Monday, January 7, 2013

Don't Just Write What You Know

Photo courtesy of mrsdkrebs

The generic writing advice for the novice always insists you must write what you know.  Balderdash.  If you studied at Cambridge or Oxford in the early 20th century you were expected to write poetry, essays, memoir, fiction and literary critiques.  You studied language, the classics, read the Greeks and Romans in the original to prepare you for the challenge of putting your thoughts, ideas and imagination on paper.  The task of writing was one of engaging the reader on any subject.  What mattered was your originality, use of language, imagery, the specificity with which you developed a scene or idea.  These requirements applied to all forms, from food writing to an examination of social mores. You didn't try to wedge yourself into a particular slot as we do these days.  We call ourselves bloggers or YA authors.  At university they called themselves writers.  If you don't know how to tackle a form, you can learn.  You may not master it, but that doesn't matter.  The process of challenging yourself is what counts, the lessons you learn, either about craft or yourself.

We refer to creative nonfiction as though it is a special category when all writing by definition is creative.  Writers love language, story, characters and ideas.  If you develop your facility with these elements of writing, you increase your range as a writer regardless of the genre you prefer.  Writing a poem sharpens your imagery in describing a scene.  Writing a biographical sketch of a family member enlarges your compassion when creating a character for a story.  

When was the last time you attempted a piece of writing that challenged your skills?  Perhaps you are most comfortable writing fiction or travel pieces for adults.  You might be amazed at what comes forward if you develop a critical examination of the essays of Montaigne or a story for toddlers.  

I hear people say they don't have time for anything but their current project.  However I encourage you to devote one of your daily 15 minute writing sessions to trying something new each week.  You would be amazed at the dividends this investment in your craft will pay when you return to your ongoing piece.

Once you have finished this new effort, I also challenge you to send it out for publication or put it on your blog.  This will help you take your new writing seriously.  If you've never written a poem, read them for a week (of course it takes a lifetime of reading poetry to crack that code--but start with a week's worth of poems).  Then create a poem.  You don't have to show it to anyone if you are self-conscious about it.  But it is far better to submit it to a review site for a critique. 

Of course I am practicing what I preach.  I am halfway through a children's story and I know nothing about connecting with a young reader.  I've written half a dozen poems I would never show to anyone, but have new respect for the power of an image.  Memoir terrifies me, yet I am learning to expose myself on this blog more and more.  I finally said the D word, and I cannot tell you how difficult it was to expose that sad chapter of my life.  Yet I want to connect with my readers, many of whom also struggle to write when their marriages, health or life circumstances unravel. Yet, this does not mean I have given up on my first love, the novel.

See yourself as a writer, not as a genre writer and expand your gifts and skills.  The experience doesn't have to become an everyday effort, but it will pay dividends for a lifetime.  Once you've learned something, you can't unlearn it.  Good luck.      

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The subject today is one close to the heart of almost every writer I’ve ever known.  Self-sabotage.  It is very hard to write when you think you can’t, when you believe your story is garbage, when you’ve received some hard criticism, whether it’s a suggestion to rethink your protagonist or rethink the placement of a comma.  I don’t know about you but some days a comma comment can undo me.

A writing practice requires control over our negative thoughts.  Otherwise, we believe what we think, that the story is worthless, nobody is interested in what we have to say so why bother, and only real writers know what to do with commas.

But thought control, or confidence or belief in what we do does not mean we are not plagued by negativity.  I have yet to find a way to rid myself of doubts, fears and insecurities as I write.  We are raised in a judgmental culture.  Look at the lead stories in the past week.  We are drowning in The Year’s Ten Best lists. What about the other ten thousand movies, books and songs produced last year.  Are they pond scum?  Must be if only ten made the cut, right? 

Or, we make resolutions.  I will exercise more.  I will complain less.  I will work harder.  I will write more.  The fact that we even make a resolution means we are coming up short in our own eyes.

Of course there are products and works of art that rise above the others.  But very few people agree on the lists.  The New York Times Book Review trashed your favorite novel; you wouldn’t drink a certain red wine touted by Robert Parker if your life depended on it.  Your main squeeze thinks you’re just fine without losing ten pounds.  Who is right?

The question alone should teach us the folly of judgment.  The process by which a particular effort rises above the others is mysterious at best.  Sometimes it means that a best selling writer had an agent who was married to a friend who finagled a read.  But an equally talented writer, with perhaps a superior book, can’t get noticed because said agent is not accepting new clients.  The best seller can believe she is better than she is merely because she is published, while the rest of us want to give up after a dozen no-thank-yous, forgetting how many rejections it took Jack London, for instance, to break through.  We can’t look at anything without giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  

This is the stuff, not of dreams, but of nightmares as we sit down and attempt to summon the confidence to continue with our work while our judgmental engines are churning away.  How do we write through negativity, to push our story or essay forward through the muck of self-judgment, as thick as tar on some days? 

I had a revelation one morning years ago as I was rereading a few pages in my writing session before work.  What seemed like deathless prose as it poured out of my soul, seemed dead on the page as I reread it.  I could almost hear that chorus of naysayers that taught me over the course of my life to criticize, condemn, and ultimately give up because something of mine didn’t measure up.

But as those voices came through loud and clear, something happened for me that was pivotal in my writing career.  All of a sudden I heard them as voices on auto pilot, not words from the mount.  Not some inarguable truth about my work, but merely a segment of the tape that runs through my head.  The tape takes turns calling me a good writer and a bad writer. If I wait a few minutes, I might love that page again.  Which side of my brain would be right? The flip or the flop?

I kept on writing not knowing the answer to that question.  As sentence after sentence appeared on the page I realized I could write feeling doubtful, afraid of someone judging what I wrote, of not being a good enough writer.  Those thoughts come and go.  My job, it came to me, was to write.  To learn my craft and do the best I could to let the art in my work flow.  It was up to other people to judge it.  I must write in spite of the way I felt about my work, not because of it.  The thoughts that I was a good writer had no more validity than the thoughts that said I was an amateur. Henry Ford said whether you think you can or you can, you are always right.  Only someone who dealt with doubt and came out the other side could say that.

I realized that having confidence in my writing meant I had the confidence to write no matter how I felt, that the words would come even if I thought they were the wrong words.  Who knows, an agent might think they were the best words she had ever read.  And at that point, I wouldn’t care whether she was right or wrong.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Back Again

It has been a while since I’ve posted on this blog, which should knock my credibility as a daily writing coach, right?  Well, I have been writing every day for the last two months.  In fact, I published my first ebook on Kindle two weeks ago.  The story of what happened between July 9th, my last post, and November 2nd, 2012, when I started on the ebook will take a few posts to tell.  I don’t want to blast you with a 3,000 message when you are still trying to get over the holidays.  Suffice it to say, I have a note from my doctor.  Well, all my doctors, the cardiologist, the neurologist, the team of surgeons and sundry other medical personnel who saved my life after I returned from Squaw Valley.  The note says, please excuse Helen from daily writing because she has to have open heart surgery and will be very sick and very weak for a long time.

Well, I’m back, mostly.  They were right about the sick and weak part, but it didn’t last forever and, the blog, is alive and well.  So is Helen Page, the writer behind the blog. 

For now, I just want to wish everyone a happy and healthy, make that HEALTHY new year and much success with your writing.  More to come on a regular basis.  I promise.  Cheers, Helen 

“There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart...pursue those.”~Michael Nolan

Photo courtesy of katerha