On Early Writing Advice
Jessica Winck, Assistant Director
This week’s feature was adapted from an earlier post on Jessica’s blog Daily Inventions, which focuses on writing, teaching, and the teaching of writing.
As I work on finishing my M.A. project, I’ve been thinking about how my views on writing were shaped when I was younger. After studying rhetoric and writing for the past two years, I’ve become more conscious of how some of my own views, behaviors, and habits suggest something I learned early on that stayed with me. In other words, I’ll become aware of something I’m doing, and I’ll say (sometimes out loud), “Where did that come from?”
Throughout my teens I saw myself as a fiction writer, and the writing of fiction was Writing to me – so people who wrote it were Writers. I got a sense of this in so many of the books about fiction writing that I read. There was a sense in these books – this discourse – that good writers have a gift. Certainly they work hard, but they have an indefinable quality, so at best, advice about writing for people who don’t have this gift can only help them artificially replicate what gifted writers possess naturally.
Now I see this as a flawed assumption, but I bought into it when I was younger. When I was 20 or 21 I showed a short story to a guy I worked with who also wrote fiction. His initial response was, “Well, you can write!” On one hand, that’s just stating the obvious. On the other hand, that’s not what he was talking about at all. He meant I had some kind of ability beyond competence.
There were consequences for this kind of view of writing and writers. Though my undergrad curriculum consisted of several creative writing workshops, collaboration wasn’t a major priority – in fact it was discouraged because it was seen as a distraction. Someone once told me that writers who work at coffee shops or with others just want distractions because they aren’t committed to their craft. Real writers toil alone, if not for concentration’s sake, then because their gift for writing – all that genius – leads to bad social skills or neuroses. The Writer/Suffering Genius was a persona more than anything else, and my peers and I all desperately ached toward it.
Clearly I disagreed with these “truths” to some extent, otherwise I wouldn’t have been so frustrated by their limitations at the time. But they weren’t my only influences. When I was in high school, I read two important writers: Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg. Something distinguished them from the other people I read during that time and later in undergrad: they didn’t tolerate the view of “Writing” that I’ve elaborated here. For them, improving as writers is first a matter of writing more and being more methodical about how you use your writing time (ie., scheduled or timed writing). Though I read Elbow and Goldberg early on, they stayed on my shelf all through undergrad as I worked through developing an identity as a writer. I thought that improving as a writer couldn’t possibly be a matter of persistence, which is available to everyone.
As I work on my Master’s project now, I’m realizing in really profound ways that at a fundamental level, apart from other factors and forces that bear down on me in this process, that I will finish my project in a reasonable amount of time if I just persist methodically. This isn’t to say that challenges won’t come up, or that I won’t ever feel like it’s hopeless, but it’s to say that there is plenty of evidence that says I should have faith in this process.
There are also benefits for teachers and writing consultants to examine early influences on our views of writing. This is a view of writing that leads us to assume that everyone can write, as Peter Elbow suggests, and that doing well and “being successful,” however defined, is a matter of persisting, not of innate talents or gifts.