You know more than you think you do.
Those words are from parenting expert, Dr. Benjamin Spock, but I find them strangely comforting and applicable to writing. Of course, I have to balance them against the equally true statement: You don’t know anything at all. For me, writing happens in the valley between the two.
I chin up and soldier my way through the hard, early days of a new writing project, needing to remind myself that I can do characters, dialogue, and plot. But I also sigh and fret. I lament my inadequate education, my own laziness about reading the classics, and my general lack of worldliness. Where have I been? What right have I to spin these tales, which emerge from my imperfect memory and unchallenged point of view?
But, oh yes, I know more than I think I do. I know that I can’t have zero confidence and be a writer. So I have no choice but to rally and find the courage to put something down, to believe that my little squinty view of the world is worth sharing. I remember a decade ago at a writers’ conference, this woman asked the presenter how she could get beyond her internal critic. “Every time I write something, I say ‘Oh my God, it’s awful.’ So I just never get anything done.”
I recall thinking, “Oh, you poor thing.” But rest assured, I was just beginning to write fiction, and my own insecurities were waiting for me around the bend. Right about then, I enrolled in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Writers Workshop. I prepared for class like a model student, wrote my first short story, and was secretly hoping it would get an unqualified A, even though the workshop’s leader was not a professor and the class was not graded.
The deft workshop facilitator had me read an excerpt and then raised so many questions that I felt nauseous. He never said it was a bad story, but he encouraged revision and deeper thinking about what I was trying to say. He asked, rhetorically, “What’s the emotional truth of the story?” Ugh, darned if I knew.
I worked and reworked, always feeling a little like an elephant doing ballet. But through several rounds of the workshop, I started to internalize some of his persistent, and now predictable, questions. It didn’t work miracles, but my fiction writing got a little better.
All the reading he had us do also helped. I stopped racing for the finish when I read, and started noticing the choices that masterful writers make. (Oh, how they tell us just enough and let that last sentence burn a hole in the page!)
Every writer has probably experienced the “I wish I’d written that.” moment. It’s infantile, I know, but I’m confessing. Now that I’m a little older, it doesn’t happen as much. Maybe it’s because I have created for myself a secret stash of encouragement from some fabulous writers. Lots of writers write about writing. But not all of them fill the curious space left by my own insecurity and doubt.
Here are three of my favorites if you need a reminder that yes, you can have a writer’s life, if you want one.
Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird, Lamott’s guide to writing, truly delivers. Ms. Lamott is one of the kindest angels you can have on your shoulder while you write. Need further evidence? She riffs brilliantly about procrastinating when you should be writing and recognizes “Shitty First Drafts” as an official step in the writing process.
William Maxell: I will gladly listen to Maxwell, who was both a fine writer and fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years. Maxwell, who died in 2000, had me at the preface to his short story collection, All the Days and Nights.
In it, Maxwell describes how at age 25 he decided to go to sea so he would have something to write about. He left his job as an English professor and got aboard a schooner near Coney Island. Thirty years later, he looked back on it like this..."(The captain) had no idea when the beautiful, tall-masted ship would leave its berth. And I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life characters - affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black - that I was presented with when I came into this world."
Billie Letts: Letts, an Oklahoman, is the woman you want to read if you’re raising kids and trying (and often failing) to fit in a little writing time. Tucked in the back of her breakout novel, Where the Heart Is, she describes her personal journey from wife and mom to college graduate, English teacher, and – at age 55 – novelist.
By her own description, Letts was not well poised to become a published writer. She was not born in New York, completed college only after having children, and was the traditional “woman behind the man” as her talented husband took a Fulbright Scholarship. She taught English as a second language for many years.
Only as she neared retirement, did she make progress toward her dream of being a writer. In her generous essay, she answers the question she must get asked most often: How did you do it? Her answer: “I don't know. I only know how I have written two books. I had stories to tell and I began typing.
You can read the whole thing here: Billie Letts on Writing
I think of Letts’ essay as something that should be behind glass, like in one of those old fashioned fire extinguisher boxes. In case of discouragement, break glass. I’ve reread it numerous times and know I’ll reach for it again, whenever I need reminding that I know at least a little more than I think I do.
Debra Moffitt, a former newspaper reporter, is an editor at KidsHealth.org. Her first book, The Pink Locker Society: Only Girls Allowed, was published by St. Martin’s Press in September. The book is the first in a four-book series for tween girls.
An interactive website, www.pinklockersociety.org, invites girls to support each other and find answers to common questions about growing up. Moffitt lives in Delaware with her husband and three sons, ages 13, 12, and 4.
Thank you Debra for being this week's Writer Wednesday guest and thank all of you who stopped by today. As an added bonus Debra has generously offered to give away a copy of her newly released book, The Pink Locker Society to a lucky reader. It could be you! All you have to do is leave a comment. One winner will be randomly selected after midnight tonight and will be announced tomorrow.
Happy Reading and Good Luck!
Kristin : )