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[SWP: Behind the Book] The Best Writing Advice I've Ever Heard
Written by
Nancy Kricorian
October 2014

You hear all kinds of advice about writing, and there are dozens of handbooks offering guidance--but most of it is abstract and pretty useless, or else it’s so specific that it doesn’t suit. Many years ago, when I was a student, a poet and teacher gave me a piece of advice that didn’t mean much at the time, but which I understood much later to be the best writing tip ever offered to me.

“Respect your process,” she said, and she said it before “writing process” had become a registered trademark. Her words echo in my head at moments when I am annoyed with myself for how slowly I write, or for how much time I spend researching before I even start to write, or for the fact that I don’t have the book mapped out in my head before I begin, which means that I will have to do multiple drafts to get it where it needs to be.

What I have recognized lately, however, is that process, like everything else, doesn’t stay the same. I have written three novels, and each time the process has been different. With the first book, as I made the transition from poetry to fiction, the only way I could possibly think about taking on something as enormous as a novel was by breaking the narrative down into ten- to fifteen-page episodic chapters. I also had two small children and was running a small business as a literary scout for foreign publishers, so the only time I could devote to writing was Friday morning. I never had writer’s block, because if I didn’t churn out those pages once a week, the novel was never going to get done.

By the time Zabelle, a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian Genocide survivor and immigrant bride, was published, I was already two years into researching my second novel, Dreams of Bread and Fire, a coming-of-age story about someone of my generation growing up in the Armenian-American community. My kids were in elementary school, I had quit the scouting business, and my writing process had changed: I wrote for two hours each day. I knew other writers who could sit at a keyboard for six hours or more a day, but for me two hours was the upper limit of productive writing time. Of course, I kept tinkering with it in my head while I was sitting on the playground or even when I was sleeping, but two hours in front of the computer was my process.

When I started researching my third novel, about Armenians in Paris during the Nazi occupation, I was working twenty-plus hours a week for CODEPINK Women for Peace. There were many days when being at a street demonstration against the Iraq war took precedence over laboring on the novel; still, I tried to stick to the two-hour a weekday regimen. But I added a new rule: even if I didn’t have two hours, I would write for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes was enough to keep the characters and the language active in my mind so that the passive work would continue. It took me ten years to write this third book, partly because of CODEPINK and the miserable state of the world, and partly because as my kids got older they took up more space in my head than they had when they were small.

All The Light There Was, my World War II novel, was published in hardcover in 2013 and has just been reissued in paperback by She Writes Press. For two years now I’ve been researching a new novel, the fourth installment in what my editor has dubbed “The Armenian Diaspora Quartet.” It’s about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I haven’t started writing, and I feel anxious when I think about the fact that I don’t yet hear the sentences that will launch this story. But then I remember my mantra: “Respect your process.” I’m not entirely sure what that process will be. One of my daughters is in graduate school, and the other is a freshman in college. I’m still engaged in grassroots social justice organizing with CODEPINK, and I’ve started doing more speaking engagements, traveling, and teaching. I do know that the name of my main character is Vera, and that she grew up in the Armenian community of Bourj Hammoud before she and her family immigrated to the United States in 1980. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with her.

Nancy Kricorian

New York City 

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  • Nancy Kricorian Writing

    Kathleen, Yes, I'm a CODEPINK Nancy (there are two of us--Nancy K and Nancy M). Wishing you the best with your writing and all!

  • Kathleen Kern

    I knew that your name was familiar--it comes up in my CodePink e-mails. I am (I hope) getting out of another cycle of depression and I can't do that if I'm not working on a novel. People have always talked said, "You know, if you write a page a day, at the end of a year, you'd have a novel," so I thought I'd try that. I'm finding it a little hard picking it up and putting it down every day, the process seems abrupt, and some days I do a query letter for my previous novel instead (I really only have that much time with my job), but I'm sort of living for that point I've gotten to with my other novels, where the characters take over and sometimes I feel like I'm functioning as a printer.

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    Thanks, Nancy. I have a blue mug that says "Trust the Process" and sometimes I give it the finger. Process? It's different for every project, for every part of the project and for the actual writing of the novel or memoir. I think Tom Robbins said something like he thought, because he had written one novel, it would be easy the next time. However, it wasn't. It was just different with a different set of problems and fixes. But as a dear friend of mine, Randy Sue Coburn, says, "It's just a better class of problems."

  • Nancy Kricorian Writing

    Thanks, Kamy and Caroline, for the feedback and for sharing your own experiences. 

  • Caroline Bell Foster

    Thank you Nancy.

    I can look back on each of my titles and know what was going on in my life, from the insecurity of 'will I be able to finish' and literally hiding in the loft pounding away at my keyboard just to get it done, to 'I'll write after the kids have gone to bed' that novel took almost five years to write, and most of those whilst staring out as the kids learnt to swim, went to drama classes or jumped off the monkey bars. Now 5 novels in,  I casually and contently write when I feel like it, one hour here, six hours there and know with confidence that I'm still enjoying my 'process' 

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Love this Nancy, thank you for sharing it. I completely agree that different books--and different moments in one's life--make "your process" a living, breathing thing. But the key is treating our process, or each process, with respect, compassion and trust.