Last week I gave a talk at Cal Poly Pomona about creativity and finding one's inner artist. So the talk was going pretty well, with a number of young people sharing their love of photography, game design or music composition. I told my story about becoming a novelist in my 5th decade, in part to encourage them to try new things and to not let your inner-critic tell you that you can't do something. So there I was being all inspiring and stuff, and feeling pretty cool about myself. And then it all went sideways.
There was this cute, young woman sitting next to me, and as we spoke she looked sadder and sadder. I finally turned to her and said, "We haven't heard from you. yet" She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs and told us she'd made a mistake. She didn't belong in this group. So I questioned her a little bit. Here's her story:
In High School she liked to write and eventually won a short story contest. She felt pretty great about that and decided to write a novel. Naturally she shared her idea and passion with her friends. Her friends started advising her- the old "you should do this" or "you should do that" kinda thing. Before she knew it she'd lost control of her novel and was writing all kinds of crap, depending upon what people around her wanted. So she quit writing. And then she quit reading. Egads! And as she told the story she started to cry. So there she is, feeling all crappy and everyone else is like, "What the hell just happened?"
A lot of things happened that are neither here nor there, but I think she was suffering from a kind of crisis of confidence and maybe even PTSDish stuff. She'd let her friends take something away from her that was important to her and she felt victimized by her friends and by herself. The experience had traumatized her.
I really admire all the young people out there trying to write anything. But one of the problems with being young is that people think they can tell you things. And young people listen. Maybe we all do.
My favorite writing vlogger, Jenna Moreci, has a post where she describes the kinds of haters you'll meet as a writer. Haters will tell you your idea is stupid. They'll tell you that you can't do it. They'll make stupid comparisons and miss the point. The thing is, some of the "haters" are going to be your friends and loved ones. Only they won't seem like haters so you won't notice they're fucking up your shit.
I'm here to tell you to NOT LISTEN to people who tell you what you should write.. I don't mean, don't listen to your beta readers or your editors. Once you've written your thing you'll have to seek outside opinions. But WRITE THE THING FIRST. Give yourself permission to write the story YOU want to write. Give yourself permission to believe in yourself. If all your friends have writing ideas, let them write their own damn books. No one is going to understand the interior life of your writing like you, so you know best.
About ten months ago a friend and I decided we should each try to write a novel. We made solemn promise to each other to really do it, not just talk about it. We might have pinky sweared, but I don't think there was any spit or blood involved. We both started writing this past summer, when we were done teaching classes. My friend Stephanie is working on finishing the second half of her first novel only months later. I'm super proud of her. She is much a woman.
Not to brag (and yet watch me do it anyway), but just this past weekend I finished the last chapter of the first half of my second novel. Confused yet? That is, I have already written my first novel, re-wrote it, edited it, and it's out at Beta Readers right now. In the mean time I started on my second novel and I'm half done. I've done all that, finished a 4 volume, one million word encyclopedia and taught classes at two universities. Mind you, like many professors, I had the summer off from class, though I was not off from laundry, meal prep, parenting and that darn encyclopedia.
My original plan was to write the first novel last summer, edit over the school year and write the second novel this coming summer. So I'm way ahead of my original plan. Oh, did I mention I have 6 dogs, 7 tortoises and a husband and kid? I hear you ask, "How do you do Peg? You must be some kind of model woman!"
Well, I am (she said modestly). But you know that Super Bowl party you went to? The movies you've been to this past year? The television shows you watched? The spa days? I didn't do any of that. I write when I get home from work. I write between classes. I write on the weekends. Last Sunday, when a great bulk of Americans were watching the Super Bowl, including my family and in-laws, I stayed home and finished that last chapter of the first half of my second book. Oh, I went over to my friend Tom and Anna's house for a little while around half-time, but I didn't drink and I didn't recognize any of the half-time acts because I never watch TV. I came home after an hour and wrote. It was weirdly fun. I see you out there-- you think I'm a freak. YEP!
All writers are freaks. If you want to be a writer you have to embrace your inner freak. You have to quit wasting your time on stupid stuff and write. I'm not saying never have any fun, but maybe writing the last chapter of the first half of your second novel is as fun as eating your 17th chicken wing with in-laws. Watching OTHER people do things on TV while your life passes you by (because eating chicken wings and watching football is NOT a life-- I don't care what they told you) is soul crushing.
So put down those chicken wings. Turn off that TV. And don't even get me started on the time wasted on "smart phones." Go write. Or whatever your dream is-- go do that. Cause no one ever laid on their deathbed and said, "I wish I'd watched more TV and eaten more chicken wings." Well . . . no one interesting anyway.
I'm just gonna say it. Writing is like ditch digging. It's not sitting around in a puffy poet shirt having great thoughts while sipping tea made from flower petals and unicorn spit. This is the good news and the bad news and I'll tell you why.
Ditch digging is hard. Look at those guys in the picture. They're dirty and they smell bad. They've got sweat in their butt cracks and gravel in their shoes. It's not pretty. Neither is writing.
The good news is, almost anyone can dig a ditch. Or at least, anyone with a good work ethic and a couple of basic tools.. The trick to writing, like ditch digging, is to just DO IT. You've probably seen this advice in every single writing blog and vlog you've ever looked it, and there's a reason. Here it is: The world is FULL of people who talk a lot of writing, but don't actually write much.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a hater. But I have to tell you, the "I'm talking about writing and not doing it" writer drives me a little bit crazy. OK. More than a little bit. And maybe I'm already a little bit crazy. So . . . crazier. There! Satisfied?
I'm a professional academic (which sounds more grown up and cool than it actually is). That means I am SURROUNDED by the "Talk A Lot of Writing" writer. Professors specialize in this shit. Fake or wannabe writers come in at least three flavors--there's probably more but who cares?
First, there's the "I've got a great idea, but I'm just teaching too much to write," writer. These people think they need "release time," like fewer classes to teach (while cashing the same sized check) or a sabbatical (which is a fancy way of saying a vacation paid for by your taxes). They don't seem to notice that the world is FULL of people who work for a living (at real jobs, not tenured professor jobs) and still write books. They also never seem to produce anything, even when they get release time.
The second type of "Talk a Lot of Writing" writer is the one that likes to write proposals and grants for their writing, and then send emails about those grants and proposals, which then end up about the only writing they do. Other fake writers love this type of writer because they validate their lameness.
These first two are fake writing types almost exclusive to the weird and dystopic world which is Academe. The third flavor is more common in the real world-- the "I just don't have time to write" writer (also related to the "I don't have time to read" person). This person who doesn't have time to write can describe every episode of Breaking Bad and posts pictures of their cats or kids on Facebook 3 times a day.
It's all BULL SHIT! Writers write. Professional academics should be, by definition, writers, but a LOT of them are not. And if they can't do it, its no surprise a lot of other people can't do it either. Why? Because writing is HARD. It's lonely. It's freaking scary. It's laboring in the dark, sweat in your metaphorical butt crack, work.
"Well, hell Peg," I hear you say. Then why would I do it?
Because it's also fun. It's fun to make a story out of nothing. Creativity is fun too. But you know the real reason you do it? Because you can't help yourself Dammit! There's a story or book idea in your head and the only way to get it out is to write the darn thing. And here's what the "Talk a Lot of Writing" fake writers don't know: the personal reward for writing are far greater than the rewards for not writing.
I give a LOT of writing advice-- to friends, students, random ladies at the grocery store (which, I gotta tell you, rarely works out well). It occurred to me that putting some of this stuff in a blog might be helpful-- and allow me to take a break from saying the same stuff over and over and over and . . . you get the idea. So here goes nothing.
Over the course of the next few months I'd like to cover a variety of topics, some of them directly about writing and some more tangential in nature. In some of these blogs I'll write directly to my college students, but I think some of the stuff I say to students is applicable to "real" human beings, even if you've been out of college for 38 years or never even went (which is fine with me-- some of the most most stupid and mean people I know have doctorates).
First, I don't care what "they" told you, not everyone can write. Writing is an art, but its' also a craft. Both art and craft require incredible dedication and an immense amount of practice. Moreover, art and craft take skill. Writing is like Olympic Curling. I'm not going to lie, I love watching curling,. I know that qualifies me for Super Geek Status, but I figure I already love Gandalf and Hermoine WAY too much to ever be cool.
Curling is like writing. It looks easy. Curlers don't look real athletic even. I mean, they're just sliding rocks down the ice. and sweeping. How hard could it be, right? But try it once. Just once. (You're not going to, I know, but let's pretend) Good curling, Olympic quality curling, takes YEARS of practice and some natural talent. YEARS OF PRACTICE (incomplete sentence for emphasis-- you like?) Same with writing.
So, how do you practice writing? Obviously, you write. I've got a whole bunch of college degrees, so I've lived through years of "I've got an assignment" writing. Because I'm an American historian I wrote a lot more than someone with a PhD in Biology or Under Water Ballet (or Curling for that matter). I also wrote a doctoral dissertation, which turned into my first book. I've written some other history things, some of it published, some not. Trust me, it's a fair bit of stuff. I'm not one of those "I worked on an article this summer," academics. I actually write.
I teach writing at a Southern California university, in both history and interdisciplinary departments, and that means I have to think about writing a lot, which is another kind of practice.. Plus I grade papers, most of them pretty bad (not because this generation is stupid or lazy, because they're not, but for another reason I'll get to in the next paragraph). Grading/editing papers is writing practice., particularly if you take your paper grading seriously and aren't one of those profs who just puts a grade on the paper and calls it a day. (How much do you hate that anyway?).
But here's the most important writing tip I can give you: READ. READ. READ!
Reading is writing practice. You won't need grammar lessons or paragraph problems if you read.. You'll just absorb language usage. The problem is we live in a culture of non-readers and under-readers. Most of my students don't read at all-- not even for class. (They think I don't know, but I can tell.) Turn off your TV. Turn off that STUPID PHONE (which we're mistakenly calling a Smart Phone). Pick up a book. Any book. Like Romance novels even though your lit teacher (or a smarmy friend) said they're "Trashy"? So what? Studies say trashy reading is 784% better than trashy television. OK-- I made that statistic up, but I believe it. And read books. Taking 10 minutes to read a blog (even this one) or the comments on YouTube is NOT real reading. Books are reading.
Are you still here? Go read a book-- any book. Then read another one.