Saturday, October 13, 2012

Digesting writing

13th October 2012

The slender cottonwoods in my garden that take up the foreground of this view from my window are slowly denuding themselves. A crowd of smaller trees by the wall never got the memo and are still in coats of orange. But the clouds are low today, touching the hills with a lace of fog, as though the day has forgotten to wake up. The hours pass slowly on the grandfather clock downstairs, and I spend my day in a no-man's land between waking and sleeping. Der Tag will nicht erwachen.
Someone once gifted me what must have been a ten-year subscription to Writers' Digest magazine, so I flick through it when it arrives. I brew a steaming cup of tea and sit in the corner of my couch musing over its titles and advice.
One thing that comes up repeatedly, and not just in this publication, but wherever writer's discuss writerly things, is advice for aspiring writers. I went to a book launch lately where this was asked and the author said that the only qualification for being a writer was that you write.  I spent a good ten years of my life attending and eventually chairing a writer's group, and I can't whole heartedly endorse that sentiment. I certainly wouldn't like to go to a doctor whose only qualification was that they practiced medecine. I would want to think that they had made their gruelling way through medical school. Not that I am proposing every writer should run off and join an MFA programme. Far from it. But writing is a craft, something that most writers put in their thousand hours over, something that you learn brick by brick along the way, and nothing that an education in literature or writing will necessarily furnish you with.
My first forays into creative writing produced nothing that would give anybody else any joy or sense of accomplishment. I had mostly been involved in academic writing in what was then my short life, and my writing style was dense enough you had to pry every sentence from the next and from the paragraph as a whole with an exacto knife. In short, although the images were quite nice, nothing flowed. It was like handing a hungry restaurant patron a piece of overcooked steak. Still steak, still full of protein, but not exactly palatable.
It took years and years, for me to find the button that had "Let Go," printed on it in fine print. It was hiding all the while somewhere under the breastbone, but I didn't know that for a long time, certainly not at the beginning when I was trying so hard to be a writer. I had a few principles back then, all of which eventually had to be tossed, and one that said, "Writing in the first person is a cop-out."  For me, finding that let-go button had to do in part with allowing myself the freedom to write in whatever voice came naturally. That turned out to be the first person, and just that little allowance unleashed a flood of creativity and gave me new channels to pour it into. (Aside: I still sort of believe that principle, so I'd like to get back to writing in the third person, but I'm not holding on to it in a death grip. It's more of a musing now.)
So, are you are a writer because you write? Are you a painter because you paint? Modern art says Yes. I want to say there is a whole lot more to it than that, something you'll discover if you commit to the craft and are open to learning it along the way.
I started this blog with the idea of giving a few guiding principles to aspring writers, but I've run out of space, and I'll do that next week. But for one to go on, you can't do better than the advice to write routinely and keep at it. It won't make you a writer right away, but it is to writing what a restaurant is to a cook. It's a very good place to start.

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