I so admire people who have the kind of discipline I think writers should have. My friend Morgan Mussell is one of those. He reads – no, studies – a lot of writing books, as well as studying the business of writing, and shares his knowledge with those of us lucky enough to be in a critique group with him or readers of his wonderful blog, The First Gates. He’s an excellent, disciplined writer, as well and one of the best editors I’ve ever run across. Drop by his blog sometime and soak up a little of his very accessible knowledge. What amazes me is the discipline he brings to his writing. He works very hard at learning his craft and even writes synopses before he writes the books. I suspect he even outlines. He always knows where he’s going.
Another writing friend, Margaret Duarte, also shows amazing and resilient writing skills. She has completed four novels. FOUR! In addition, she was the first to receive a Creative Writing Certificate offered by UCDavis extension. She has been blogging five days a week for quite some time, and her blogs are interesting and useful. When I need to know how to do something new on my blog, I visit Margaret’s blog, Enter the Between and check her archives for the answers. She has also posted story samples and novel excerpts. Go there and have a taste of her wonderful work.
As inspiring as these people are, I return to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for inspiration and to assuage my guilt.
Don’t worry about your talent or capability: that will grow as you practice. Katagiri Roshi said, “Capability is like a water table below the surface of the earth.” No one owns it, but you can tap it. You tap it with your effort and it will come through you. So just practice writing, and when you learn to trust your voice, direct it. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. If it’s essays you want or short stories, write them. In the process of writing them, you will learn how. You can have the confidence that you will gradually acquire the technique and craft you need.
I have studied writing off and on for years: taking creative writing courses at San Jose State, both undergraduate and graduate, taking the initial writing course from the Institute of Children’s Literature , which was surprisingly good. I’ve attended conferences, joined writing associations, taken many workshops, read some books, etc., etc. All those had some value, and I probably built little compartments of writing knowledge in my mind. Sometimes I find the doors cracked open, and I can re-visit them. Sometimes I can’t find my way back to some of that information to save my soul (which could probably use a little saving, by the way). It isn’t easy getting old.
But the one thing that has worked for me is putting my butt in the chair and writing, just like Natalie Goldberg said. I’m not terribly disciplined about any of it. I have a few sticky notes where other writers have pages and pages of outlines and synopses. I don’t outline because, to be perfectly honest, I have little idea, at least with my novels, what is going to happen. For picture books, articles, and other non-fiction I have a good idea and do storyboards and other planning, but not my novels. In fact, I don't even feel as if I'm in charge. I sit down with an inkling of an idea and characters walk into my head, fully formed and usually named, and tell me their stories. I write in fits and starts, sometimes madly writing long hours for days in a row, followed by little or nothing for a while so my batteries can re-charge. Or I might stop working on my novel for days or even weeks while I work on other things, all the while letting my story percolate through the soil of my mind and pick up nutrients. But I always get back to work and let my characters lead me along.
I’ve written two novels this way. The first, I started from a writing exercise in a text book, and it turned into a young adult novel named Family Matters. I had the good fortune of having two sophomore classes read and critique it. They liked it. A lot. I was at the school a couple weeks ago and some of the kids from those classes (now seniors) talked about the book, even naming the characters – two years after they read it. How cool is that? Anyway, I learned a lot about writing books by writing that first book. I hope it will be published someday and am now revising it to that end.
I read an article a while back that said the way to get your first book published is to write your second book. So I did. I had learned a lot writing the first one; mostly I learned to listen to my muse and trust my characters to tell me their stories. My second book is called The Incredible Journey of Freddy J. and I’m really proud of it. I’ve had it critiqued, revised it, had many beta readers, and gotten great feedback. One of my beta readers described it as being much like the serial stories that used to be shown at Saturday matinees in the theatres when we were young. I liked that. Since it is really written for young boys, it was good to hear that. That's the kind of thing kids like. Another beta reader was a thirteen-year-old boy (grandson of a friend) whom I've never met. All I know is he read it three times. THREE times. Amazing. I’ve arranged for some sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students to read it and am awaiting their comments. I’m just beginning the agent hunt, so it may be a while before it’s out there, but that’s the nature of the business. Fingers crossed.
So even though I’m not the most organized person in the world, I know I can write and I know how to do it in a way that works for me…and makes real books, books that people like. Now, if I can just get the publishing world to listen…
If you already write, maybe you’ll leave a good tip for the rest of us. If you want to write, I say do it. Sit down with a pen and paper or in front of a blank computer screen or whatever works for you, and just do it. Natalie Goldberg would approve.