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…
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.Powered by Sidelines