Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On Writing

The following was published a short time ago in a writing group to which I belong.  I thought it might be helpful to others as well.

So many here have posted various questions about how to start writing, how to get beyond a block, or how to get inspiration, that I thought I would share my experience. I realize that each person has his or her own way of doing things, and I am not trying to change anyone with this, but for those of you who are starting out, I will share my experience. 

Let me say at the start that I am 64 and have written and been paid for writing since I was 18. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written for companies and nonprofits. I’ve written speeches and grants. Only in the last decade have I begun to write books. That said, writing is writing and the lessons translate well from genre to genre.

When I was a cub reporter, decades ago, I remember sitting in front of my typewriter in the newsroom with panic. What do I write? How do I start? It occurred to me then that a) I had a deadline I had to meet and b) it was my JOB to write. So I wrote. This was my first lesson in discipline and there has not been a month since that I haven’t said to myself, “It’s your job. Just do it.”

In 2005 I was laid off from a job I loved (writing) and I decided to follow a different path. I have always done pottery, but as a hobby, and my skills were rusty and out-of-date. So I enrolled in a concentrated course of study for pottery. The instructor had all of us - newbie to experienced - throw nothing but small cylinders (the easiest form) for weeks. Many of us grumbled. “We know this. We want the good stuff.” Suffice it to say that perfecting the basics IS the good stuff and makes everything that follows easier. For me, it also taught me that to make pottery I had to sit at my wheel and actually throw something.

Then, a few years ago, I decided to enter National Novel Writing Month - 50,000 words in a month! I already had an idea for a novel and I thought, “How hard can it be?” What I learned in that month was that I had to give up something or more than one something. I did not watch TV. I passed on invitations from friends. I turned down favors people asked of me. I did no pottery. I even took a day of vacation time. But what I really did was sit down and write. Every day. I worked a fulltime job and came home and wrote. I did not edit. I did only a little research. Those things I did after that month. The lesson here was that my writing had to take precedence over the time-eaters in my life.

So, my writing friends, especially those of you who have not established a routine that works, those of you who are stuck, my advice is simply this: write. Do what you have to do. But perfect your basics as you go. Just as I had to throw cylinder after cylinder to get uniform walls, a flat floor, a rounded rim, you must use good grammar, proper spelling, and decent punctuation. Don’t sweat the small stuff – the titles, the spacing, the non de plumes, the exact adjective. Just write. As you write one of two things will happen: either you will polish your skills and turn out readable stuff or you won’t. But find out.

Nothing gets done, nothing is created, and nothing is finished until one actually does it. If you want to build a house, you measure, pour a foundation, hammer nails. If you want to write a novel, start with turning off the phone, the iPad, the TV and sitting down and writing. If you are a writer, it is your job. Just do it. And don’t be so sensitive. Your words are just words. They are not your spleen. Let others point out where they are awful as well as where they are good. Take criticism graciously, as the gift it is. In pottery, I make my students cut their precious pots in half, vertically, so they can see their uneven walls and thick floors. It is what my editors did with me as a young writer and I am the better for it. You will be, too. Don’t be afraid to change, to dump passages, to rewrite. Just do it. Write. No one will hold your hand. Writing is a solitary craft. Hone it on your own. Just write. Or don’t.

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