Attitude Is (Almost) Everything

I believe there are three personas within the heart of a writer.

There is the naysayer, that self-defeating persona who tears at the bold fabric of the writer as he tries to work.  Buried deep in our psyche this persona looms like an impassible mountain between us and our writing goals, blotting out the sky and threatening to crush our writer-lives with great, hurling stones.

Then there is plain old “us” who is also “just me” or “just you” – simply, “I.”  This persona is what your friends, your parents, and your siblings know as “you.”  This “I” is not the person of literary success.  This persona is everything and anything but success, and when the writer sits down to work in this persona she will find herself faced with the cold realization that she, just “Jane,” is about to engage in the mammoth effort of writing while being pitted against the far more experienced and insidious naysayer.  The “I” tends to think they are nobody and must therefore have nothing to say.  The “I” believes in turn that their writing should not strive to achieve too much since “I” was never meant for great things.

Sound at all familiar?

But there is a third persona, a pale ghost at the edge of the writer’s ego waving a firearm and gazing with fiery eyes from under the broad brim of a black hat.  This is the edgy rocker persona, the fighter, the drunk, the damsel with a dagger strapped to her thigh.  This is the persona which finds no barriers, but passes through criticisms and doubts as through a cloud bank, emerging on the other side with their health and confidence intact because, after all, they are in command, fully informed of the agenda and armed to accomplish the job.  This is the persona that slaps down the naysayer and champions the “I.”  This warrior lives inside every creative person, waiting to step up and nail this writing thing once and for all, and I say it’s about time to give him the job.

The first thing to do in awakening the bold persona is to realize that writing is a performance.  Like an actor or musician (and the same is true for other artists) writing is a performance comprised of wild, beautiful, audacious expressions intended to entertain and engage an audience.  By allowing your writer ego to bloom into the brash star of the moment “you” are suddenly free of the inhibitions that may be slowing down your story-telling ability.  No longer fearful of what your mother will think, or shy about discussing dangerous things for fear of appearing naughty, your bold persona takes on the accountability for all of it.  The naysayer is vanquished, and the timid self is excused so that the rock opera can go on.

The next step in developing the writer persona is to take on an image for yourself in real life.  Dress, act, talk, and think like an artist.  Be the person you feel like when you write, and tell the stories you really want to tell.  Do not be pretentious or false, of course, but do something to remind yourself constantly that you are a unique, creative person and a craftsman in the language arts.  Your writing material will benefit from the honesty developed in the freedom of being true.  By fostering an image as a writer you will build confidence and a sense of accountability.  By striving to honor your own voice and image you will naturally push harder in your work, and the result will be improved writing.  The work you produce under the bold persona will be something “you” will be proud to share, and which the naysayer cannot undermine.

So get an attitude, dress it up, and infuse your mind with the bold ideas and stories you want to tell.  Believe that you have it, and hold on to that belief as if everything depends on it – because in a way it does.  “You” need a champion for your writing, and until “you” align yourself with a brash, even reckless hero devised from within your own soul it will always, otherwise, be plain old “you” versus the naysayer.

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Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups

We’ve all been told that writing is a solitary activity.  Writers must be left alone to able to concentrate, to hear and see and feel their words, so that their stories can  be told.  Writers are known to hole-up, disappear, hide away.  For many of us this becomes a preferred existence.  Cut off from distraction we are free to revel in our work and make some gains on the craft we have doggedly pursued for so many years.

But there is a very public aspect to the writing experience as well.  Writers do not typically write for absolutely no audience, even if that audience is imaginary and never actually sees the work.  Furthermore, we tend to talk about our writing, we tell people we write, and when we do those people become curious.  They sometimes want to see what we’ve written.  We climb out of a shell and think about the bigger world around us and where our writing fits.  We may begin to desire companionship with other writers.  We consider taking a writing class or joining a writers group.  But then we ask ourselves whether this is wise.  Should we risk exposing ourselves to other writers?

There are some very serious considerations a writer should make before joining any writing community.  Whether in the class room or a private home, writer’s groups tend to follow all of the normal rules of social interaction: the group looks for a leader, guidelines are established for how the meetings will be run, how materials will be shared, and duties assigned.  Very quickly a homogeneous community is established, with an energy and personality all its own.  A hierarchy is formed, and those more advanced along the writing path become the darlings of the community, egos inflate and are sometimes crushed, and a style emerges comprised of the attitudes, preferences, and opinions of the group.  This is especially dangerous in the class room where the instructor has great influence on the minds of her students.  As writing students become familiar with the instructor’s likes and dislikes in the wider literary milieu they will often attempt to cater their style to the professor’s tastes.  There are few environments more dangerous to creative spirit, in fact, than the academic setting.  Creative writing professors themselves are often frustrated writers, and that frustration can be unwittingly taken out on the student.

Further hazards of the writing group include the general aptitude of the writers themselves.  In the attempt to form a successful writers group novice writers of more or less the same level of skill can create for themselves a perpetuating quagmire of mediocrity.   The members, being unfamiliar with the tools and importance of good critique, may offer little that is concrete, praising too much in their naive generosity and failing ultimately to provide concrete guidance to themselves or anyone else.  Occasionally, in an effort to be helpful, one member may be overly harsh in their critique, and then the spirit of the gathering becomes tarnished.  Without the benefit of a more seasoned writer whom everyone trusts, the group may falter or, worse, go on perpetuating mediocrity and inhibiting the growth of any member who is earnestly seeking to develop otherwise.

Still, in recognizing that writing is, after all, a social activity, there are at least as many reasons to join writing groups as there are to avoid them.

Writers need feedback, plain and simple.  The most difficult thing next to writing itself is the ability to see clearly what one has written.  Having a trusted and intimate audience to share with is invaluable so long as the writer can get viable criticism of the sort that engenders real growth.  To this end the writer seeking a group must select wisely.  Those experienced with writing groups generally agree that there needs to be a “fit” between a new candidate and an established group, and this is no less true of a completely new group of writers joining together for the first time.  By “knowing thyself” a writer will be able to determine whether they are in the right position to benefit from joining any given group.

When considering creative writing classes, everything depends upon the instructor, but bear in mind that, so long as the student writer does not take the whole thing too seriously, there is always something to learn in these courses.  For one thing the student writer is very likely to read stories they have never before read.  The classroom is also a place to experiment with different genres, techniques, and a great place as well to learn how to properly critique.

The reality of writer collectives persists in every format.  There is good and bad, risk and reward.  By guarding against the danger of drinking too deeply from the personality of the group, a novice writer benefits from having an immediate audience with which to share their work and receive critique, as well as a place to take risks and overcome fears of “getting out there.”  Even a limited environment can be beneficial to the novice because it gets things going.  The accountability of deadlines, assignments, an expectant audience, and a regular schedule provides discipline – the most valuable tool of the beginner – so that the deeper growth of voice and style can occur.

So long as the writer can develop some level of self-trust, to know what to take and what to leave out in the criticism (and praise) of others, spending time in a writer’s group can be greatly beneficial.

Diversify Your Writing!

This is a call for writers everywhere.  Break away from your genre and write it all.

I imagine the idea of branching into an unfamiliar genre is intimidating, daunting, or perhaps completely uninspiring.  After all it takes so much time and effort to write what you know the best – why would you spend a single moment on anything else?  I’ll tell you why.

Poetry:

What are the fundamental characteristics of verse?  It has clear pacing, a musical quality, sometimes it rhymes or alliterates, and a lot of people are terrified of it in college.  Even this much knowledge hints at valuable lessons for the prose writer.  By first studying , and then attempting to write poetry, the prose writer is opened to concepts that the novice is at best subconsciously aware of, namely pacing and the specifics of vocabulary.  In prose it’s much easier, and therefor far too common, to use tired language.  This is due in part to the novice writer’s idea that prose is easy, and that its direct style does not require as much attention as some of the other writing forms.  Poetry, meanwhile, lives and dies by its rhythms and the specificity of the language.  By practicing this highly ornate form the prose writer is awakened to possibilities in story writing that are often dismissed as white noise in the back of our minds.  But pace, rhythm, even the more ornamental qualities of poetry work very well, and indeed are required, in prose.  Poetry raises our awareness of these elements and can ultimately lead to better prose writing.

Drama:

Drama and fiction (short stories and novels) have a lot in common.  They both portray fictional or semi-fictional characters in a conflict-driven situation.  For the dramatist the keys are setting, stage direction and dialogue.  Dialogue is what carries the story in drama, and that story is brought to life as the actors move throughout the stage setting, thereby communicating vital information to the audience.  In thinking about these details in play writing, the prose writer is brought more acutely to an awareness of their importance.  Though different in their treatments, the tools of drama are just as prevalent in prose.  By working through the process of writing (and perhaps performing) a play, the prose writer learns to pay more attention in their fiction writing to the details that make the story come alive.  The imperative that a play accomplish its task successfully in front of a live audience should be no more urgent for the playwright than it is for the fiction writer whose audience is silent, though no less deserving of a responsible performance.  The playwright suffers the risk of being booed or seeing her audience abandon the theater if her work is sub-par.  For the fiction writer there is only rejection and silence, and often no understanding of why.  Writing a stage-play, therefore, is one way of becoming more attuned to what is necessary in all writing – proper detail.

Non-fiction:

Non-fiction, whether journalistic or creative, requires of its scribes that they do thorough and proper research.  Even a simple opinion piece is best served if the author knows all of his facts before carrying on with his diatribe.  A single misquote of a fact or citation diminishes the writer’s credibility .  For the fiction writer the message is clear.  Even the most obscure piece often needs a little research into something – the foundations of mythology, or the ancient traditions of religion, the laws of physics, the laws of man.  In order for the story to be believable it must have not only the pacing and lyricism of poetry and the definitive descriptions and dialogue of drama, but it must be as factually accurate as required in order that the writer maintain credibility in telling his story.

And the non-fiction writer benefits as well from practicing the creative angles of fiction.  Fiction pays attention to deeper meanings, makes connections to seemingly disparate concepts, and makes prose more lively so long as the writer is diligent in avoiding cliches and amateur trickery.  All but the most practical non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction if the writer understands how to tell a story.

The one caveat for the diversified writer is this – each discipline requires its own investment.  The differences of each are substantial and require separate study of form and function before they can be harvested.  The good news is that each form can be studied fairly quickly if writing basics are well understood.  On the other hand it takes a long time to master writing in any one form.  I believe, however, that consistent, earnest writing in a variety of forms develops an overall mastery of the craft, and that writers willing to delve into other types of writing not only enhance their growth but attain aptitude in new forms at a faster pace, and to the great success of all of their efforts.

So the challenge is laid out: move beyond writing fiction to poetry, drama, non-fiction.  Master the language and the art of writing so that no door is closed to you.  There is everything to gain and nothing (but a little time invested) to lose.  In writing across genres the genuine student of writing becomes doubly, even triply informed, reinforced in those basic elements that make up the writing practice while expanding into the unique characteristics of various writing types.

Why Do We Write? – Reasons we should (and reasons we should not)

Comedian Jim Carrey is alleged to have said “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”  This message crossed my cosmic bow twice this week, and it got me thinking (again) about what I am seeking by being a writer.

There are many questionable reasons to write: for publication, money, fame, attention.  When I was first exploring the true calling to a write twenty-some years ago the only discussions of fame and wealth had to do with the unlikelihood that it would ever happen.  Back then writers needed a different reason to write than “worldly” success.

Today it seems everywhere you look the expectation writers have of themselves is nothing short of Harry Potter success.  Agents, publishers, friends, and family all await the next break through, the paycheck, the movie deal.    Agents and publishers wade through thousands of new manuscripts per week, encouraging writers to send, send, send!  The upshot of this fervor is that the writer starts to believe that the end result of writing is some sort of celebrity award.  Meanwhile agents and editors wade through a mountain of slough just to find the things they can make money off of, with the question of quality being secondary to marketability.

Along the way the average writer churns out pages upon pages, hoping something will “take,” fighting despair, loneliness, rejection – all the while overlooking the joy of writing, the subtle relief in a good day’s work that is really one of the few true rewards of the craft.  By raging through the doubt and self-criticism, eyeing the volumes of publication opportunities, the dream of landing an agent, of getting a contract, of owning a yacht, the human being struggling to salve their inner need to write is stomping on the spirit of true creativity.  By putting anything before the writing itself, the writer distracted by the need of other things is most likely destined to fail.

There are a number of reasons to write that align themselves more to the spirit of the craft and to which the serious writer should aspire if they are going to enjoy the process as it perhaps should be.

The first reason to write is because we have the freedom to do so.  I once worked with a woman who was from China.  She apparently had quite a talent for writing and began to get noticed as a young woman for the power of her prose.  In short order she became a target of the State, however, ultimately having to leave her home country because the political structure of her homeland was not forgiving of her ideas.  She was not afforded the freedom to express within the culture that gave her a voice, and she had to escape to survive.  She has since dissolved into obscurity and is allowed to visit China to see family from time to time, but if she still writes she keeps her thoughts to herself.

Beyond political freedom the creative must also have their basic needs taken care of: food, shelter, good health.  Creatives have a much harder time working at their craft when they are worried about eating.  Imagine the millions of people around the world who do not have their needs sufficiently met.  Who knows what we have lost as a species because of poverty.

The second reason to write is simply to answer the call.  Creatives of all types are driven by the inner need to express themselves.  All human beings have this trait, though for the artist the need is as intense as any emotion.  Of course, the call can be suppressed, and for many people it is, but there is a price for cutting ourselves off from this desire to write – it leaves a dull ache in our spirit that at best becomes a disappointment which occasionally visits like a ghost, reminding us of our sin and chastising our neglect.  By honoring the call we are satisfying the only thing that really matters – the act of writing.

Finally, writers have a desire to share.  The adage that one must write for oneself is often misinterpreted.  What is meant is that writers must be honest about the subjects they write about, must tell the truth and tell it in the most interesting way they can.  Writers must stay true to their vision and say what matters to them most.  This does not mean the writing should not be shared.  Publication in itself is not a bad pursuit – if the purpose is to share.  Whether one gets paid or not, or gains attention, even fame, is beside the point.  Any monetary gain or recognition is simply a byproduct of an honest effort.

When I chanced across the words of Jim Carrey this week I paused and really considered why I spend so much time writing.  There is no denying that I derive joy from an enthusiastic response to my work, a thrill from sending something off for publication.  For a long time I thought I wanted fame and riches from writing, and I still desire to succeed enough that I can continue to write full time for a living – but because I love writing, and I’m fond of living – not to achieve the big nothing of fame and the headache of nasty riches.  If I never make much money from writing I don’t mind.  It’s a privilege just to have the time, the means, and the freedom to write.  As long as I have those things I know I am also able to eat, to stay warm, and that I am hopefully healthy.  After that the onus is on me to write as well as I know how, share it as I may, and to be at peace with the results as they come.  The real reward, after all, comes long before anyone else reads the final product.  The real reward comes in completing the thing in the first place, and in being satisfied with what has been done.