Monday, May 21, 2007

Be a Writer

I am a big fan of Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer. Ms. Brande wrote her book back in the 30’s and, other than some quaint discussion of whether typewriters are more distracting that writing by hand (because when I consider how distracting my computer and the Internet are, I just about give up considering writing on this thing), I think her advice is some of the best available still. She begins with the assertion that writing classes do not help many or most struggling writers because the classes deal with structure, style, etc., but those are facets of writing that many aspiring writers don’t even get to because they can’t get anything written, whether it’s called writer’s block, or lack of time, or lack of confidence.

There are other things she talks about, but her writing premise as I understand it is this: if you cannot or will not make yourself write when you need to or are available to, then stop calling yourself a writer. Find another avocation or call your scribblings something else, but stop beating yourself over the head about being a writer, because you are not.

If this seems harsh, I think it is because she gives two seemingly easy tasks to test your mettle. (I wanted to put a pun in there – something about quill or pencil or other bad rhyme, but I couldn’t think of one. Insert your own.). One, get up a half hour early and write. Don’t talk to anyone, don’t have coffee, don’t do anything but sit down and write. Ms. Brande makes some suggestions – record a dream before it fades, or a bit of scene or dialogue you are thinking about, or anything else. She suggests that you write as long as it flows, but that you increase your time as you get used to this schedule. (If you’ve read The Artist’s Way, you may recognize this advice. In that book, it’s thirty minutes a day as a sort of memory/anxiety dump to clear your head for the day.)

Ms. Brande’s second requirement is that you make specific, short appointments with yourself to write and that you keep your appointment, even if it means excusing yourself out of some other activity. And the times change, so that you get used to writing for fifteen minutes at eleven o’clock one day and four o’clock another. If you can do both of these things, basically making yourself write on command and with precedence over other activities, then you can call yourself a writer, you will be a writer, and now you can go on to the other challenges of crafting your stories. I’m not sure how long these exercises are supposed to last, but I’m guessing that if you do it for the twenty-one days that modern psychologists tell us we need to establish a habit then you’re in.

So, today I am a writer, this blog being the second part of today’s obligatory exercises. I plan to be one tomorrow, too. Whether I’ve got the moxie to continue to practice being one, only time will tell (start humming bad 80’s tune here); more updates to follow.

(Note: This blog is being simulcast at our web site: www.keepwriting.org.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sharing

As the some time, assistant editor of an online literary journal, I am often amazed by the courage that writers, mostly poets in this case, display in sending their work in to us to be evaluated. So much of what we see never reaches the light of day through us. Especially at the time of the annual poetry contest, we may see two hundred poems, only a few of which are going to see electronic publication in our magazine.

I often wonder what possesses people to send their intellectual children off to strangers to be critiqued, knowing that most the time the answer is going to be “No, thank you,” if there even is an answer. Often, the response from the editorial staff is silence – if no return envelope or email is provided, we don’t usually send comments back – so the author has to just wait and know that no news is not good news, no news is probably a rejection.

I had only a little experience with publicly sharing my work before graduate school. Once in fourth grade I won a poetry contest and in twelfth grade a short story was chosen as the best in the school to go to a state competition. Both times though, I think that teachers must have submitted my entries, because I don’t remember being that brave. My shrink in college would have something to say about this, but I’m pretty sure this desire to keep my writing to myself is partly a result of being the child of a college educated mother who was quick to critique any writing I shared with her – no doubt out of a sense of helpfulness, but stifling none the less.

It wasn’t until I got into a graduate writing program that I really got into the swing of workshopping. Fortunately, I was in classes led by faculty that supported constructive criticism, not the bashing and personal attacks that workshopping horror stories are born of. Possibly, some of my stuff was pretty good, because I don’t remember ever having my feelings hurt too badly and I continued on with writing to share again. Or possibly it was all crap, because we were never too harsh on anyone, even the girl who wrote what I can only describe as complete tripe.

It was out of these classes that I became part of my current writer’s group and they are the people that I now share with, secure in the knowledge that they will give me useful feedback and without the fear of anything worse than some gently scolding for not getting pages written, but that’s a common problem for all of us. Some of us have sent our progeny out to the world to be evaluated and even successfully published. I am not there yet.

(Note: This blog is being simulcast at our writing site: www.keepwriting.org.)