall word count is probably negative.

"I'm a very bad editor, but typically people who are not writers, that is the people who pay for writers, often don't understand the difference between a writer and an editor. I have worked at getting to be a better editor, but it is futile. It is a different task compared to the act of writing or revising. Writing is about making mistakes. Revising is usually about identifying what works. In contrast, editing is about making the writing easier to understand. Copyediting, yet another skill, is about removing the mistakes and making the writing conform to a standard such as the Associated Press (AP) Style Guide. A polished piece of writing requires all four skills applied to it. Yet, I've often worked for people who don?t understand this. They'll hire editors as their writers or expect their writers to edit. None of this works out well.

"I also make a list when it comes to writing tasks. I'm always making schedules and trying to keep to them even though it is futile. My fiction writing isn't a proper job or even an obligation.

"No one is asking me to write fiction. If I stopped writing fiction, I'd probably be the only one who noticed. I don't feel bad about this, but really, are you really clamoring for the next Russell Edson, Lydia Davis, or even Stephen King book? When Stephen King retired the first time this seemed more notable than another book by the guy. With the type of writing I like to write and read, there just isn't that hunger for more. I like Julian Barnes a lot. I've read a handful of books from him. I will probably never read another Julian Barnes book again. Not because I don't like his books, but there are already a ton of great books in existence. There are more great books than I can read in my lifetime. I bought an ISBN scanner and scanned all of my books into LibraryThing. I had maybe 1,200 books at that that time. These are all of the books on shelves in my house including the ones I haven't read. If I generously doubled this, that would be about 2,000 books that I've read in my life so far. I'm nearly 40. So let's say I live to 80 and keep up the same reading clip I've kept up so far, that means I'll read less than 5,000 books before I die. There is a finite number of books that can be read. But there is infinite number of books that can be written. Writing this now I find this kind of alarming. It makes me think I should be choosy. You could do the math on how many meals you had left in your life, and then you'd never eat crap again. You'd become obsessed with only putting food in your mouth that was an experience. But that is an exhausting way to live. No one does that. Sometimes you are hungry and you eat whatever is in your cupboard. You do what you can. I write because I like writing. I read because I like reading. I make reading lists because I there are certain things I want to read and if I don?t write it down I'll forget and end up reading whatever is in the cupboard.

"I like writing fiction in the same way I like reading. I feel like if I make a schedule for it then it is somehow more serious and I can organize my effort into making something big like a novel or book. With a schedule I will treat it like a job. But it is only like a job. I?m not paid much for it. I don't have to track my progress or status with anyone.

"I keep thinking about Tobias Wolff saying "Time is a writer's friend." He said this at a reading and it was clearly something he said a lot. I think he said this to convince himself of it because I don't think time is a writer's friend. Time is my enemy. It doesn't mean I need to rush or anything, but there is only so much time, which means only so many books I can read and only so many pages I can write. And anything I read or write displaces other things that I could be doing that might be better for me and actually make me happy. Time is a fixed resource and once I use it, it is gone. I believe an efficient way for me deal with this scary thought is to write a little bit every day. I enjoy writing this way. It happens in the same way that other things happen in my life such as taking a bath or going for a walk or answering the mail. I can enjoy it. Very quickly 800 words becomes a short story or a chapter or a novel and that is another problem, but it isn't the problem of writing."

Matt Briggs

Matt, thanks for joining me today and sharing your thoughts.


  1. Matt, this post is very interesting. Time is very precious.
    You remind me I want to be very impeccable in my use of it. I say this after eating candy and playing mindjolt, (a game). Better fill my cupboard with healthy food and great books. XD

  2. I guess I didn't mean it quite as cut and dried as that. I think to take absolute measurement to its logical end, to measure out a life in coffee spoons, is kind of induces a degree of freedom, too. You can only do so much, and if everyone wrote 800 words a day everyone wouldn't have time to read it. What worth is to write 800 words a day if you don't have time to eat candy and plaly mindjolt?

  3. Matt, thanks for stopping by and responding to JB.