Monday, January 14, 2008

So you want to write? Then write! Let's go!

This article is meant to be about you and how to get you started down the literary path, but perhaps I should tell you first why I think I can help you. I taught high school English for 25 years, helping students not only improve their writing but also develop a love for good literature. It was hard for them to believe that the authors of the works in their anthologies were at one point living, breathing people. When my first book, a young adult historical novel about the underground railroad, was accepted for publication, the call came into the classroom while I was leading a group of ninth graders who qualified as reluctant learners. To my surprise, when I told them my book was going to be published, they burst into applause. Here was an author standing in front of them. Not just a name in black letters on a white page, but a real person, someone they knew. It was a defining moment for me. For the rest of the year, not only did I have these students' attention, but I became committed to writing and to trying to get published again and again.

To improve my writing technique, I enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College with a focus on fiction. During the two-year program, I worked with four instructors who looked closely at my work and gave me individual feedback. One of those mentors was author Sena Jeter Naslund. She must have seen something in my writing and in my workshop comments because she confided that she was going to start her own MFA program in Louisville and asked me if I would serve on the faculty. I didn't have to think long about my answer.

When Sena was ready to launch the Spalding University MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, she gave me a call. I took early retirement from teaching and began mentoring adult students in fiction and writing for children. And the longer I work with writing students, the more I learn about writing. So, let me give you some tips that might help you improve your writing.

First, writing goes hand-in-hand with reading. Ask your local librarian for tips about good literary books to read. Librarians love it when you ask about books because they became librarians because they love books, so don't be shy about approaching a librarian.. Start with the classics, like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Garcia-Marquez, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, O'Connor, Cather and Wharton. Join a book group so you'll have someone to talk with about what you read. As you read, ask yourself questions about the main character. What is her desire? What stands in the way of fulfilling that desire? What conflicts does she face, and are they outside of her power or within herself? How does she go about getting what she wants? Does she succeed? What does she learn by the end?

Also pay attention to the passages in the books that you particularly like. Are they action or reflection? Are they simple phrases or long, looping sentences? Or is it the dialog that attracts you and what is it about the dialog that you like? It's a good idea to buy an inexpensive copy of these books so you can write in the margins and highlight passages that you want to come back to. Maybe you'll want to read a book twice, once for the story and a second time to study the story's structure and the author's techniques. Read as much
as you can. Listen to books on CD when you're driving in the car. Think about where your mind drifts away and when you're caught up closely in a scene. Make a list of books you like and books you don't. Read more titles by the authors you like and get to know their style. Lots of writers even copy passages from good books so they can "feel" the words as they flow through the pen onto paper. I like to read passages aloud so I can taste the words and experience the breath it takes to say them.

And read books about writing, like Ann Lamotte's Bird By Bird or Betsy Lerner's The Forest For the Trees or Stephen King's On Writing. For inspiration, I turn to Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which was first published in the 1930s, although there are more recent editions. You'll find a whole section of books related to writing in your local bookstore. Browse and see what catches your eye.

Second, get writing. If you want to write, you must write. Flaubert wrote only a paragraph a day, but it was one fine paragraph. When I'm writing a novel, I force myself to write two pages a day, double-spaced. Some days two pages doesn't seem like much and I'll write five or even ten pages on that good day. On other days, two pages takes hours and hours and at the end of the day I feel as if I've given a quart of blood. Some days those two pages are pretty darn good, and other days they are nothing but drivel. On days when I can't stand my own story (and those days happen often), I write in a journal about the weather or what happened at the gym or what I had for breakfast.

I have a dozen friends who started out wanting to write, gave it a shot, and quit. That's tragic because if you want someone to read what you have written, you must have written something. As I have said, if you want to write, you must write. And if you must write, you must also be willing to plant your bottom on a horizontal surface for long periods of time. Without the television on. Without people talking to you. And, for me, without music blasting (although I know lots of writers who like instrumental music while they write).

Try writing in a variety of places. I have one writer friend who can only begin a new story if she is wearing her fuzzy pink bathrobe while sitting on her green couch with a dozen sharpened pencils and a brand new pad of yellow legal paper. And a cup of tea. Or a pot of tea. Some people like to write in the kitchen, where they can be near food. Writing and snacks make a nice pairing. Other lucky writers have an office or a studio all their own, and they write there. If I'm writing something new, I like to take pen and paper to the mall or to the airport or the train station where I can see people and hear snippets of conversation and look at what people are wearing and how they struggle with the ATM machine and watch how they scratch their noses or jiggle a crossed leg. Sometimes I go for a long walk with a voice-activated tape recorder and "talk" my story out. The rhythm of my pace on the dirt road helps me get a cadence, especially in dialog. But the editing takes place at home in total quiet in my writing loft. Find a place that works for you. Make sure it's a comfortable place because, as I have said, you should be there for a very long time.

Okay, that's a start for now. I'll give you more tips in the next blog. Good luck, and good writing!

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