Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 3)

This is the third part of a four-part series. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here and here, respectively.

Stage 3: Adulthood.

I like to say the main difference between me now, as an adult, and me as a teenager is this: now I know I don’t know anything.

While wisdom does not always come with maturity, the two do usually walk hand-in-hand. Do I think I’m wise? I do, but in the same sense as Socrates. He was called the wisest man in Athens, and he said he was wise because he admitted he didn’t know anything. Only by acknowledging ignorance in something can you be open to learning. To loosely quote the movie Avatar, it’s hard to pour water in a cup that’s already full.

Literary adulthood isn’t the point at which we’ve come to recognize the bounds of our writing ignorance; it’s just when we admit we have writing ignorance. The first time you look at your writing and think it could be better, and that someone might be able to give you some good advice, is when you earn your grownup writer pants. Unfortunately, that moment is rarely achieved in a pleasant way. For many, myself included, it comes after being beaten senseless with less than complimentary feedback, usually repeatedly and brutally. After the third or fourth concussion from trying to walk through a wall, you start to realize the wall isn’t going to disappear, and maybe you should find another way in. After receiving a number of rejections from agents and publishers, I decided perhaps it was the manuscript. I wrote a short story, which I posted online. It was fairly well received, so I decided to make it into a full novel. The Stolen Child was born. Now, if I’d still been a literary teen, I would’ve just started submitting that story. Instead, I decided I was going to make sure it was the best it could be. I bought some books on character development, read articles online, and then I bought a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I won’t turn this into a commercial for the book. I’ll just say that I got a lot out of it, but I was also ready to learn because I’d admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything. When I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t take my book any further, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, literally. I hired an editor. Again, I don’t want this to become a commercial, so I’m not going to mention who I hired. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I spent a LOT of time researching editors before deciding on one. If you’ve read my other posts, you know it was brutal at times. But I forced myself to hear what was said, to really listen and try to understand. That, in essence, is what makes us adults, no matter the realm; writing, life, music, driving, what have you. Taking criticism, especially harsh criticism, isn’t easy, but to my mind, it is a defining characteristic of maturity.

Stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes. Smart people do learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes. We should hope to be smart, but strive to be wise.

To be concluded next week with senility.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 2)

Last time I wrote about writing infancy, which you can read here if you missed it.

Stage 2: Adolescence.

Your narrative voice starts to crack about the time you realize you’re pretty good at this writing thing. Our literary puberty could start in a number of ways. Maybe like me, you find your peers and teachers reacting well to things you’ve written. Maybe you win some contests, or have an article published in the local paper. However it happens, it’s most likely positive reinforcement that causes you to start to change.

Writing teenagers, like most teenagers, know well, like, everything. Duh. They understand what truly brilliant and magnificent writers they are. After all, so many people have told them they should be writers. How many? Well, um, like, a bunch! Their paths are clear; the entire literary world is eagerly awaiting their arrival. They alone have the comfort of knowing that anyone who criticizes them, is totally clueless, and just doesn’t get it.

Lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I remember very clearly the first writing course I took in college. I’d received some negative feedback on my writing up to that point, but it was really more neutral than outright negative. I was working on my novel Taleth-Sidhe, and all my friends loved it! So, I knew it had to be awesome; after all, my friends wouldn’t lie to me. So, I took the first couple chapters and turned them in for the writing exercise. I listened to the amateurs in the class read their examples, and offered them my expert feedback. Then it was my turn to read. I’d been writing poetry for many years before this (during the coffeehouse and poetry reading height of the late 90s). Those readings, combined with my experience as an actor, meant I knew how to tell a story (one of the few things I was right about at that stage). I read the first two chapters, then sat back and waited for the praise to come rolling in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole class had lifted me on their shoulders and named me their king. Okay, I would’ve been a little surprised.

To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. To put it accurately; I was eviscerated. Granted, I’d written a fantasy story and not everyone in the class was a fan of that genre, but all the notes and feedback made my pages looked like someone had sacrificed a chicken on them. Actually, more like an entire flock. I was beyond confused, but like all good teenagers, I eventually got over it and realized those people just didn’t know what they were talking about. Clearly my writing was just over their heads.

Now, it’s true some in their writing teens might be open to learning, or hearing less than glowing feedback. But, those are generally the writing equivalent to teenagers who fit in better with adults than peers. In short, they’re mature for their age. The vast majority of teenagers are, well, not. It’s not that they’re immature, just correctly mature for their age; they believe they know everything, and aren’t inclined to listen to others’ opinions People in their writing teens are often the same way.

To be continued next week with adulthood.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 1)

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination.

Like so much in life, and like life itself, we often hear, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” But what does that mean? It means that your focus is not on trying to get somewhere, it’s on how you’ll always be working at a task or experience. Now, you might be someone who’s written a book and once it’s published you’ll never write anything else. I’ve heard people say they had only that one book inside them. These people are rare, though. Most of us who call ourselves writers plan to keep writing for as long as we can. Part of this means that, like it or not, we’ll grow and change as we hone our writing craft. Like in life, we’ll learn and have our notions shaped by positive and negative experiences. And also like in life, we all grow and mature at different rates.

Much like doctors “practice” medicine, I like to think writers “practice” writing. So here are my thoughts on the various stages of being a writer that we all go through. You could easily apply these thoughts to just about anything, but I’m going to stick to writing since that’s sort of “my thing” on this blog.

Stage 1: Infancy.

Like in life, we all start here in our writing. Odds are that your writing journey began not long after you learned to read and write in general. Like an infant, we stumble around trying to figure out how language works. We have to learn that while more than one dog are dogs, more than one mouse are mice, and more than one fish are, well, still fish. And let’s not even talk about more than one octopus being octopuses or octopi. Yes, technically both are correct.

As with all good infants, we learn by observing as well as by trial and error. Most of us are still in this writing stage long after we leave our actual infancy behind. It’s really no wonder because the early years of school are when we learn all the technical rules of writing: nouns, verbs, clauses, punctuation, etc. Separately though, we might be maturing as storytellers, which means later on, we’ll need to bring stories and grammar together.

Writing infants will generally compose thinly veiled rewrites of stories they’ve heard/seen/read: a princess with four mean step-sisters, for example. No, it isn’t always quite THAT thinly veiled, but you get the idea. This is where we start to learn what kind of stories and characters resonate with others, as well as with us.

Depending on when you actually begin writing seriously, writing infancy can last well into adulthood or even old age. There are plenty of people who aren’t serious about writing until they’re well into their adult lives or even retirement. I want to make this clear. There is no “normal” about when people move from one stage to the next. It doesn’t matter if you started writing when you were 7 or 70. If it’s something you love, I say well done you for starting!

To be continued next week with adolescence.