by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“I write.” Not “I’m a writer.”

Silly semantics?  I don’t think so.  I love writing, I’m incredibly happy I write. I’d be miserable if my brain dried up-but what I do is write, what I am is me.

I know, you don’t hear anyone say “I do medicine” or “I provide legal services.”  And certainly, now that I’ve had enough stories published, I probably won’t be accused of puffery if I introduce myself as an author.

But what comes out of my mouth naturally, without thinking about it, is “I write.”
I said that to a writer I ran into recently when she asked what I did.  She asked what I wrote, and I told her. “You should try novels,” she said, as one does to a child who really should leave those training wheels behind. Clearly she didn’t think I had the right credentials for her club.

Whatever you write, don’t accept that from anyone. One kind of creativity isn’t better than another–just different. Don’t let anyone slap labels on your work, or on you–and don’t do it to yourself. You might think you’re one kind of writer–and then something strange and unexpected falls out of your head one day, and you realize there’s a lot more in there than you knew.  Or even wanted to know.

The joy of writing is doing anything you want to on the page. The joy of living is finding out how much there is to you. Keep away from those labels–and enjoy all that nice new space around you.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)


From the archives, reprint from May 15, 2009

by Gay Degani

I am not a patient person. Never have been. And when in the past (a rolling, long-ago past) I couldn’t master something immediately, I assumed I had no talent and no skills and I gave up.

No talent. No skills.

These are two distinct attributes. Having talent is terrific and it certainly makes following your passion rewarding, but talent is only half the formula.

Having skill is absolutely necessary (watch American Idol if you don’t believe me). But getting these skills isn’t an immediate process. And if you’re talking about becoming an expert at anything, you’re talking YEARS of practice. That’s where patience comes in.

Robert McKee (the writing coach whose book STORY is an excellent resource) said that all we can do is to “take out our little bit of talent,” push it around every day, apply our hard-earned skills and hopefully, that will result in something worthwhile. I’m sure I don’t have that quote exactly right, but you get the gist. It takes both talent and skill to become good at anything and skill takes patience.

Last night when I went to bed I was miserable. Things at the end of my current work-in-progress were not working out. The whole thing felt stupid and, heaven forbid, CORNY. In the old days, I would have felt doomed. I would have thought of quitting. I would believe to the depths of my being that my writing sucked. And I sucked.

But this morning, I remembered I have developed a skill-set to help me solve the problems in my story. Hmmmm. Imagine that!

I read about two or three pages in the middle, did a little editing, and suddenly I knew how to solve the story problem at the end. My mind was asking questions that only an “expert” would know to ask.

I moved away from the computer and started to scribble notes of what exactly had to happen for the whole story to make sense. I was so shocked at how easy it was, I started doubting it would work. But in typing the notes, I’m sure it does work. And it isn’t corny. Maybe a little corny, but I still have time to fix that. Wow, it’s working!!!

I’m not saying here that what I do is brilliant or even interesting to anyone else. But it is to me. To see that I will allow myself to make mistakes, to go on tangents, to think I suck, and then get back to work. To take out my “little bit of talent” and my years of practice, and actually be able to have answers, know what comes next, delight myself with a surprising ending, that for me, is success. And when I discover the NEXT problem, I will have skills to solve that too.

This idea of having patience–and I suppose, FAITH IN THE WRITING PROCESS–is a gift to me. A gift I’ve given myself over the years by focusing on learning the skills I need to do what I want, and letting my little bit of talent take care of itself.

I’ve gone off and expanded this topic at my blog, Words in Place.  To read more, click here.


Gay Degani has been published in two mystery anthologies, in THEMA Literary Journal and on-line at Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Tattoo Highway, and Salt River Review. “Spring Melt” was a finalist for The 2nd Annual Micro Fiction Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  “Monsoon” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2007 Fiction Open and “Wounded Moon” was short-listed for the 2008 Fish Short Story Prize.  Gay is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles. She blogs at Words In Place.

by Aubrey Hirsch

The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted a note about her first ever college writing class. The students were asked to bring in a piece of writing they admired and three of them brought in this poem by Charles Bukowski, called “so you want to be a writer.” Here’s how it begins:

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.

Thinking about the beginning writers in my cousin’s class absorbing those unbelievably discouraging words from a celebrated literary figure sent me into a blind rage. Once I recovered my sight, I typed out a quick rebuttal to let my cousin know that it was okay (more than okay!) to work hard. I’d like to expand on it here, just in case anyone out there is still buying into the myth of the unedited genius.

This poem is very Bukowski. His work is free-flowing and unedited. His words and distinctive style resonate with a lot of writers and I can admire that. The content of the poem, however, is a load of crap.

For most of us, our work is hard work. I know this is true for me. Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with my own writing. Sometimes I’m bored. Sometimes I’m anxious and struggling. Sometimes it’s easy, but even then, I’m suspicious. The hard work doesn’t worry me, nor does it worry most of the writers I know. We want to work hard, push our own limits, earn it.

Nothing bothers me more than writers who want to play games like “Who can be the most inspired” or “Who can create a masterpiece in the least amount of drafts.” This is all posturing around the fantasy of the solitary genius writer, to whom writing is like breathing, to whom the words just come. In my mind, these people are bragging about the wrong thing. In real life, the game is more about “Who can stay at the keyboard the longest,” “Who will keep going back to work on the tough scenes,” “Who wants it most even when it’s hard.”

I want to say that it’s okay for it to be hard. Sometimes it’s hard! So is waitressing, so is advanced mathematics, so is heart surgery, so is HVAC repair, so is sculpture. It’s hard so that you’ll know when you’re growing, so that you’ll know when you’re doing something important, so you’ll know where your limits are so you can destroy them. If it’s too easy, it means you need to work harder. You think you’re a genius? Fine. Show me.

But most importantly, in my humble opinion, anyone who tells you “don’t do it” for any reason can go fuck himself. Writing is all about “doing it”, no matter what. The people who “do it” become writers. The people who don’t, don’t. I want to tell you: Do it.


Aubrey Hirsch is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her work in journals like American Short Fiction Third Coast, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, PANK and Annalemma. Her first book, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, a collection of short stories, will be published in the spring of 2012.  Her posts appear regularly in this spot the first Monday of every month.



by Robert P. Kaye

Conventional wisdom attributes artistic achievement to the possession of innate talent, as if Mozart, the Beatles, and Picasso shared some mutant gene enabling them to produce works of a caliber we mortals cannot hope to approach with our own paltry doodling. Believing this takes the pressure off those of us not blessed with native genius. It lets us non-prodigies off the hook.

I’m one of those legions of undergrad English majors who wrote in school, but lost the thread while chasing gainful employment. I continued to scribble fitfully, suspecting I suffered from a talent deficit.

Eventually, I picked up a book on the science behind creativity and discovered that the Beatles were old pros by the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan, honing their skills by playing gigs in Hamburg strip clubs eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month at a time. Mozart’s father, the ultimate showbiz dad, had little Amadeus playing from the time he could sit. Examples of precocious genius are typically revealed to be the result of vast quantities of practice.

Research on creativity, as recapped by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, indicates that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a skill. Cello? 10,000. Hockey? 10K. Writing? Go ahead, take a guess. All those without mutant genes are required to pay their dues—and that turns out to be everybody. The conventional wisdom’s idea of “talent” becomes virtually meaningless.

Realizing that ability is a matter of practice somehow puts the goal in reach, or it did for me. But writing three hours a day for ten years, or its equivalent, is a daunting prospect, especially when staring at a blank page probably doesn’t count. Through a series of incremental steps I developed a writing practice that works for me and maybe the basics will be of use to others. Here it is in five not-so-easy pieces.

Make writing a habit. Writing is only possible for me if I don’t have to decide “if” or “when.” This means making it part of a daily routine like brushing my teeth. The first step involved getting up early to journal or write or stare at that blank page. Psychology shows that doing something 21 days in a row tends to cement a habit (again with the numbers). Starting was the hardest part. Thanks to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones for this.

Things go better with flow. Ten thousand hours better not feel the equivalent of watching paint dry. Flow is the experience of total engagement which causes an hour to feel like ten minutes, according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist famous for researching the concept. One technique for achieving flow is bait and switch, starting with a journal entry (for instance) to get rolling then switching to fiction. After some practice, flow becomes second nature, time flies past like nothing and you’re late for work. A side benefit is that flow seems to be a key ingredient in general happiness.

Revise endlessly. I’ve recently had several stories published that have been ‘in work’ for a decade or more, reclaimed repeatedly from my On Hold or Dead Junk subdirectories. Revisions go better with feedback and moral support, so seek out or organize a writing group, preferably with more advanced writers and/or join an online writing community (I recommend Zoetrope). Read work out loud for a different perspective. For me, the most important ingredient in a good revision is time in the drawer, where my subconscious (a much better writer) can do its thing.

Submit work, even when yet another form rejection threatens to drive you to violence. Publishing isn’t everything—maybe they’ll issue your work posthumously and you’ll be famous. Won’t that be fun? Having a story see ink (or electrons) is one of the best legal thrills and there is no better source of motivation. Submit a lot and often— success at publishing has much in common with being a spammer. Sure, rejection hurts, but we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and heroes must suffer. Best of all, submitting means you have to finish something first.

Learn to trust that you will be a better writer tomorrow. Perhaps the greatest thing about the 10,000 hours concept is that YOU IMPROVE. Ability is a continuum, not a destination. This explains why all my old stuff tends to read like crap to me now, but also why I have a shot at working the current crop of stories into something good.

I expect that all the accomplished writers out there will find these things obvious, but I wish I’d known them when I was sixteen or even thirty. Loopholes may exist in the 10,000 hour rule, and if you find one, I would appreciate an immediate email. If not, buckle up, because it’s a long, bumpy ride.


Robert P. Kaye has published a couple dozen stories and counting (again with the numbers) in magazines like Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, decomP, Cicada, Danse Macabre and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links to all appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about literature’s bipolar relationship with technology.

These days, Kuzhali Manickavel blogs, and the Rhinoceros beetle has crept out of the shot glass on her desk. Which is a good thing in a way – not the rhino beetle, the blog – because we get slices of her sharp incisive humor more often. On the other hand,  I am getting rather impatient waiting for her next book or flash fiction collection to hit the stands!

Like her publisher, Blaft Publications, I discovered Kuzhali’s writing floating effortlessly in the deep and expansive ocean of the WWW. I was hooked from the very first story I read.  In fact,  a bunch of writer friends and I got busy emailing each other links to her stories, and wondering  all the time we were at it, where exactly that Temple Town in South India was and who exactly was this writer who lived with a rhinoceros beetle in a shot glass! It was not just her stories, even her bio intrigued!

I finally met her at the launch of her book – “Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings” here in Chennai a couple of years ago. I found a very amicable person, on the reserved side but with such generous dollops of that by-now-familiar deadpan humor that her innate reserve was barely visible.   

  As for her stories, they may be presented with dead pan humor, but they are much too layered to be read and laughed off just like that. Even the shortest ones, like “Do You Know How To Twist With Girls Like This?” which is less than a page long is drizzled with images that tend to stick to you like Voodoo pins. To give a couple of examples: ‘our eyes click and hum inside our head,’ ‘cloud of halitosis’. “The Unviolence Of Strangers” is another less than a page long piece  which has images like ‘dying like a freshly pinned dragonfly,’ and breasts that have ‘collected in sagging puddles of discontent. Afterwards, when the story ends you realize what the ‘pavement piece’ in the narrative really was.

Each of the thirty five stories in the book sparkles with metaphors; the stories simmer in your head long after you have read them. Some stories like “Suicide Letters Are The Most Common Form of Letter” (one of my favorites in this collection) convey a whole range and depth of emotions in tightly packed prose; the humorous tone is misleading, because we are treading on sad soil here. But Kuzhali’s dexterity is such that the sadness hits you only when you are done with the reading. Her stories are fast paced, at times almost breathless; this could be one of the reasons why their full impact is felt after the reading is done – pretty much what good stories ought to do!

The unique experience of Kuzhali’s writing is the collective effect of her pace, her seemingly fractured imagery and her often tongue in cheek references to serious things; all three elements blend together to give you an unshakable reading experience. “Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings” is a slim book that you can slip into your bag and carry while travelling. The stories buzzing with humor make for easy reading in trains and airports. After that the stories continue to journey with you long after you’ve shut the book.

Adapted from an earlier post in Writers & Writerisms 

Rumjhum Biswas lives and writes in Chennai.

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