“Stop Making Sense”
Over the years, I’ve been approached with the question, “What’s the best advice you offer for aspiring writers?”
As leader of three writers’ critique groups, my initial reaction is to wrack my brain for programmed responses: incorporate sensory details, keep dialogue fesh, succinct, be certain it moves the story forward, and use a charater profile sheet to create memorable characters.
Adjusting my writer’s coach hat, I spew off names of tried and trusted writing bibles such as: Browne and King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style,” and Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages.”
Over time, this advice has served me and my cohorts well.
It’s also excruciatingly boring.
Truth be told, the best advice I’d give to writers is this: Stop making sense.
From what I’ve observed, the most problems arise when writers try to be something they’re not. I’m no exception. Day after day, I worry about my writing. I try to fit in, blend in with the neighbors, smile, nod at appropriate times, squelch temptation to speak my mind.
Religion, sex, and politics are taboo subjects in suburbia and mommy circles.
But in writer’s group, all topics are safe—it’s Vegas, baby.
Recently, a good friend and I had a discussion about the frustrating and depressing journey a writer takes when trying to get their completed novel traditionally published.
“Why don’t you start a different business.” he advised. “You could do something different.”
Do something different?
His words haunted me for two days.
Yesterday, while driving my daughter home, I had an epiphany. I’m an artist. Artists are the way they are and can never change. When a painter sees a beautiful sunrise, they make a mad dash for their paint palette and easel. When a photographer views a breathtaking sunset, they adjust lens and filters until the snapshot is perfect, ready to share with the world. When a writer feels a story, the air escapes them until their fingers smack the keyboard or a pencil and paper are in hand. I literally feel like I can’t breathe until my story, blog, or pathetic poem are released. Once it’s out, I can finally exhale.
And all is well once again.
The problem is, as writers, we spend too much time stifling creativity. We hold back our words, fear other’s judgment. We don’t write what’s in our hearts because we worry someone will get hurt. We write what’s politically or socially correct because, if we don’t, we might offend our fans, lose Facebook “likes,” not get positive book reviews.
Fear murders creativity.
Some of my best writing came while I was away attending my residency. I was among strangers, people who didn’t know me but were becoming fast friends due to intimate circumstance. I wrote fresh, wrote hot, held back from self-editing. I dropped the F bomb, said it aloud in class, then held my breath to see if anyone noticed.
No one seemed to care.
In fact, I wasn’t the only one who said the word “fuck.” By the end of the week, the word was so diluted, overused, I worried it had lost its power.
Fuck is just a word. There are stronger choices.
Back from residency, I made a personal vow. After unpacking my suitcase, I vowed to write what’s true to my heart and not hold back. In school, Dr. Lennon warned, sometimes writers reveal too much. Perhaps he’s right, but from what I’ve seen, writers usually don’t reveal enough.
So, here’s my best advice for the wannabe writer:
1. Embrace the strange. You’re an artist, you will have bouts of genius followed by moments of garbage. There will be times of depression; we’re writers, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, and not everyone will like what you say. But it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.
2. Get thyself an iPod. Music inspires good and bad writing. Chopin and Nine Inch Nails get played over and over. Their songs take me to places I need to be. It’s okay to listen to loud or raunchy tunes. Sappy love songs, why not?
3. Considering psychotherapy? Consider this.
How many famous artists (painters, writers, musicians) have been labeled “mentally ill?”
Van Gogh cut off his ear. Styron and other authors battled depression. Plath and Woolf committed suicide. Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Tchaikovsy were all good candidates for the nut house.
I wonder what Wellbutrin or Xanax would have done to their creativity. If you suffer from depression, by all means, SEEK HELP! But if it’s a matter of sometimes going into yourself, that dark writer’s cave where you just need time to think things out, dwell, or reflect, embrace it.
Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely.
4. Seek like-minded individuals. Friends and family will think that your writing is either “the shit” or “not it,” but they’re not good critique partners, per say. Friends won’t understand Point of View violations, too much backstory, poor story structure, or how to flesh out a character.
5. Find like-minded individuals. There are local writers’ critique groups—most free, online groups, Beta readers, writers’ conferences. . . the choices are endless. Find a writer, preferably one that writes in your genre, and become “study buddies.”
6. Don’t care about those that judge you. As Seuss said, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
And last, but certainly not least, READ. In addition to writing every day, one must be an advocate of literature. Read every day. Read across genres. Read as many books your librarian allows you to check out. Because to be a good writer, one must be a good reader.
Now, close my blog, log off Facebook, and get back to writing.