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On Becoming a Writer

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.
“Talent is interest applied.” —Bob Ross
Writers write because we must, but why we must is always a story in itself.

I started writing when I was eighteen—mostly poetry, mostly about unrequited love for a dark-haired girl who danced ballet and never did properly break my heart (sorry for the cliché; it’s just the truth). Years prior, my mother left me, which has plenty to do with unrequited love and unresolved emotions finding their way onto paper. Feeling unloved and misunderstood are recurring themes in my work because those things have been my life. I reckon that if you’re serious about writing, you’ve got your own well of recurring themes you draw from.

I was good at poetry. I liked what I wrote and so did other people. Some of these people were terribly encouraging and I’m strengthened by their words to this day. The counsel of community was pivotal to my early growth, but the truly helpful critics were few and far between. These people were naturally talented and disciplined about their crafts and thus worth listening to. It is generally unprofitable to listen to sycophants, who are often more serious about giving and receiving praise rather than critical insight. It is difficult yet essential for those young to writing to learn to discern insight from foolishness.

I write this essay because I’ve learned lessons I believe are worth sharing. I’ve learned them over fifteen years of concerted, serious writing, consistent involvement in both sides of critiquing, the composition of somewhere between two and four books depending on how you slice it, eighteen months writing articles for a geek culture website, and a long stint reading and editing doctoral dissertations, master’s theses, and college freshmen’s papers—which I liken to a form of punishment in one of the lower rings of Dante’s inferno. My academic disciplines are religion and history, but I write and edit professionally because I’ve invested in that skill tree and there are no openings at the local religion and history factory…though I live in Utah and there are fewer places in the U.S. where that might seriously be a thing.

Consider this my first piece of advice: much of my wisdom has been gleaned through hardship, as will much of yours. My second is this: wise people learn from the mistakes of others without making them themselves.

This essay mostly deals with motivation—why we start and keep writing—though I touch on a couple areas of craft I find particularly salient for those young to writing. Regardless of your medium, genre, or aspirations, I believe the following are principles we all must learn and relearn as we grow into our roles as writers and as writing becomes more and more a part of who we are.

THE FOOL’S ERRAND

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.” —Anais Nin
If you begin writing because you want to be paid for it and you are not pursuing serious journalism, technical writing, or professional editing, Mr. T and I pity you.

It is the rare poet who earns a paycheck from poetry rather than from their adjunct teaching and barista gigs. For storytellers of both fiction and nonfiction, it will take much time and mettle to find an agent who believes your book can sell, let alone turn a notable profit. Writing contests are more about notoriety than profit. You can self-publish, but success in that realm is uniquely evasive and is largely dependent upon mastery of SEO and the social media flavor of the hour.

If you write for a long time, with dogged insistence, and within a marketable genre, you can quite possibly make money writing books. But why have you started? Origin points and endpoints alike influence a line’s trajectory—the line, here, being your writing journey. I believe all serious writers’ ultimate motivation should be instinctive and that the “why” of writing is a question to be revisited regularly. The question’s answer, like a sculpture, gains clarity and form over time. By the end, that answer may look quite different from how it once did. I don’t liken this to selling out, but to buying in more fully and knowledgeably.

If money is your creative North Star, go develop an app, grow it, and sell it to Google or Apple, as this will cost you less time and frustration than mastering writing will. Our culture has little use for real writing, a truism far more relevant in our Instagram era than when Anais Nin first penned the quote above.

Those who are not true writers won’t be able to stop themselves from quitting while they’re ahead. Growing as a serious writer is too difficult and, often, too disappointing a venture for those who are not willing to endure.

WRITING TO TASTE

“The fundamental elements of a story’s structure are proportion and order. Managing proportion is the art of making some things big and other things little: of creating foreground and background; of making readers feel the relative importance of characters, events, and ideas. Often this means upsetting normal expectations by finding a superficially trivial detail or moment that, on closer examination, resonates with meaning.” —Tracy Kidder
I’m Italian on my mother’s side, and I was raised in kitchens—big kitchens full of tan-skinned, curly-haired urbanites milling about with cups of cheap, red wine, reciting tired aphorisms about distant cousins I’d never met. My grandmother’s mother ran a diner in New York City (the line stretched around the block at Thanksgiving time) and my grandfather drove a coffee truck on Long Island and later owned a breakfast joint in Florida. Cooking is in my blood.

“Seasoning to taste” is a fundamental skill in cooking. With too little seasoning, a meal is bland. With too much, it is unpalatable. Using salt and acidity, chefs achieve flavor equilibrium by revealing or subduing the flavors of the main ingredients. This is not merely about determining proportions by following a recipe. Written recipes are foundational for not botching a meal, but good changes to written recipes are a matter of instinct; to make good changes, we must know what tastes good. Cookbooks and food blogs can’t teach us this, only our tongues can.

Proportion and order (“order” here refers to “timing” or “sequence of events”) explain why we don’t show our characters using the bathroom, sleeping, or eating without those things being tied to a substantial plot or character development. All stories necessarily include and exclude information depending on the goals of the author for the intended audience. If, for example, the narrative goal is to juxtapose the “normal world” with portent conflict, a portraiture of the protagonist’s boring life is helpful—think Luke Skywalker doing farm work before Star Wars really gets going, or Kote meticulously cleaning the Waystone Inn in The Name of the Wind before Chronicler’s arrival. Both of these stories leverage mundanity by juxtaposing them with portent conflict.

In plotting, writers must address how and why some moments are leveraged while others are deemphasized or left out altogether. This is why scenes must propel the story forward and why characters and events must “turn.” I don’t mean to imply that the plot must always truck on in every scene or that prose writer must be what Stephen King calls “literary short-order cooks” with all sizzle and no steak. If a scene reveals character, even couched in mundanity, it will turn. But a proper meal—your story—should not have irrelevant ingredients. That is what Chekhov’s Gun is all about. Writers should not deal in unkept narrative promises.

For speculative fiction writers—I’m looking at you worldbuilding fantasists—these principles of proportion and order illustrate why “info-dumping” is bad form and why we should “write to taste.” When we “season to taste” in cooking, we season as we go along to achieve a pleasing balance of flavors. The more ingredients we add, the more we must adjust our seasoning (sometimes by intentionally not adding more) to bring the whole into focus. If we pitch in a fistful of salt up front then pile the main ingredients on top, imbalance most likely results. Writing novels is like this. Asking a reader to slog through a worldbuilding primer disguised as a prologue before they get to the plot is like asking them to eat a fistful of salt. Knowledge apart from context is white noise. Readers might—might—care to read your index of made-up terms after they’re invested in your story; not before.

As a chef learns to discover flavor balance, so, too, must a writer develop the instinct of balancing proportion and order through their own storytelling and through exploring great stories that do this well. Leave out what doesn’t belong and be thoughtful about what does.

EAT KITSCH AND DIE

“Develop taste.” —Ben Stahl
The thing about Italian cooking is that its quality is largely dependent on its ingredients. It’s not as complex as French cooking. It’s about good tomatoes, good olive oil, good meat, good cheese. It is, in many ways, an exercise in the mastery of quality fundamentals. If writing is like cooking, then you are what you eat. To grow as a writer, you must gain a sense of what is healthy, what is unhealthy, and why.

Kitsch is corny, overly-sentimental art and literature. It is art that “tries too hard.” If you’ve ever picked up a coffee mug at a thrift store, chuckled at the one-liner embossed on it, then put it down without a second thought, you have a visual metaphor for what kitsch is. If excellent work can be likened to a healthy diet, then kitsch can be likened to an unhealthy, sugary one—that quick jolt of energy that burns fast and leaves you exhausted in its wake; not good if you’re trying to shed fat and build muscle.

The essence of kitsch is not that the elite have judged it to be lowbrow. The essence of kitsch is that it is imitative and co-dependent. It’s the difference between getting the answers to the math problems from the back of the book for the homework assignment and actually learning to solve the formula to pass the test.

Kitsch in literature is popular appeal for popular appeal’s sake. It cannot endure because it’s built on shifting sands—like that thrift store mug. It is most strongly tethered to its cultural context, namely the original work whose coattails it’s riding, and its relevance will continually diminish until it completely fades.

For our purposes, the question of kitsch is really the question of motivation. What are your literary goals? Do you primarily want to sell books and you are not terribly concerned with having a literary legacy? You can write popular-level work, and that’s okay. What matters is how you define success. However you define it, you must know why you define it this way and what you intend to do about it.

If success, to you, is about literary insight and building a lasting legacy as a writer and commentator, you must develop a taste for healthy writing. You do this by consuming good work. What are the best books in your genres from the past five years? Read a few of them. What are the classics? Familiarize yourself. What have the prolific authors of the past century said about the craft of writing? Read their essays, and if they have written a treatise on writing, pick it up. Practice poetry. Learn to economize words. Broaden your vocabulary.

Read working, professional journalists. Journalists must write quickly, efficiently, and enticingly. They work with live stories and must transform ordinary details into extraordinary ones. The realm of the journalist is the realm of making things interesting—fast! Many novelists could learn from quality journalism.

Developing taste is not only a matter of ingesting what others tell us is good for us, though that’s a crucial step. Developing taste is also about learning to articulate for ourselves what moves us. It’s about determining why we like this film rather than that one. People who have taste know what they like and why, and they don’t just copy what they like; they learn how it works and adapt it for their purposes. Taste is a fundament of developing your own style and literary voice—the inimitable qualities of the serious writer. Voice cannot be taught, only carved out over time.

We need to know what it is we’re trying to write and why. My suggestion is that you recognize your goals and work your hardest to avoid derivation. You have to discern what is healthy to eat by developing taste. Your “diet” must fit your goals.

ON BEING READ

“Having someone to believe in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” —Stephen King
Writers write because we must, not because someone asked or forced us to. Our interest may have been sparked by a school assignment or secret feelings for a person destined not to love us back, but the spark became a fire all its own. There are too many lonely, late nights, too many afternoons wrapped up in silence, too much “real” work left undone, for anything else to be the case. Stephen King also wrote that writing a novel is like crossing the ocean in a bathtub; no one in their right mind would do this lest they were compelled by something instinctive. This instinctiveness is predicated on an internal, self-sustaining motivation to do artistic work despite any and all challenges. We write because we must.

All of this is true, yet words exist to communicate. Every writer must one day bridge the gap between personal artistic fidelity and the meaningful engagement of a wider audience. We all have that first, terrifying moment when we begin “building a bridge” between the world of our heart and the world outside. Usually there is a trustworthy person we hand these nascent words to—fragile reflections of our deep selves that they are. We need the encouragement these confidants provide, but usually they don’t provide much more than an impetus to keep going. If we are to grow, we must eventually recognize our need for kind truth, not kind sentiments.

For me, this came from fellow poets who read my early work—the stuff that poured from me after coming home sore and filthy from the commercial kitchens I worked in—who laid the foundation for the bridge.

Later, it was two good friends, like sisters to me, who knew I had a book in me and watched it grow piece by piece, commenting faithfully on hot-off-the-press chapters for nearly two years; the frame of the bridge went up.

Then it was online critique platforms—Scribophile.com is the best in English—and the handful of fellow writers who read everything I shared, understood the depths of the story, pushed me back when I needed to sit down and shut up, and pushed me forward when I was exhausted by graduate school and the requisite drama of being a Millennial circa 2011. The bridge was complete, and sharing my work became an integral part of my editorial process rather than the deep breath before the plunge.

Two extremes burden the novice writer: unhealthy fragility and unhealthy pride. Maturity demands we outgrow each. Accomplished writers should be neither wieners nor dicks, though we all drift toward one extreme or the other. You are not as bad as you think you are. You are not as good as you think you are. Work hard, refine your craft, and get over yourself.

Instinct is what we all must possess to write faithfully. It is the invisible whip cracking behind us, the itch in our brain that can’t be scratched when we should be asleep because there is work in the morning. The other side of the coin—the people who push us—are those who care about what we do. They’re the ones who see when we’re being true to ourselves and can call us out when we cheat on our instinct with what the business end of writing says is really hot right now.

We all need people who will push us when our instinct falters. People helped us build the bridge, and they help mend it when it starts cracking. Sometimes they are our spouses, family, and friends. Sometimes they come and go, and sometimes they are strangers chasing the same dream. Whoever they are, you must find them if you aspire to be a writer who is read.

All the arts presuppose a degree of solitude for the work to get done, but the work isn’t meant to live in the shadows. Words exist to speak and writers work in the realm of words. The only writers we remember, whose words have impacted us, are those whose words have reached us to be heard. To become a true writer, your words must do the same.

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