Patience, Persistence, Precision

Creative Nonfiction's director of education programs discusses carving out time to write, being precise with your language, and staying on track with writing.

Anjali Sachdeva is a writer, teacher, and editor living in Pittsburgh. She began her career as a journalist, writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh City Paper, and The Kerryman in the Republic of Ireland before shifting to creative writing and earning her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been published in the Yale Review, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Gulf Coast.

At the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Anjali will teach a master class on the practicalities of launching a new project: determining a time-frame, developing a plan of attack, overcoming writer’s block, and more. In anticipation of the conference, CNF’s Katie McGrath spoke with Anjali about carving out time to write, being precise with your language, and staying on track with writing.

You can check out Anjali’s work here.

CNF: You’re a published writer, serve on the editorial board of Unstuck magazine, teach creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, serve as the education director at Creative Nonfiction—and you just had a baby. How do you balance all of your responsibilities and still find time to write?

SACHDEVA: Well, I certainly don't find as much time to write as I would like. But one thing that has been essential for me through the years is being part of a writing group. I'm a deadline-driven person and it's very hard for me to get things done without a deadline. I wish I were more self-motivated, but I'm just not. By being part of a group I create deadlines for myself that keep me writing on a regular basis.

One thing that has been essential for me through the years is being part of a writing group. […] By being part of a group I create deadlines for myself that keep me writing on a regular basis.

Once I know that a group of people are waiting for me to send them a manuscript in a week or two, it really spurs me to get moving. I know that I can't make excuses because then the group will have nothing to read and I'll be wasting everyone's time. And I'm fortunate right now to be part of two groups where I really respect and enjoy the company of the other writers, so I get the added bonus of having a great group of writer-friends as well.

CNF: You’ve also worked as a journalist in Ireland; how did that come about? And what advice do you have for writers who want to work overseas?

SACHDEVA: When I finished college I really wanted to go to Ireland but I can't say I had a good reason for that–the country just fascinated me even though I had never been there. I liked Irish literature and traditional music, and that lush green landscape you see in photos of Ireland just seemed enchanting to me.

As a recent student I was eligible for a UK work visa through a program called BUNAC, so I initially went to Northern Ireland and tried to find work as a journalist. I wasn't successful–I ended up working as a receptionist–but I had a great time.

During that time I also published my first short story, through a story contest for a magazine called Northern Woman. So it was a boost to my writing career, but not in the way I had expected. I came home to the US for a few months and then got a job writing for a newspaper in the Republic of Ireland, The Kerryman. That job came about through connections–my father knew someone who knew someone who was involved with the paper.

So I don't know that that's any help to writers looking to break into overseas work, except to say that you should always reach out to your extended network of friends and family and see if anyone can help you out. As with any job, it's much easier to get a position when someone has personally recommended you. And beyond that, I'd say that if you can afford it, it's definitely better to go look for a job in the country of your choice than to try to apply from the US, especially for entry level positions. The student work visa program allowed me to do that.

CNF: What is your take on the digital world and social media, and the digital vs. print debate? What does it mean for writing and/or teaching jobs?

SACHDEVA: One of the most interesting things about this shift is how quickly online-only publications have gained legitimacy. Even five years ago I think there was a sense that a publication that was only digital was somehow insubstantial or inferior to a print publication that also had an online presence.

Now I don't think that's the case. People realize that there can be great online content that is well-written and well-researched.

Personally, I still love a physical book, but I think that they will become increasingly rare in coming years. I don't think they'll disappear entirely, but I do think they'll become the sort of thing that is purchased by connoisseurs, the way that some people still purchase vinyl records. And some publishers are taking advantage of that.

Small Beer Press, for instance, does limited editions of some of its titles that are printed in hardback on really luxe paper, often with special artwork or added material. Something like that will always appeal to people who appreciate books as art. But at the same time Small Beer also allows you to download an ebook of the same title for much less–they're aware that most people just want the book to come as quickly or cheaply as possible.

In the long run, I think this won't make a huge difference in writing and teaching jobs, because most of the same work will have to be done. Ebooks still have to be edited, designed, etc. But I do think it's essential that we protect authors' opportunities to profit from their work. If an ebook is going to be $9.99 instead of $14.99 for a paperback because the publisher doesn't have to pay for printing and shipping books that's fine, but if we want authors to keep writing we have to make sure they are getting their fair share of that money.

CNF: Do you think that writers these days need to pay more attention to selling their work, and to their “brand?”

SACHDEVA: As far as social media, as with many things I think it all depends on how you use it. I think a lot of what's done on social media to promote books is kind of boring–it's like it's being done just because someone told the author or publication that it was necessary.

But on the other hand I've seen some great interviews, commentary, and debates on social media that have got me thinking about important questions in literature and publishing, so I think it can be great at times.

CNF: How much attention do you give to crafting an online presence?

SACHDEVA: Ironically, even though I run an online education program I personally do not spend much time on my online presence. I just don't enjoy using social media and during the rare times I'm on Facebook I'm usually thinking that I'd rather be reading or writing or even just watching TV. I guess that makes me kind of a dinosaur, but so far I don't think it has caused me any serious problems.

I do have a personal website where I post my published writing, contact information, etc. I do think it's important to have at least that much of an online presence. Whenever I publish a story or essay I get a couple of emails from people who looked me up, found the website, and had thoughts to share with me, and that's always very encouraging. But certainly agents and publishers are encouraging authors to work on their "platform" and be active in social media, blogs, etc.

The thing to remember there is that you really need to get a substantial number of followers before those kinds of social media are any use. One former editor told me that the goal should be to get 1,000 visitors a day to your blog. And of course building an audience that big requires a substantial time investment. So you have to ask yourself whether you have time to do both that and your writing. If you do, I think it can only help you, but I don't think "branding" should get in the way of actually being a writer.

One former editor told me that the goal should be to get 1,000 visitors a day to your blog. And of course building an audience that big requires a substantial time investment.

CNF: If you were starting out as a writer in today’s world, how would you go about it?

SACHDEVA: Honestly, knowing myself I don't think I would end up doing much differently. I have been a passionate reader since I was a kid and that just naturally transformed into being a writer for me. It was less of a conscious decision than just a matter of doing what I enjoyed and felt I was good at.

CNF: What is something that you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

SACHDEVA: Going into a career other than writing can actually be a great way to support your writing. If you can acquire a skill that allows you to make a high hourly wage but doesn't require working extra long hours, it will leave you time to get your writing done without worrying about paying the bills. I love my job and am glad to be involved in the literary world in so many ways, but I sometimes wish I knew how to fix computers or something like that.

CNF: As a writing instructor, is there a piece of advice you find yourself giving to your students a lot?

SACHDEVA: Be precise. Often we choose a word because it just sounds good. But if we stopped to think about it we'd realize the reason it sounds so automatically appealing is that we've heard that combination of words many times before. And then we'd realize that maybe those particular words don't even fit the situation we're discussing at the moment.

I think the best writing (or perhaps I should say revising) happens when we find a way to express exactly what we mean instead of just a convenient approximation. It's a skill that poets are constantly practicing but that we sometimes let slip in prose writing.

CNF: How do you handle rejection in your writing life?

SACHDEVA: At this point it really has become an expected part of the process. When I submit work for publication I'm not at all surprised when it gets rejected. That doesn't mean that it doesn't sting or that I don't sometimes wonder why I do this at all or whether I'm going about things all wrong, but I definitely expect to have to send pieces out many times before they are accepted. When something does get published, though, it's always a lovely surprise and gives me a little more confidence for the next round.

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About the Author

Katie McGrath

Katie McGrath is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a young writer living in Pittsburgh. She is currently working as a digital editorial assistant at Architectural Digest. Her work and more can be found here. 

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