Dear Aspiring Writer,
I’ve been writing since my mom gave me my first journal when I was six. I’ve called myself a writer since 1996, and have made a pretty serious study of it since going to college in 1999. I know a good amount, I suppose, but also I recently read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and have no idea how he made words do the things they did. So, I only know so much.
As far as writing, there’s this great poem by Mary Oliver that kinda says everything you need to know:
Instructions for Living a Life:
Tell About It
But then there’s also a lifetime of work and worry and failure and persistence to make the great advice of that poem actually work.
And there is this, I suppose. I’ve often noticed in the world two kinds of writers: there are those who really want to be writers and those who have something they need to say and have chosen writing as the means.
Actually, the first time I thought that thought, I was watching a five hour daytime rap show that was, ultimately, about 4 hours and fifteen minutes too long. I went to see one of my old college roommates who was performing last. He’s probably the artist who had had the most impact on my writing, and it was his performances that taught me about honesty, passion, and vulnerability. While watching him command a crowd of a few hundred people and make a giant tent that smelled like mistakes were made into something a bit closer to spiritual revival than street festival, I tried to put my finger on what made him far better than a whole lot of other performers I’d seen. You know what it was? He had something to say. If music hadn’t worked out, I have no doubt he’d be writing novels or painting or making movies or something else.
There are plenty of writers out there that write because they’ve always wanted to be writers, because there are parts of the lifestyle they’ve romanticized or fetishized to the point that if they got to be a writer without writing anything, they would barely miss it.
Anna Akhmatova is my favorite poet. She was banned from writing by Stalin and many of her friends were killed for the art they made. Knowing her apartment was bugged and was likely to be searched any moment, she wrote in her head. Every so often, a group of friends would come over and she would write her poems out on cigarette paper while they all made small talk. In turn, the friends would memorize the poems and burn the paper in an ashtray at the center of the table they sat around.
Her writing has reached across languages, continents, and generations and moves me, still, as I think about them now.
What I mean to say is that you’ll probably find a way to keep writing so long as you have something to say.
And, I guess, that there are different kinds of writers out there.
Ok, to your questions:
- What should I be doing now? What habits should I build?
1) Practice. Write a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t care if anyone reads or not. I had a great poetry professor in college, Michael Dennis Browne, who always talked about how firefighters don’t just leave the engine in the garage until they need it. They take it out and train and make sure everything is working and make sure it’s ready when the fire starts. So, write a whole bunch of bad stuff so that you’re ready when the fire starts to really do something about it.
2) Forgiveness. You will sometimes go weeks or months without writing stuff. And sometimes you’ll write stuff and mess it up or make people mad or, if you’re me, accidentally use direct quotes from ‘The West Wing’ without realizing it. You won’t make a mistake big enough that means you should stop writing forever or that disqualifies you as a good writer. Give yourself a break, forgive your mistakes or your lack of writing. Forgiveness is a muscle though, and we have to practice it all the time or it stops working.
- What are the things you wish you knew when you started writing?
For a lot of us, writing feels like the most important thing that we could possibly do, but also when we treat it like that, we find it to be almost impossible. There’s been phases while writing both my books that the weight of the whole thing was overwhelming and the pressure to make every word and phrase perfect made my writing slow (and, honestly, mostly awful). I started telling myself, “write easy” over and over again. I think I pictured Matthew McConaughey saying it. So, yeah, write easy. Much woo-woo-ier writers than me will talk about how the writing is coming from somewhere else and our job is to be a conduit for it. In that case, I think I was trying to pass the writing through my intellect and gumming up the works.
- Would you recommend a creative writing class/program outside of school?
Yes. I think.
I don’t have a particular one that I would recommend though, except, you know, pay attention to what you think you need. I recently decided that I really wanted some community in my writing to talk about some very specific concerns I had about if my writing was complete trash or not or if I at least was not tapping into some part of my writing that I could. This would be a bad situation to take any old writing class or something, but I got some books and read some books and talked to a few writers who I trust a lot, and then also spent a lot of time going on long walks and thinking about it.
There are other times when I’m starting a project or have a piece that seems like it could be good, but isn’t, and writing classes and programs have helped tremendously. I would be nowhere without some of the teachers I’ve had along the way, and have found them in classes and books and friends and students and colleagues.
Always be up for learning. The best thing about writing is that you always get better at it. The worst thing is that you know you can always get betterer.