Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Becoming A Writer

Back in my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had lots of ideas and they seemed to rumble for attention. I had trouble staying with one and polishing a good story. What I did have though, was a good teacher who encouraged us. We wrote stories. Usually, Mr. Sheehan gave us a writing prompt. From there we crafted stories.

I went to an all boy school so many of the pieces were charged with adolescent bravado. There were knockoffs of “A Clockwork Orange,” “Fists of Fury,” an homage to Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” Of course, there were the deeper, more introspective stories that harkened the voice of Virginia Woolf, James Thurber, Sylvia Plath. This is before Gender Studies I might add.

Unfortunately, I was a poor reader. I’ll admit I took care of the required reading lists, but I didn’t delve much further. I did have an appetite for the pen. I say this because I wasn’t yet punching away at a computer or word processor. That meant I had a supreme tactile experience when writing my stories and essays. I even loved scribbling with pencil and seeing the trails of smudge. It made me feel like an artist.

I was one of the bold ones who read his work aloud. I was a glutton for punishment, a little bit of a showoff, but I also wanted feedback. I scouted the classroom as I read. There were the nappers, the space cadets, the doodlers, the disinterested, and the dorks— every so often I stumbled upon a curious, gentle listener, it was like discovering the original sheet music of a great Bop era trumpet player.

The comments on my papers were another story. They were scratched in red ink. It wasn’t only the grammatical tics, but also the clichés, the unconnected story threads, the boring sentences that got speared.

Since then, I have learned great writing is not a gift for prodigies or serendipity. It’s a heartbreaking, monotonous process— it’s a lot like love. I’ve passed the stage of addiction, crossed the Rubicon of chore, and now I’ve adopted it as my honorary religion.

I’m always curious about other writers’ processes. I read an article on Stephen Dixon in Poets and Writers a couple years ago. His process seems a bit maddening. He toils over each sentence until he gets it right. Then he scratches out another. When that’s right he carries on. Get it. Sort of that old Hemingway mantra— “All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

I’ve gone through my own stages. Once upon a time, I thought writing equaled free-writing. I didn’t feel good unless I churned out lots of fuzzy, hand-scripted sentences. I tried the one true sentence thing, but I’m convinced it leads to writer’s block. Think about it, one true sentence. As if Sisyphus doesn’t already sit on my shoulder.

Word counts are another plausible tool for getting the creative juices going. I think it’s Stephen King who recommends logging in 2000 words a day. That’s a mighty number, but doable. I think quantifying the writing experience sours some writers, especially teachers who are hellbent on revision. No question revision, re-envisioning is the key, but sometimes setting reachable daily goals pins the process down to a true craft, one that is constantly evolving.

There is nothing wrong with striving for better discipline. Know that everything written shouldn’t see the light of day. If you can accept that and commit yourself to the process you will fail better each time.


  1. To get a story out, Hemingway is too anal for me. Stephen King is more up my alley, and think of his income verses Hemingway's. This is why every November I lock myself up and write at least 1500 words a day, pumping out nearly 50,000 words of half-coherent, semi-plot driven mishmash. Then the rest of the year is spent doing all that obsessive-compulsive, line by line revisioning. It's a beautiful thing.

  2. I meant "versus" (not "verses")...oops!