This is in response to a challenge, by Lorelle, to come up with a post about someone who changed your life. I've been wanting to talk about this anyway, so here it is:
The other day, for a reason I can't now reconstruct, I began to make a list of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life, but the list was so long and distressing, that I finally decided maybe I'd just stick to thinking about a single mistake.
The first thing to come to mind was a mistake that has to do with writing, a topic that comes up frequently here on BlogLily, so a good topic for today. The mistake? My belief, held for as long as I knew there were writing classes , that only losers take writing classes. This mistake is based on another mistake: my belief, held for a similarly long time, that good writers are born that way. If you don’t have the gift, it’s lame to try to develop it through any kind of writing class — that, anyway, was my foolish thought.
When I finally dragged myself into a writing class at the age of 40, it was not to develop as a writer. Rather, it was to be the final step before giving up altogether on the idea of writing. This was an act so self-denying and self-defeating that it’s a wonder they didn't sniff me out at UC Extension and bar the door. In other words, to be painfully clear about what I intended to do, my plan was to force myself to confront my lack of talent and discipline. I’d take a writing class with the other losers like me and I’d discover I wouldn't stick with it and wasn't any good, and then I’d stop telling myself I'd like to write and move on to other things in my life.
Never mind that I have written all my life — beginning with little plays when I was a child in which I forced others to play supporting roles to my own lead princess.
And never mind that I do know how to recognize good writing, at least in people other than me. I went to a fancy ivy league college and studied English literature. I went to another fine university and studied English literature further. This isn’t the way to become a good writer, though. Generally, what happens when you go to graduate school in English (particularly in the United States) is that you develop horrible writing habits, not least of which is the habit of using words no one else uses, like "hermeneutics." Or French words. Or you begin to use ordinary words, like "locate," in an abstract and prissy way. ("I wish to locate, in these texts, the authors' moments of transgression and defiance." That kind of thing.) The best thing that ever happened to me was when I went to law school, instead of continuing on in the English literature world. Although, come to think of it, I didn't do much writing of my own after I became a lawyer either.
So, back to the writing class. The class I took was a UC Berkeley Extension class. It was an absolute beginning class and was called something like, Finding Your Writer’s Voice. From the class description (find your crazy child within, learn to quiet your internal editor), I knew immediately my fellow students would be people who believed writing was a matter of venting. In other words, the more self-indulgent you were willing to be, the better a writer you would be considered. And that, I knew, was stupid.
Now, here's the road to Damascus part. It happened gradually. I wrote the assignments. The first one was really painful. My youngest was just a baby and I was tired all the time. So I wrote something about the snazzy school crossing guards at the French school my older boys go to. That it was not very good was not really the point — I had done it, one word at a time. It was coherent. I wrote a short story, and a poem. I read them out loud and it was not as hard to do as I'd thought. Another poem followed, from almost out of nowhere. I found I really loved the moment when I left the trail I was on and discovered an image or a thought I hadn't planned out ahead of time. Comments were respectful and interested. My fellow students were a lot like me — we all had hurdles to overcome on the way to becoming writers. Some of them were a lot further along in getting past those roadblocks than I was. Best of all, I found myself, for short periods of time, not thinking about whether I was a good writer, but about what detail would best express what I wanted to convey.
The man who taught this class, Clive Matson, saved my life in a way. He preached over and over the importance of being non-judgmental about your work (he called it shutting off the "editor"), which is not the same thing as being self-indulgent. He showed us skills — he talked about the importance of physical details, especially odd and dissonant details, he talked about poetry, not as an academic, but as a writer. And he never condemned. He did not falsely praise, but he made sure you heard from other people what was striking about your work. He was gentle about what your work "needed."
Although I would not use the phrase "crazy child" (which is how Clive describes the freely roaming imagination) I was still inspired by Clive — along with hundreds of other people he's taught — to shut off my doubts about my work and simply write. I took another class, from someone he recommended. And then I took a third class, from him again. I learned how dialog works, about three years in to writing. Pretty soon after that, I joined a Thursday evening writers' group he hosts with his wonderful wife Gail, who is, like Clive, a poet. I am on the brink of finishing my first novel. I have a good idea for the next one. I will never stop writing; I love it too much.
Getting help is not for losers. It is what we should all do when we know we love something. We honor the things we love when we work at them.
So I leave you with a list of some things I now know about writing, most of them thanks to Clive Matson, things that I wish I’d known all along, or at least a little sooner:
–write often. This doesn't mean you have to clear four or six or eight hours out of your day to do this. I have found that it's easier to write short bits and write frequently, than to write every once in a while in long galloping stretches. This is particularly true if you’re writing a novel, because you want to live in the world of the novel as much as you can. I write on the train as often as I can — that’s half an hour to work and half an hour home.
–by all means get help. Take classes. Read books about your chosen form — there’s nothing wrong with reading these books, but don’t let them keep you from writing.
-find people who are like-minded, people who’ll read your work intelligently, people who expect you to show up and have a certain number of words written.
-pay attention to everything around you. When you see something odd, that strikes you, write it down. It will come in handy.
–don't worry too much about being published or finding an agent. Stick with your job: to write what you really want to write. That said, do remember that we work and live in webs. Behave well to other writers, give honest praise, pay attention to work other than your own. If you can help someone or promote someone’s work, by all means do that. There is room enough for all of us.
–and, finally, write to please yourself. Write what you love to read, what amuses you and challenges you. If you feel these things about your work, the chances are good that other people will too.
Now go sign up for a writing class.