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Want To Write? Toughen Up!

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I’ve been writing since before I started kindergarten. My mother was of the stay-at-home variety until I started school, and her days began and ended with my education. She taught me to read at a very early age by using flashcards she made from cutting up children’s books, and together we built stories that fanned across the living room floor, down the hall, and into the bedroom. In those days, every story was worth a sticker and a hug, and if I mixed tenses, Mom gently switched cards and explained what I’d gotten wrong and why.

Wouldn’t it be great if writing was always that easy?

These days, the process is far more arduous. I try to let an idea kick around in my head for a few days before I put anything down on screen or paper… unless it’s one of those killer ideas that screams “WRITE ME NOW! WRITE ME NOW!” until I cry with submission and race for my computer. I do this because I’ve learned that even the best ideas often need to marinate for a while before I even try a first draft, and my thoughts are scattered and nonlinear. In order to be a better writer, I’ve had to learn discipline.

I didn’t just pluck that discipline from the ether, however; it came in the form of hard lumps from editors. I first started submitted (excruciatingly bad) poetry to magazines when I was fifteen. Poetry like this, which is the first stanza of a poem I wrote when I was fourteen called “Seasong.”

You were walking on the beach last night,
the sand cool, the full moon glistening,
polishing the crest of each wave crashing,
thrashing lonely swimmers.

Ouch. But I was convinced, of course, that I could not possibly produce anything that wasn’t absolute genius, and so off it went, tucked with other poems into envelopes bound for Poetry magazine and Ploughshares. I had high expectations and a loose grip on reality.

But I learned something — well, several somethings, since one of them is that I am not a poet. I learned that to be a writer is to have a very thick skin. Writers cannot wear their hearts on their sleeves; they must be tucked away, kept safe until it is time to create, and then we can let the emotions flow. When it comes to honing (and selling!) our work, we must be like any other businesspeople — serious, focused, and objective.

In the beginning, it’s difficult. Those first form rejections hurt. What’s this? My writing doesn’t even deserve a personal response? You curse those moronic editors as hacks, and maybe even invent new epithets (after all, you are a writer!) to describe the depths of their stupidity. And you send out other work and bam, the same response. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually, it sinks in — something is not right here, and maybe it’s not that every editor at every magazine is a dolt. Maybe… just maybe…

…it’s you.

That’s a tough realization, and one usually accompanied by tears (or for those older than I was at seventeen, liquor). I had always been praised when it came to my writing, by teachers, friends, my parents… everyone except the editors of magazines I adored. But something was missing. It’s at this point that many writers face a crossroads, a choice of whether or not to keep slogging through it or to give up. Tragically, many people give up. But that’s alright — the act of writing is hard, and the act of getting it out there can be even more difficult. Those who don’t give up are in for a rough ride.

But rejoice! There are some things you can do to make it easier.

I learned to spell-check religiously. Oh, I know. It seems so silly, right? Anyone who is an actual writer doesn’t typo! Not true. No one is immune to fat-fingering the occasional key and warping a word, and many of us have words we commonly misspell (for me, ironically, one of them is “misspell”) and we’re so used to doing it our way that we don’t notice in a re-read.

Re-reads are a problem in and of themselves. When I finish a piece, I of course re-read it right away — but I’ve learned that it is usually a Very Bad Idea to change anything at that point. Everything is too fresh. It’s like poking a cake that’s just come out of the oven. If you’re not careful, the whole thing might collapse. So be good, and set it aside. Let it cool and pick it up again later and then look the piece back over. I find it’s best if “later” translates to a full day, but I don’t always have the luxury of hours. If nothing else, in a rush-rush situation, switch windows for a moment. Play a quick game of solitaire. Read some e-mails. Change the style of music pumping out of your speakers. Do something to cleanse your mind. It’s the writer’s version of a sliver of ginger, and it makes for better writing when you edit from a fresh perspective.

Keep in mind as well that amorphous quality of “voice.” There is a fine line between your “voice” and overusing the same words and phrases again and again. When I was younger, for example, I was obsessed with flowers and flower imagery. For a year, everything was petal soft (not kidding). Tears were always likened to roses (no, I don’t get it either). Eventually, I figured out that I was in the literary equivalent of a major rut and I made myself stop whenever I wanted to make any mention of anything at all to do with flowers. Was there a better image I could use? A different approach? I slowly trained that habit out of my writing and now if I feel the urge for something flowery, I can proceed with confidence.

Further, the discerning writer must try to take a step back and look at things from an objective perspective. No, I don’t mean for the line editing — for the text itself. This is the most difficult part. Of course you understand why Janice would choose Trevor over Chuck — you know her, inside and out! Or from a nonfiction perspective, of course you know that the film Sin City was adapted from graphic novels by Frank Miller.

But do your readers know and understand these things? Knowing how much context to explain and include is what separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff when it comes to any sort of writing at all, be it a review, a short story, or an op/ed piece on the latest political scandal. If your readers can’t follow what you’re saying, they’re going to read something else. It’s that simple.

Finally, don’t shy away from criticism — welcome it! Embrace it! Of course, we all run into the occasional mean-spirited critic. In my time in various critique circles around town and on the Internet, I’ve run into some real gems (“this is a complete waste of time, why even write it?”), but by and large, criticism has taught me more than any other writing class or generic advice. Why? Because it gives me a window on how others view my work.

So many writers roll their eyes at criticism and mumble, “they just didn’t get it.” We forget that our job, our first and only priority, is to make sure we put it out there so that they “get it.” If the readers don’t get it, the fault usually lies with us — not them.

If you’re the type who scribbles in a journal and never plans to show anything to anyone anyhow, then forget it — do as you will, and sketch rainbows in the margins. But if you ever plan to write for an audience of any sort, then get tough with yourself and realize that you’re not perfect. No one is. But that’s okay, because it means you’re off the hook. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be disciplined and you have to persevere. Writing isn’t easy. But it’s worth it to make someone else feel what you felt, or think what you thought, if only for a moment.

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About Alisha Karabinus

  • Excellent stuff, Alisha! I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic professor once upon a time, roughly sometime before the Dark Ages. Because he was also a published author and editor, he helped me fine tune my writing and find my voice. That made all the difference in the world.

    Of course, there’s always room for improvement. I like to think of everything I write as a work in progress. Even that which has already been published is subject to rewrites and revisions.

    The litmus test is in how one responds to the criticism from those who know. If you wither and moan about the comments, you get nowhere. If you absorb and digest the information, you have endless potential.

    Bravo, Alisha! Thank you for putting my very thoughts on writing and editing, as well as critiques, into words.

  • ^^^ what she said.

  • Too true. All of it, Alisha. Writing is bad, photography worse. Everyone pulls it apart, adds their 2 pesos worth or, on the internet, can be as mean as they care to be.

    I, too, happily had one of those professors (a night class at a lousy, Southern university in which I wasted two years) who made one really great impression: you cannot write unless you can allow your audience into your thoughts and feelings.

    You tell a great story about how to write and why one writes and how important it is to slough off the barbs that come along while waiting for the occasional perceptive comment or beam of understanding.

    I only wish I had learned the lessons you teach a great deal earlier.

  • Nicely said. Might I add the life of the writer is a solitary one. You mention “liquor,” and the reason many writers drink is the solitary nature of the life (not that I’m condoning that as I sip my breakfast Heineken). Hemingway said that a bottle of wine was good company (especially when other writers aren’t around).

    Writing is a tough job. Pete Hamill said something like besides manual labor, writing is the hardest job there is.

    So chin up after rejections. They just make us stronger.

  • GoHah

    well expressed, and you’re absolutely right about the value of setting a project aside for that refreshing and imperative what-a-difference-a-day-makes perspective. And yet I often have to force myself to do that–I have too much of that befuddled, bleary-eyed “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, but in the end I’m always grateful that I took the time and didn’t give in to that temptation to send something off right away. No matter how much I’ve deluded myself that I’ve achieved parity with perfection, there always turn out to be problems, from stupid litte oversights to more big-picture transgressions.

  • Wow, guys! Thanks for the positive comments. I’m jealous of those of you who had great writing professors. Closest I’ve come so far is the teacher I had way back in the way back, senior year of high school, who was one of the first to explain to me that my writing really was vague. She was great. I keep thinking I might send her some clips.

    I’m starting back to college next month in English/Creative Writing, so I hope I can have some of these profs myself.

  • GoHah

    This is just my opinion, and I’m odd man out here, but I think the value of writing courses may be overrated: I never took a writing class (not that I wouldn’t benefit from it)–but I am glad I got a degree in English, so I think you’ll at least find Literature studies a considerable help.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I got real lucky years ago and ran into a children’s book author and former journalist who ran a writers’ group. She had a basic rule – keep the comments positive. No “this stuff is so bad, you should tear it up,” kind of remarks.

    I learned a lot about having other people read your work to the group. It was very helpful.

    And I noticed, being a very light drinker and a non-smoker, how important alcohol and cigarettes seemed to be…

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    And Alisha – you did a very nice job. Great article!

  • GoHah: “stupid litte oversights” – ironic, huh?

  • GoHah

    Christopher: yeah, I could use a bit of that stiff-upper-lip reserve and all–some ambiguity and lack of clarity, too, would really confuse the issue and help not get the point across.


    One of the hardest things is just to write at all, rather than put it aside, put off, or put away as not worht writing about. I find that writing is like priming the pump; it starts slowly but flows after a bit of effort.

  • I want you to know I wrote my response to this like three days ago and when I came back I completely disagreed with myself which led to an awful headache after all the shouting and…

    Good advice, Alisha.

  • The discipline I am trying to learn (and am not very good at) is to write first and re-write second. I am so obsessed with getting everything just the way I want it the first time. I rarely give myself enough time to edit (as those poor BC souls who have seen my first-draft copy can attest) so I try to write and edit all at once. I have tried to convince myself to write it first and edit it later. I am getting better at that. It is both a time-management skill as well as a writing discipline.

  • my first edit happens this way: i write everything with a pencil. as i’m writing, my ‘inner editor’ tells me that a phrase my not be so hot. i encase the phrase (ok, sometimes whole paragraphs) in brackets.

    when it comes time to type the stuff in, i then deal with the bracketed material.

    and hopefully, the time between the pencil scratchin’ and the typin’ isn’t more than 12 hours, because my handwriting is just plain awful.

  • I wish I did more writing with the old pen/pencil instead of always on the screen. I have gotten into the habit of mostly writing on the computer. I miss the idea of pen/pencil and paper.

  • GoHah

    apropos of nothing really, but I’m reminded of that scene in the movie “Love and Death” where Woody Allen, deciding to become a writer, is shown in full steretypical serious-writer regalia to the hilt: velvet burgundy smoking jacket, ascot, cigarette in long cigarette holder, standing by the fireplace mantle, roaring fire blazing. Allen, feather quill pen in hand, is in deep thought when the muse suddenly strikes; He gives spoken word–as he writes–to his sudden inspirational, epiphanic burst of a literary Eureka, which turns out to be a line–decades before it is acutally written by T.S. Eliot in “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “I should have …been a pair…of rag-ged claws …scut-tling across the floors …of silent seas.” Allen looks at what he has written, pondering, but then with tempermental-artist disdain, rejects his effort–not recognizing greatness when he sees it and writes it–and crumbling up his paper and tossing it in the fire as he berates himself for what his poor effort.

  • GoHah

    (me#17: goofs–should’ve waited a day to look at it again and make corrections)

  • Comment #3, by alpha, was chosen as Comment of the Day for Tuesday 13th December.

  • lilg

    is this book true

  • Great article

  • Scott Butki

    Great advice. I wrote as a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years and I’m still learning how to write better and tighter.
    My challenge now is to unlearn some of what I learned in journalism.