My husband calls me the Grandma Moses of Writing. When I was little the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer and occasionally I still come upon ancient, faded, childish attempts at moralistic tales ( i.e. The Nightengale’s Lesson”) tucked into old books and among boxes of family photographs. In high school I was the co-editor of the Loudspeaker, our newspaper, along with John Leonard who went on to become the editor of the New York Times Book Review among other things. Life intervened and I went on to have babies and various careers. Now that I am retired, I have re-discovered that first love and am learning late in life the basics, step by step. Here is what I have learned so far. It amounts to nothing more than the ABC’s of Creative Writing 101, but as a newcomer-come-lately, it’s from my own perspective. As I see it.
1. RULE NUMBER ONE: READ GOOD WRITERS. That’s a given, and anyone who’s been led to our common endeavor has undoubtedly been the kid who wielded a flashlight under the covers in order to finish the last chapter of Wind in the Willows, who felt themselves melting through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia, or pushing open the gate of the Secret Garden with Mary. I would wager that a writer, given a favorite choice of amusements, would likely elect the sweet luxury of curling up with someone else’s literature in the cushiest chair in the house, sidewise, legs tucked under. I would. These days, however, I’m reading not just for pleasure, but with a renewed sense and sensibility. Part of my brain is calculating the word choice, watching the comma usage, basically “seeing how it’s done” at the same time I am indulging a pleasure.
That’s precisely how I recently discovered in Joan Didion’s latest, “Blue Nights,” that it’s possible to use long sentences, running with a pattern of thought in deliberate bursts, breathless and headlong, so perfect for the mood and meaning she intends to convey. At times she leaves out commas where they would normally fall, and it accelerates the pace and tension. It’s not necessarily the norm, the standard, but it works with precision and invokes a particular voice. Gabrielle Hamilton in the recent “Blood, Bones and Butter” pulls out all the stops and breaks some rules along the way, but it is a wild and thrilling ride. I was enthralled by her story at the same time I was making mental notes about what was possible. I would have to agree that, yes, we learn to write by reading.
2. RULE NUMBER TWO: WRITE EVERY DAY. I’ve heard the admonition ad nauseum and do not doubt the truth and merit in the advice. The craft is in the practice. But given the usual intervening life – the pay check job, the family tugs and pulls – the truth is that unless you are Virginia Wolff with a room of your own and a fixed income, or a Christopher Hitchens who could toss off a brilliant column after massive and alternating bouts of bourbon and red wine, just because he could, or J.K. Rowling who was simply driven to sit beside the pram in the local café and pen a revolutionary success because she was somehow destined to do so – unless you are one of the exceptional few, you are likely to miss those good intentions day after day.
Last spring when we were undertaking a move across the country, in order to calm my fears and direct my thoughts, I began a blog. Simple as that. But it forced me to write every day like it or not. I committed. I had a motivation which hinged on the day’s dilemma, the problematic issues of change, and ultimately, the experiential newness of life. And if I fell away for a few days, I would hear from old high school chums who hadn’t called in two decades but were now following my adventure, or children who were nervous about our trek, and complete strangers who became followers and “new best friends.” In other words, I began to feel obligated, and so I wrote and wrote, even when my thoughts were less than stellar, even when I was weary (just a quick post to check in) and if I didn’t always pen a brilliant essay, I wrote.
Somewhere along the writing road I acquired an idiosyncrasy which might be peculiar to my personal style, but for what it’s worth – I write with my ears! Oh, no, not with my head atilt, pen poking out of my ear drum, but always with music and beat, sound and rhythm the primary driving pulse. I dare say that the aforementioned Gabrielle Hamilton too, writes with her ears, albeit with a master’s touch, and her rat-a-tat symphonic phrases carry the reader along deep into the content of her point of view. Having an “appointment” with my blog and allowing my own voice to run uncumbered and free, has been my personal trick for daily writing.
3. RULE NUMBER THREE: JOIN A WRITER’S GROUP
The first time I proudly took my little piece to share, I was quickly stunned and humbled. When I eventually picked up the scribbled-over pages and began to rewrite and rewrite some more, shocked and dazed by the new clarity, I was well on my way to becoming a writer’s group junkie. Now, my critiqued stack at hand, I sit at the keyboard and assiduously plod through the pile, beginning to end, as many times as there are critics. I don’t always agree with every edited comma or plea for clarity, or succumb to someone’s voice not my own, but the writing inevitably gets tighter, deeper, and always better.
Yet beyond the pricelessness of the technical help, amidst the formulas and fixes, there is something more ephemeral and personal with one’s group. The writer’s life is singular, played out mainly upon a computer screen, but it thrives and grows within the company of others who have stood and dared to expose their still incubating words, laid bare their dangling participles and first draft ruminations, trusted each other with the first fruits of plot. I apologize if I am greedy, if I raise my hand imploringly to be on the list for every reading day, but heh, I love you guys! Write on.