Read

It’s academic. The more you read, the better your writing will be. Read everything. Read what interests you at the moment, use your infatuation with style, author, setting, genre to guide your next taste. Find a great used book store. Talk to the staff. Read periodicals, follow the awards leaders, take cues from their reading lists. Not because they are experts, but because they have a different path than you. But you already know all this. Read. Just read.

And incidentally, don’t be afraid of incorporating the styles or the words of the writers you enjoy into your own work. Not that you should purposely emulate those, but you’re going to be subconsciously applying all of it. It’s not something to worry about. 

My thoughts on impostor syndrome (reproduced from my journal):

“How valid are your actions and passions? Are they someone else’s? A lover? An agency? A collective breath? Is there ever a time where you sit —maybe tired from a days work —in the chair you settled for, with the drink you decided is best for times like this, and things kind of swell. A note or phrase from a piano or the movement of a tree bough wakes you into a feeling of nothing but now.

That’s you – and only you. Pieces of it were stolen – sure – from somewhere/someone – but everything is. All the stolen bits you’ve accumulated are there on shelves, in the air, on the walls, in your cup – everyone is a cornucopia of stolen bits. All of us. They’re just mixed a little differently in each case. Take some time – don’t look at the pieces – look at the whole – no one on the planet has the same gathering of feelings, ideas, wishes, hurts or possessions as you. No – not an impostor – you’re a completely different mix of all things human – powered by an infusion of magic.”

My thoughts on plagiarism (again, stolen from my journal);

“Plagiarism is unavoidable. Not cut and paste intentional rip-off, but the inadvertent homage —you can’t avoid incorporation of jewels. I believe it is unconscious and benevolent. This is why, or how; spontaneity is required to satisfy the muse. In the best situation there is no control over the creative process. To believe that this flow is uninfluenced by the past is naive. Every note has already been sung, every color has been used and all the brushstrokes on all of the canvasses and the thickness and depth of color are repeated. If you have creativity in you, it has necessarily been awake long before you were aware of it. All of your senses feed it and your soul feeds on it. And over your lifetime you have been building its reservoir. Then, when you are called and you begin to look at the blank page, your soul takes its cue and opens the doors to these hidden stores of power. You only see your fingers on the keyboard or the brush in your hand, but your soul feels every painting and every melody that has ever moved you. It is the melding of these and the touch of your heart on them that makes them unique. A million strokes or a thousand tones are heated in your core and the resulting alchemy changes this mix of worn phrases into a suddenly unique and fresh expression, the likes of which cannot ever be duplicated.”

I understand that these paragraphs are not statements of policy, rather they are philosophical digression. But you get the idea. Don’t sweat it too much. If you’re not cutting and pasting, and you’re aware of what you’re typing (if there are no alarms going off) you’re going to be just fine. 

Find a Mentor

You don’t know enough to do this properly. Get over it. Until you enter into a relationship with an editor, you need something. Wherever you are on your own journey there is always room for a helping hand. Maybe there are people out there who can just sit down and type an earth shaking piece of literature, but I doubt that’s you. It’s not me. Also – there is a shit-load of advice out there in print, blog, podcast, e-book —Jesus, it’s everywhere —and it’s very difficult to sift through it and find the pieces that suit you. You can’t be sure of what you’re missing. The polished expertise of a professional applied to your existing product is invaluable.

My mentor was Gail Anderson Dargatz. That was five years ago and not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for her encouragement and her acumen. She was able to direct me perfectly. I can’t distill it any further than that. 

I have also been fortunate enough to work with Olive Senior as part of the program offered by the Humber School for Writers.

Some of the finest writers this country has to offer provide support for emerging talent as part of their commitment to the craft. Too many to mention here, but you get my drift. Find some encouragement and help. You will never regret it.

 

Word Counts

The process of writing is not what I expected. It’s not what you expect either. I’ve had people comment that the idea of a word count seems the opposite of creativity, and I know where they are coming from. I felt that idea too (I still do sometimes). But it’s just not valid. Not for Literary Fiction. 

Until I understood the idea that quantity equals quality in my writing world I was at odds, trying to force instant quality. I spent a lot of time editing and thinking and revising in order to make sure the sentence I was producing was valid. Wrong. That stopped me from making progress. And it was only once I turned it around that I began to produce enough quantity to be able to pick out the quality, alter the rest and look back at a thirty thousand word change in product. 

When you commit to typing a thousand words a day you allow the flow to exist. That’s the center of the truth. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and consciously construct an end product word for word. I have to begin typing an idea, sometimes sentences, sometimes dialogue, sometimes description, sometimes point form —you get the drift —and out of that thousand words, without fail —I will find nine hundred fifty that fit, provide forward motion, and genuinely contribute to the idea I had in mind. That is the muse. I’m not the thinker, although it’s my mind that’s thinking. I am a typist and what’s coming out is a distillation and a force feeding of everything I’ve experienced pushed by the necessity of attaining one thousand words. It’s never failed me. Not once. It seems magical. I feels magical. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s true  —there is magic working here and you just have to acknowledge that, believe in it and type. It won’t be long until you understand it as solid truth. Also, it will never be easy to explain that to another human being. 

 

Keep a Journal

It’s imperative that you are able to capture the whims of the muse. You know what I’m talking about. Keep a notepad, a pen, become friendly with your notepad app, or always, always have your laptop with you. It’s an absolute necessity to have something on hand with which you can capture that idea, vista, nuance, or solid understanding flashing through your mind. If you don’t do this, you will lose too much. It will vaporize. Again, it is imperative.

 

Tools

As long as you don’t find yourself playing with, or polishing your tools instead of writing (ask me how I know), whatever you’re comfortable with is going to work just fine.

I use scrivener as my main writing tool, on PC and on my iPhone (the app is perfect for journaling and noting quick ideas). All files are shared to a Dropbox account, synced and backed up locally. There is a learning curve to the software, but in my opinion it’s worth it in flexibility and sharing capabilities. I can hit any file from anywhere, any time. I won’t get into methodology —unless you email and ask me. I will then bend your ear. I love it. It’s so good.

In any event, you need to make it easy for you to forget the tool and let the writing happen. So, again —what ever does that for you is fine.

Resources

If you engage the services of a mentor, you will likely be asked to purchase some of their preferred pieces of resource material. Above and beyond that —most writers find it comforting and helpful to have some favorites around as motivational tools —works designed to provide gentle encouragement or ideas when you’re in a tough spot. 

There are thousands of similar books out there.  These are my favorites:

On Writer’s Block by Victoria Nelson

This piece is subtitled ‘A New Approach to Creativity.’ This is where the gold is. It describes a different way of looking at yourself and your output. Don’t let the ‘Writer’s Block’ title scare you. This is a wonderful resource.

Henry Miller on Writing

This thing is a bible for those committed to the idea that writing is a pass-time near to God. I love this book.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Lovely and lyrical. Forgiving —effortless and juicy. 

Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

The best collection of stories about trying, persistence and joy. And some great rules to live by.

 

You do You

There is a dichotomy floating around out there and it’s going to slap you. The first part is the idea that you need to follow these rules explicitly, the second is that you must at all times do what you think is best for the idea you’re developing. It’s a miasma of ego, hope, fear, mommy issues and rebellion. I can’t help you with it. 

However, here is one of my favorite quotes – I keep this on my desktop as a sticky note; 

A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as the principal reward.*

*The Elements of Style A.P. Lambert

 

Those who can’t do, teach.

Obviously this is an opinion which seems at odds with my experience in being mentored. Let me elaborate; if you spend all your time browsing Medium, or this or that writers group, and bookmarking ‘how to’s’ about writing, styles, sure-fire shortcuts, etc., you will never actually write. Being unable to go forward because you need validation for the particular piece you’re stuck on can’t be solved by adding six more opinions to it. Keep writing. Go forward. Get another weeks worth of words down and see if it doesn’t solve itself. And then get a mentor. 

Above all, enjoy writing. Stay focused on the rewards and write through the rest.