Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Be a Writer (The Un-Sarcastic Version)


Note: There are many exceptions. There are very smart, talented people who have natural God-given gifts that just can sit and write epic poetry and eloquent prose. Remember that they are exceptions.

Read: reading is very important. When you start to read with a writer’s eye, you notice beautifully crafted detailed, sentences as well as the horribly written, and the short-and-sweet. You start to read as a writer. How did he/she craft that sentence? Why is that word choice so effective/ineffective? How does this paragraph have so much emotional weight? Which words in it, make it that way?

Write: when you write you cannot, should not think like a writer. Thinking like a writer (or editor or artist) will cripple your work. When you write you need not to think at all. Drafting, or writing, is a loose, liquid, and squishy thing. If you try too craft it and squeeze it or mold it too tightly, it will ooze all of the good stuff right out of your hand. You must not think when you write. Just do it.

Daily Practice: much like yoga, or any other devotion, your writing practice is a practice. It gets rusty if you let it sit. It gets better when you do it daily. Writing every day is a non-negotiable. Yes, there are days when, I can’t write for anything. So, I read, re-read, and edit in hopes that some part of that process will inspire the writing to come. Some days it does, some days it does not.

Read, Re-Read, and Edit: you will get a lot out of knowing these skills. Learn to be a close reader. Get in there and pick apart good (and bad) writing to see how it’s done. Learn to re-read what you love. I have read Love in the Time of Cholera twenty times. It’s always new and wonderful and it’s a different book each time I read it (because I am differently effected and evolved every time I pick it up.) Editing is a super skill. It can be taught, but it also requires a little bit of magic. The basic grammar, usage, and mechanics can be taught. Finesse of the English language cannot be taught. Whichever type of editor you become will help you after you’ve written an unwieldy poem and you are stuck and you can’t get it to do what you want it to do…it helps to have, somewhere inside of you, an editor to help you along.

Courage: this goes with the old saying “Write what you know” as well as the saying “Know your audience.” Writing what you know is scary and takes courage. No, not when you write a tight little description of your favorite watering hold…there is no bravery in that (unless your favorite spot is a brothel), but more when you write what you know about fires and car crashes and funerals and starvation and neglect and murder and white-collar crime. It takes balls to write the truth. So, build a non-judgmental imaginary audience and write your childhood. Once you’ve gotten that all out, then write the rest. At that point you can change your audience. You are a writer, make something up.

Truth: there is very little money/fame in writing. It is true (un-sarcastically) that most of the writers I know have other jobs—half of them are teachers/professors/academics, the other half work in bars, restaurants, cafes, and publishing houses—or write boring shit for educational publishers, copy for bank fliers, run small local newspapers—nothing glamorous. Most of them are middle aged and unattractive. Most of them are lower- to middle-class and not a lick more. Most writers are socially awkward and semi-invisible. I also know a few sexy, famous writers who get paid to write and read and make public appearances.  And those lucky few work all the time. They are always writing for a contract (magazine, journal, newspaper, etc.) and making the talk circuit, giving readings, plugging away on another contract. It’s a full time job that doesn’t pay nearly as well and a baseball player or Hollywood film director.

Gist: do what you love. If you have the writing bug, then by all means write. Read and write a lot. Do it every day. Don’t be afraid to piss off your parents or children or co-workers. Find your true voice and use it. Learn to read well and to edit a little. Have patience and a dedicated practice.  Submit your work. Try to get published. And have a good “other job” or backup plan for income. Be realistic about what being a writer means. And, good luck.  

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