Whenever I start a new venture, I tend to read, extensively, around a subject. I’ve always done things this way. When I was pregnant, I read everything I could from the ‘experts’ of how to look after myself well: from what to eat and what not to eat, to how to prepare for becoming a new parent. (Hint: you can’t ever prepare for becoming a first time parent.)
Once I had my children, I read whatever I could on how to nurture and keep them alive and well, and so on.
Reading ‘how to’ guides for creative writing was the same. Writing has been a lifelong obsession, as I know it is for most writers, so I have indulged in this activity for a long, long time. The thing I started to notice a while ago though – and this goes for books on how to write better, to manuals on how to raise your kids – you have to know when to quit reading, and when to just throw yourself into the whole business of doing the shit.
Whether it’s how to deal with sibling rivalry, or how to create a great opening sentence in a short story, the only true way to learn and develop and become better is to actually put the time into working at it.
Last year, I completed an Open University degree in English Literature, and as one of the modules, I took Creative Writing. I thought this was a no-brainer, as I was working on my own writing at the same time as reading other great literature.
This was the WORST module I ever took. Let me explain.
I had a tutor who loved to discharge her ‘advice’ on which writers we should be reading; how we should be writing; the ‘rules’ of writing, if you will. I struggled through the course, rubbing up against her feedback all the way. At the end, I actually passed the course, gaining a really good grade for my final piece of writing, which was marked by another, independent tutor. Proof, I felt, that she didn’t particularly ‘get’ my style of writing, yet the other tutor obviously liked it.
The thing is though, after the year of studying that module, I didn’t write for about two years.
I mean, I obviously scribbled occasionally in a notebook; but then I would scribble it out again. I ripped up and threw away all my old bits of paper I had written ideas on, and deleted files from my computer. I told my family: ‘I’ve realised I will never be able to write good enough, so I quit’.
The inevitable happened, though. I slowly began to pick up my pen, as though against my will, writing snaps of conversation overheard in café’s, or memories from my childhood. Writing out my fears, and dreams, and troubles in my journal.
And bit by bit, I began to love writing again. I met a great short story writer, who offered a short mentoring course, so I decided to brave it. I showed him bits of work that I had been creating, that I didn’t think were really stories – I wasn’t sure what they were.
He took those pieces of writing, and told me that in his opinion, with a little editing, they were publishable. What I had been creating were small pieces of micro/flash/short short fiction, whatever you want to call it. I was shocked. And of course I didn’t believe him. But over the past 12 months, I have indeed had some of those pieces published in online magazines, and have had fantastic feedback from other pieces that haven’t quite made it.
The one thing this mentor told me that I feel improved my writing was to stop holding back. He felt I was trying not to offend anyone, or was too concerned with who might read the stories that I held myself back from really letting go. I was trying too hard to be somebody else.
That made all the difference, and with his gentle prodding, I began to unfold the ideas that were stored in my head, and even I could see that my writing was improving.
I stopped trying to emulate what other writers were doing. I stopped taking advice from so-called ‘experts’ in the field of writing. Such helpful advice as ‘only write what you know’, which is a bit of a misnomer anyway, isn’t it? (I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to have dementia, or to lose a partner in old age, but I know what it’s like to love somebody and I know what it’s like to lose somebody. Does that mean I can or can’t write about being an old person with dementia?)
And the result? Well, I have two pieces of flash coming up in two different lit mags; I have a piece of life writing coming up on The Real Story, whom have also asked me to appear on the line up of their next live event (yikes!); and I have an essay being published about short story writer Grace Paley.
Not bad, for someone who can’t get up to write morning pages, goes against the advice of ‘writing every day’, and writes about some stuff she knows and other stuff she just, well, you know, makes up. Like writer’s do.
(and parents, in case you were wondering).
I’d love to hear other writer’s comments on where they stand on ‘how to’ guides, and taking the advice of others’.
Happy writing (and reading).