Can You Be a Writer? Part 2

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Okay, I have one person signed up for my writing class. If I get nine more, we’ll figure out class times and tuition and get this party started.

Meanwhile, I’ll do what I always do: offer for free what I hope people will pay me to do. I don’t know if that’s a marketing plan or an anti-marketing plan, but when we get to the class session on how to get rich doing this, I promise I’ll get you a guest lecturer.

I’ve read around 30 books on writing cover to cover and parts of another 20…to 70. Lots. Countless articles. (Not that I’m so great at counting, as I’m exhibiting here.) So I’m going to pass on a couple things that have stuck, things that I consider crucial or even life-and-death for the writer.

Write consistently, every day that you can.

Virtually every one of those books says, “Get a routine. Lock in that routine. Be consistent.”

And I said, “Pshaw! I’m not a man to be structured nor scheduled. Spontaneity! I’ll write when the Muse sings!”

Well, turns out there are two problems with my approach. First, it’s easier to get around to danged-near anything else than to sitting on your butt in the chair and really writing. You haven’t experienced the full fury of procrastination until you’ve tried writing only “when the mood strikes.” So the whole “when the Muse calls” thing breaks down because I don’t think she would stop by enough in the course of my entire lifetime to complete a single book. Maybe a short story. Sure, I had lots of thoughts about “Oh, I should write about x!” But as I said last class, Imagined Writing is both the opposite and the adversary to Actual Writing. Any “writing” that exists only in your head and is prefaced by words like “should,” “someday,” or “when I find time” is an illusion. It’s only useful insofar as it helps you sit and write; in my experience, it mostly does the opposite.

Second, brains get in habits of being creative (just like they get in any other habits) and for this, consistency helps. Trust me, the spontaneity-loving part of me tried to resist this, but it’s true. If you call on your brain to do the creative task at roughly the same time each day–or with whatever consistency you can make happen–it will improve at hitting that creative stride when called upon. If you make a date with the Muse and always keep the date, she’ll show up more often. I promise.

If you are trying to block out time within very narrow margins, this becomes even more important. If you want to make the most of the time you do have, writing in the same time block every time you write, as often as you can write, will improve your productivity. I’m sure some of you roll your eyes at this because you have small children; the idea of having that kind of control over your schedule sounds like a pot of gold under a rainbow. “Well, wouldn’t that be nice?” If that consistent block is impossible in your circumstances, look for some other consistencies in your routine that will trigger your brain, “Hey! It’s time to do the words!” Give your mind and your Muse every reason to show up.

Don’t discard your writing.

Try not to throw away anything that you’ve written. Computers make this easier. I have rarely gone back to an old, abandoned draft and jump-started it, but it has happened. When I’m writing a longer work, I usually have a file called “scraps” or “pieces,” so when I cut out something that I love but that doesn’t fit or that might work better later, I know where I’ve put it.

But those aren’t the main reason. Don’t throw things away means don’t self-censor. You may have written nonsense or rage or groggy, fading dream-memories, but deciding it’s crap and deleting it will only make you more self-critical and less free to try to write. Editing happens after composing. You have to tame your perfectionism to be a writer. You have to.

Every artist must face the cringe factor. The cringe factor is that you will look back at something you’ve done and think “Oh, my Aunt Bessie–what was I thinking?” That isn’t a bad thing. If your earlier work looks a little…less refined to you, that means you’re growing and developing as an artist. But as the term implies, though I can tell you it’s not a bad thing, you might still writhe on the floor. But seriously, seriously, no one gets to start out as a mature, accomplished artist. As with so much of life, the journey is everything. The only way we grow is to do the best we can at this moment, send our work out into the world, then learn from the experience and hope, by the grace of God, to do a little better next time.

Obviously, you can see the connection. If you let the cringe factor dissuade you, you’ll never produce anything. Don’t self-censor. Don’t let the cringe factor call the shots.

The relationship between composing and editing is complex and every writer has to decide how much to edit in the process of writing. But it’s a bit like saying “Don’t run with scissors.” Don’t. Can you walk with a knife? Yes. Can you fix spelling errors while composing? Yes. Can you decide this paragraph fits better before that other paragraph? Now we’re looking at the principle, which is “Don’t impale yourself.” I can’t tell you exactly how fast you can travel while carrying a sharpened metal object, but the principle remeains true. You must apply it to your own quirky specifics. If you let yourself edit too much while composing, you’ll stifle your own creativity. Only you can decide what is “too much.” And that may change over time.

Here’s Anne Lamott’s take:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

When I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean this. When you turn off the spout, you have no idea what you’re missing. Literally, you’ll never know. As I said last time, the only way to get to better writing is to write more and keep writing; self-censoring shuts that down. If you’re at all like me, some part of your brain will say, “Oh, that’s no good! What are you doing?” It’s the same part of my brain that can hear five heartfelt affirmations about my book and mentally delete them all when someone says, “Oh, I’m a little busy right now, I can’t read it.”

Seriously, five people who have read what I wrote and tell me how it helped them versus one person who hasn’t read a word? Which of those will I take as authoritative? Let’s agree, it’s a little nuts to let the one (with no direct knowledge) outweigh the five. Right? That part of my brain insists that “this novel isn’t working” or “people will think this is stupid” or “who are you to wrote a blog post about writing?” So when I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean don’t give that part of your brain authority to decide if the words you’ve written/are writing/are about to write deserve to exist. It’s the equivalent of deciding that the committed and debunked conspiracy theorist should be trusted as a reliable witness this time. Still nope.

Even if you aren’t as self-critical as I am–for me, self-criticism is the reason others’ criticism, or even perceived criticism, carries disproportionate weight–the creative part of your brain needs as much encouragement as it can get. Too many voices in our culture will shut down your creativity. Too many people just enjoy being critical or dismissive. Don’t ally with them.

Therefore, when I say “Don’t discard your writing,” I mean don’t toss it or delete it after you’ve written and don’t toss it or delete it before you’ve wrriten. Don’t self-censor. There will be time to edit later.

Last one for today:

You have to make it happen.

This is both the hardest and, perhaps, most crucial truth I know about writing.* Anne Lamott said “writing is not rapturous.” At the risk of disagreeing with one of my heroes, it can be. I’d say writing runs the whole gamut of emotions for me. Writing fiction is a little like acting, in that you take on the emotions and mental state of the person whom you’re depicting. You have to get in their head. I’ve had epiphanic moments when I can suddenly see the connections and it’s like the stars align in my little brain. I have times writing when I feel God’s presence very strongly, as strongly as when I’m in the mountains or preaching (my go-to contexts for God encounters). Other times, writing is depressing as hell, which doesn’t seem like a great idea for a person prone to depression.

But as I’ve said, I need to write.

I want to tell you why I’m telling you “make it happen” before I go hard at it. It won’t sound nice. It may not cheer you up or encourage you. But I hope it helps, anyway, in the way hearing hard truth can help, almost like the movie slap: “Thanks. I needed that.” I hope it makes the situation a little clearer helps you find your resolve.

If you don’t do the writing, the writing don’t get done.

“Well, duh, Mike.”

NO, but seriously. You have to find a way to make it happen. No one will do this for you. No one can do this for you. You have to surrender the fantasy that someone can. You can have supportive readers and even patrons. You can have space and time to work. You can have brilliant ideas. You have to do the writing. You alone.

For a long time, for way too long, I was looking for the person who could tell me “You’re good enough. You’ve got it.” But that’s not the job of an expert. That’s my job to decide. I have to discern if God has given me this gift and, if so, how to use it. I put more than one friend on the spot and made things awkward by more or less demanding that they answer. A professional writer or editor can read a piece of your work and assess what you’ve done. I’m not talking about feedback. You have to decide for yourself if you’re going to do this.

If it isn’t good and you want to make it better, you have to work harder and make it better. Write a million words, discard them, and you’re ready to start, as David Eddings says. A million words leads to the next million.

I hope you succeed. Truly. I’m not saying any of this to discourage you. I’m saying it because this is the only way.

Or, to be contextually relevant,

“This is the way.”

“Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.”

― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev (my favorite of his books!)

No one can answer that for you except you.

I don’t believe absolutely anyone can be a writer. But some people can, and I believe this is the dividing line. The people who become writers–and remember, “the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing“–find that part in themselves that is relentless. Obdurate. Unyielding. They discover their scream.

Because they have to.

Do NOT hear me saying that community is unimportant for a writer. Community is crucial for a writer…and for every Jesus follower..,.and heck, I’ll say for everyone. In some ways a writer needs community even more, because the act itself is so individual and requires isolation. I’m not giving the “pull yerself up by yer bootstraps cuz God helps those who help themselves” talk. You need supportive community to encourage you, affirm your gift, and help you get back up when you get kicked down (again). Sorry, this isn’t the rainbows and unicorns class on writing. I’m assuming you’re asking the questions seriously, so I’m answering truthfully. We haven’t even gotten to the “How to handle rejection” class yet! 😉

By all means, get all the affirmation you can. Gather the supportive, sympathetic, encouraging readers for that first, scary round of “Is this worth your time or is this crap?” Build up your nerve and invite the more blunt, direct people to give you feedback. Take the leap and let strangers who have nothing invested in your feelings read what you’ve written.

But remember, at the end of the day–and the beginning of the day–it comes down to the decision you make. Make it prayerfully, make it and know you’ll probably have to remake it again and again. It’s not an abstract decision. There’s nothing ethereal about it.

You decide if you can be a writer. You decide by writing.

PS I’m a little more than half serious about the class now. Let me know if you’re interested. 🙂

*The other is “pour your heart and soul into your writing.”

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