Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Truth About Becoming a Writer

Quintilian quote
For thousands of years, writers who wished to be
great knew they had to revise, revise, revise.
In the two or half years or so since our Catholic writers group was first formed, I’ve seen a lot of would-be writers come and go. All of them had valuable experience and insights they wanted to share with the world through their writing. When I think of those who attended for a while and then drifted away, I wonder if they are still writing, even if they no longer attend our meetings. I hope so. But I suspect some became daunted when they began to realize that writing is a lot more difficult and complicated than they realized, or perhaps not as much fun as they imagined in their initial enthusiasm.

I can understand this. When I first jumped into writing a novel, I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was confident in my basic writing abilities and eager to get started. Now, more than two years later, I’m still learning. In addition to gaining skills in characterization and plotting, though, I have learned (or re-learned) some hard truths along the way about the writing craft, facts that each writer must deal with along the way if he or she is to persevere and succeed. Here are some of them.

Good writers are made, not born.

Brett Favre did not throw a touchdown pass the first time he picked up a football, Thomas Tallis did not make the angels sing the first time he hummed a tune, and Flannery O’Connor spent years revising her work to produce the weird, wonderful tales for which she is famous. They all may (or may not) have been loaded with natural talent, but even they had to devote years to developing their skills. They learned from others with more experience, and heeded expert advice in order to improve, and then they practiced, practiced, practiced. The rest of us must do the same. It requires a lot of humility to become a good writer.

Learning to do anything well takes time.

Probably the most useful thing any of us can learn is this: learning takes time, and it involves a lot of failure. Did Mozart walk away in disgust the first time he hit a clinker? Even Shakespeare was once a schoolboy, learning how to write a decent sentence. Every experienced writer will tell you that your first draft, no matter how carefully planned, is likely to be pretty awful, but that’s what revision is for. The first draft is like that lump of clay the potter throws down on his wheel — it has to be shaped and reshaped before it reaches the perfection the artist envisions. It takes a lot of perseverance to become a good writer.

It's not as easy as you think.

Learning anything new is uncomfortable at first. Learning to write is not as simple as learning to swim, it’s more like learning to build a bridge, or to dance the lead in Swan Lake. A lot of different skills have to be learned and practiced endlessly, a lot of basic principles need to be internalized through that practice. It’s hard at first, but gradually what seemed complicated and unnatural gets into your mind’s “muscle memory,” and you’ll be able to do effortlessly those things that, when you are starting out, must be done deliberately with great care and a lot of painful toil.

You should start small and build your skills, and your confidence.

Remember those projects you made in junior high art or shop class? The soap dish painfully modeled from clay, the wooden plaque you made for Mother’s Day? Your teacher knew that you needed to start with something small, so that you could enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that would spur you to take on bigger challenges. I’ll bet the greatest cabinet maker probably started out learning to plane wood and create a single dove-tailed joint. Many beginning writers would do well to start with small projects — a paragraph or two for the parish newsletter, a well-crafted blog post — before taking on more complicated ones. After two and a half years of working on my first novel, I realize that I probably should have started with a short story. So I’ve put the novel aside for a while, and I’m devoting my creative energies to producing a good short story suitable for publication.

Writing is a process, not an event.

I’ve written about this before on this blog, but I’ll mention it again now, because this is the biggest mistake inexperienced writers make — they quit before they are finished. I used to run into this attitude with my students: “I got it turned in on time, so I’m done.” But my job was to teach them not just to meet deadlines, but to write something worth being read, so I had to walk them through the whole writing process, which often took weeks: first comes invention, when you discover what it is you want to say, and how you want to say it, then drafting and revising, learning to see what is working and what isn’t, what needs to be trimmed out and where you need better details or more explanation, how your ideas can be better organized to make a clearer point, etc. And only after that has been done should you worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those other nit-picky details  that put the final polish on the piece. If you try to skip parts of the process, it will show.

This is another reason I put my novel-in-progress aside for a while. I could see that I would need to write at least one more complete, fresh draft before I would be ready to revise and polish — the process seemed that it would never end, but I really, really wanted to finish. I need the feeling of finishing the process, but I knew I couldn't rush it — so I set the manuscript aside and started something new (much shorter), and have been using what I learned from novel-writing to draft and polish my short story. In this way, I hope that taking the time and care to produce one well-developed, carefully polished short story will help me make the next draft of the novel my last.

Sure, I could have done what too many people do these days: I could have set some arbitrary, self-imposed deadline for myself and scrambled to meet it, convincing myself that the book was done (in fact, I did that, when I submitted the third draft to a prize competition last year). I could have said my novel was “good enough,” and self-published it on Amazon. But I know it’s not yet ready for prime time. I’ve stepped away from it to be able to return to it with a fresh perspective, to be able to see it with the “fresh eyes” that are so crucial to recognizing any remaining deficiencies.

If you want help getting fresh eyes on  your own Work-In-Progress, or help and encouragement with any part of the writing process — or if you’ve already learned these “hard truths” about writing and can share your experience with others — you should think about joining a local writing  group, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group. Why not join us at our next meeting, Tuesday, June 9? Here are the details of time and place.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

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