I used to love reading about how to write more than I liked to write. While I longed to be a writer, writing was scary. It meant unmasking my own mind, delving into the dark complexities of my subconscious, my childhood wounds, my fears of rejection, and other traits I preferred to deny.
Chronically blocked, I was constantly looking for the how-to-write book that would catapult me into creative bliss. My book shelf was packed with inspiring glossy-covered books; however, my inspiration had mostly fizzled by the time I got around to writing.
In my quest I did come across good books I still treasure, such as Characters Make Your Story and Writing Down the Bones. Whenever I found a book I really liked, I wanted to christen the author as my personal mentor, drag her into the next writing session with me and have her tell me everything to do. Yet when I did sit down to write, all I had learned seemed to have abandoned me as I stared at the blank page.
There were other problems with reading about writing. The writers often contradicted each other and themselves. Some were “light editing” advocates who said the first drafts were always better because they were more honest, while other writers said “good writing is rewriting.” (The latter works best for me.)
Some said, “Go out and get some life experiences, then write.” This vague advice was unhelpful and confusing. What did it mean to go out and get life experiences?
The writers usually seemed to have a particular kind of experience in mind, daredevil feats or taking high risk jobs. Did I have to join a circus or become a bar bouncer to have worthy thoughts about what it was like to be human?
The effect of this advice was to discourage me. I fretted about my “experience deficit.” It became yet another excuse for being under- confident. Besides, it took time to join a circus – time I could otherwise be using to write.
The writers generally propounded their opinions with great authority. They discussed rules of craft as if they were inflexible, universal, and definitive.
Ironically, the worst advice I have ever read ultimately taught me one of the most valuable lessons about writing. It taught me in a strange way: by discouraging me completely; by shattering my trust in advice- giving experts; by waking me up. Along with other painful writing experiences, it ultimately made me realize I had to stop looking to others for answers and trust my own mind.
The advice came from a popular writing magazine. In it, a best-selling writer declared that if you are having trouble making yourself write, writing must not be for you; you probably just like the idea of being a writer, not the act of writing itself; if that is the case, he advised, you should go do something else instead, gardening or accounting perhaps, and leave writing to the “real writers” (like him) who could not help themselves.
At the time I was blocked and teetering on the edge of despair; I was heavily sedated with mood stabilizing medication after a severe manic episode had left me in emotional tatters. I already suspected I would never enjoy writing again, yet I was trying my best to write every day anyway; however, “making myself” write under the circumstances was painful.
The advice went to the heart of my worst fear, that I was not a real writer but a dilettante, a starry-eyed poseur with no future in the one activity I longed to do more than anything.
However, I sensed something was wrong with the advice, that it was untrue. I decided to disregard it. I went even further. I stopped reading writing advice.
I remembered that as a child I had enjoyed writing, and I pinned my hopes on those early days before inhibitions had hindered me creatively. Then I did something more exciting than reading about writing: I began writing. A lot. It was the beginning of getting past my block and learning to love writing as I had in my childhood.
I played with words; I made a big mess. I experimented recklessly. I rejoiced when something worked. I learned from what did not. I took notes. I built confidence in my own judgment by writing what I cared about, not what I thought others would like. Most liberating of all, I learned to refrain from judging my writing prematurely.
I avoided writing magazines for over ten years, peeking inside the covers only on very rare occasions. Breaking my hiatus usually confirmed to me that I had made the right choice by going rogue. When I peeked at writing magazines I would put them down after the first few sentences, especially if I saw that the article was about how to cater to agents or editors, and not how to write a powerful story.
I was so happy about my experiment of learning from writing rather than from other writers, I considered never again reading another book or article on writing.
But recently it occurred to me that my reasons for avoiding reading about writing no longer exist. My fear of being discouraged by bad advice is gone. I no longer take to heart anything a professional writer says. I have my own point of view, rooted in experience, and it is not fragile.
Although I feel no urgent need to read about the writing craft, I do remember there were books on writing I once treasured and even loved. Classics like Writing Down the Bones mostly encouraged rather than discouraged me. The book Characters Make Your Story fundamentally changed how I viewed the dynamics of story telling. If I am honest I have to admit that I have not discovered everything on my own. I have been influenced.
Weeks ago I wondered: Why not take advantage of insights other writers have had, whether I agree with them or not? Why not try reading about the craft again, if only to see if it feels any different after writing three novels, three story anthologies, and a book on overcoming block?
So I did something I had not done in many years. I read a book about writing. As it happened, I thoroughly enjoyed it, a fascinating study of archetypes in fiction such as mentors, heroes, and “shape-shifters,” characters who are not what they seem. The book, called The Writer’s Journey is eye-opening and worth reading twice.
Reading about writing was an entirely different experience this time. Though interested, I never ceded my own point of view to that of the author. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I disagreed. Both felt okay.
As I read, my imagination became engaged. The content inspired ideas about what I wanted to do with the novel I was working on, and I wrote them down.
I also picked up a few tips and insights I can use, but now I see them for what they are: tips, not rules.
My past problem was not that bad advice on writing existed, but my dependency on others telling me what to do. I was used to the teacher-student, boss-employee model of instruction.
But that was the wrong way to read writing advice. Now I view it as comparing notes between equals. I view writing principles as tools, not rules. They are meant to be useful; they should empower, not enslave writers.
I do not feel a great need books on how to write, but it is nice to be able to enjoy reading them again. A lot can be learned by the experiences of other writers, as long as in the end I return home to the true source of my art: myself.
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