Things I Wish I’d Learned About Writing Earlier in My Life

Image courtesy of Spark Life/Spark Notes: “6 Creative Writing Exercises”WritersBlockPic_opt_LargeWide

As a part-time community-college writing instructor, I’m fond of telling my students, “It’s never too late”–to return to college and earn their degree, as well as to discover (or rediscover) writing as a potent tool for communication and personal growth rather than a delivery system for meaningless assignments. At least one student per term recounts a discouraging prior experience with writing: a teacher’s criticism, the wrong person reading their diary, learning disabilities that made writing agonizing instead of liberating. I count myself successful when writing-traumatized students tell me that the course has renewed their faith in writing, and in themselves.

It took me years to learn that writing for publication is a different animal from writing for personal growth and enjoyment. In my mid-twenties, equipped with a PhD in English Language and Literature, installed in a tenure-track community-college teaching position, and having read voraciously since I started deciphering picture books, I felt confident that I could identify–and produce–literature.

The situation proved more complicated than that. I don’t regret being a middle-aged  debut writer–I appreciate how maturity and life experience contribute to my work–but I would also have preferred to learn what I now know about writing for publication when I possessed youth’s vigor (and no need to rely on chocolate).

Here are the discoveries I wish I’d made at the beginning of my writing career. Please feel free to share yours!

  1. The classics don’t teach you everything you need to write publishable fiction today. 

Books become classics for good reason: the writing style, characters, situations, and themes transcend their space-time to resonate with readers for whom the story feels fresh even if the writer picked up a pen five hundred years ago. However, literary conventions change over time and in response to readers’ preferences. How many books address the Gentle Reader nowadays? Would contemporary readers stick with a novel whose indolent pace feels more a stroll in the country, not a climb up a mountain in the midst of a blizzard? Keep reading classic works for your own delight and to absorb the masterful language, but don’t ignore new works in your genre and/or areas of interest. These are the books that are now capturing publishers’ (and hence readers’) attention.

2. Revision doesn’t mean mortally wounding your work.  

When I was a young writer, I pledged allegiance to the “mystical channel” school of thought about writing: that it was a mysterious, quasi-religious experience where the Universe bestowed words and ideas on the Poet/Novelist. These words and ideas were inviolable, in my mind, and if someone dared to make a recommendation for editing, that would destroy the work’s integrity.

Like many developing writers, I’d had an unpleasant experience with an overzealous editing professional who preferred work that differed so much in style and content from what I wrote that she wasn’t the right person to provide me with a critique. Then, to make matters worse, I took a creative-writing course in college where the instructor set an adversarial, hyper-critical tone that goaded the students to tear one another’s work (and adolescent egos) apart. This infelicitous combination made me leery of critique groups and seeking feedback of any kind. It took me years to learn that self-editing (and enlisting fellow writers and trusted readers to give feedback) doesn’t murder the work–it heals writing “injuries” that damage the story’s health.

What helped me most to accept the revision process was working with my students. I strove to become a sympathetic, supportive guide who could pinpoint problems while celebrating strengths and encouraging the students to enhance those strengths. When I discovered that the right editor can empower students, I realized that I could become that kind of editor for my own work–and I could find outside readers who’d provide that essential balance between understanding and advocating for one’s work while being honest about what’s not working.

3. We only write alone some of the time. 

Like many writers, I’m introverted. I thrive on “alone time,” which allows my ideas to percolate and my spirit to renew itself. I get up earlier than anyone else in my household (except the cats) so I can work with minimal noise and distraction. But once I finish that first draft, I open the work to others–other writers and non-writing readers I trust to hold the integrity of my vision in their minds at the same time as they inform me about the parts where the story clunks, creaks, and/or falls down. At various times, I’ve participated in writing critique groups, attended writers’ conferences, braved pitching sessions with agents, and read books on the writing craft. Yet this open-door policy didn’t come easily or naturally to me.

It took me some time to learn to let others in. It’s one thing to imagine readers savoring your book; you don’t have to see them doing it, and (mercifully) you’re not there when they get annoyed and talk back to the page. The wonderful thing about writing communities is that you can find mentors and peers–you don’t have to go through this by turns exhilarating and agonizing process alone–and in time, you can (and should) give back to the writing community by mentoring up-and-coming writers.

4. Talent, inspiration, art, craft, skills, and tools are all important, and they enhance rather than undermine each other.

Becoming a writer is, like so many endeavors, a combination of innate and acquired traits. The core is the desire, the all-consuming need to express oneself through the written word. Without that desire, you’re not going to stay with the process when it becomes difficult.

Writing’s an art, and like any art, it’s a combination of inspiration, persistence, and practice. That’s where the acquired aspects appear–learning the craft, attaining the skills, collecting the tools.

Because our society has made an artificial and elitist distinction between the arts (“high culture”) and crafts (“low culture”), some new writers dismiss the craft aspects as mechanical, technical, not Artistic. What would happen if architects thought that way? You might get a cool-looking house, but one day the second floor might collapse because a glass pole isn’t sufficient to hold it up. Likewise, story conventions can seem formulaic (and the best writers play with them as architects do with building components), but they’re also the infrastructure that holds up all those beautiful words and sublime concepts. I’ve been learning over time how to balance awareness of these structural components with the inspiration and creativity that moves the story in unexpected, and satisfying, directions. Awareness of craft doesn’t mean a book has to turn out contrived and uninspired. By incorporating these story principles into your heart-mind, you’ll satisfy readers by meeting their unspoken expectations for what a story should be like–with plenty of room for originality.

Looking back, from both writing-teacher and writer’s perspective, I would’ve been so grateful if my college English 101 teacher had taken me aside and said, “Margaret, I can tell you love to write. Have you thought about publishing your work? Yes? Well, here are a few resources that I think you’ll find helpful…” and then she would’ve given me a book list and the names of some writers’ organizations and conferences. (I was a young writer in the pre-Internet era, so these resources weren’t easy to find.) Because this didn’t happen for me, I’ve chosen to provide these resources to any students who disclose that they love writing poetry, short stories, or novels–in hopes that they won’t spend twenty years floundering around, picking up bruises along with the lessons.

Lessons are inevitable; bruises are optional.


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