Last week my spouse and I were driving on a short road trip north of Seattle. Having nothing to do in the car but pass the time, I started talking to him about what started me as a writer. Confession time: I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with writing. It’s complicated by a huge amount of perfectionism (hah!). But now, as I was remembering back to my youth, I recognized that there had been a kernel of hope and heart for becoming a writer when I was very young.
When I was young we had a couple of neighbor girls a few years older than me who babysitted me and my younger sister. They told me: You should write books! I was flattered, of course, but I said to myself: But I can’t even finish a story of my own! Yes, I was a reader. I read constantly, even in bed, especially in bed under the covers with a flashlight – how many of you did the same? Yes, I told long and detailed stories in our make-believe games after school with other kids on our block. But write a book? I couldn’t even imagine how I would get started.
As I started to tell my “story of writing” to my husband in the car, hurtling past mountains up by Bellingham and past the clear blue water of Lake Samish, as I floated back into the past and talked about how I didn’t think I could be a writer when I was young, I suddenly realized that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of believing that I couldn’t write, even when others encouraged me. Perhaps they could see what I could not.
It’s a funny thing that one feels ashamed as a child of what you cannot do. I have these wonderful gem-memories of the times when a teacher inspired me about my writing, or encouraged me to become a writer. At the same time I have feelings of futility, of not being able to do it. Another name for this is “Imposter Syndrome,” right? – When you’re afraid everyone will find out you really can’t do it (whatever it is they think you can do).
This week I had a chance conversation with an acquaintance who told me, hesitantly, that they hoped to write a book someday, a children’s book, or another book. Usually this is just wishful thinking (sorry!) but this person seemed very sincere and I thought she might have good stories to tell. I always try to be encouraging, especially if it’s a young person. Maybe because I didn’t have a good way to break down how-to-be-a-writer when I was young, and that stymied me for many years (“you just start writing,” right? hah!). So I told her I’d put together a few “starter” writing books and resources for her to take a look at.
There’s a ton of “how-to” writing books out there. I know, I’ve read a lot of them! Most of them are very prescriptive – they tell you how to plot, how to devise characters using bio worksheets, how to amp up the tension, etc. But that doesn’t work so well for me. And it took me many years to figure that out. Disclaimer: external plotting, outlining, character worksheets, index-card scene designs, all work for SOME people. So if that’s you, hurrah! But, also, it helps to figure out what YOU need, which may not be what someone else is telling you to do.
Here are a few suggestions for books I’d recommend to my younger self, if I had the chance:
- Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book is accessible in its content, but it also goes “beyond the obvious” in lessons about storytelling, characterization, and the rich richness of language that Le Guin always brought to her writing. She includes wonderful exercises to try, and if you can do them with a friend-writer, even better!
- “On Writing” books by authors like Stephen King; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Here’s my caveat about these and other “how to write” books – take them ALL with a grain of salt. If their words speak to you, great! Pay attention and gobble up every word. If, however, they seem to be off the mark, set them down and look for others. Life is too short to spend time trying to fit yourself into the mold of another writer’s process!
- If you’re looking for nitty-gritty craft “starter books,” you can’t go wrong checking out Writer’s Digest books. I’ve found a lot of value in their catalog over the years. Again, if the information in those books is helpful, great! If not, then move on. (Don’t forget, Writer’s Digest publishes Writer’s Market, updated every year with thousands and thousands of short story and novel markets, and agent contacts.
AND: for writing inspiration, don’t forget to read books by authors whose writing you’d like to emulate. Getting their words steeped into your brain, noticing what they do with dialog, with description, with character development; with beginnings and endings and middles; with titles and the mere flow of language. It’s gold!
Here is a little something I wrote from a poetry prompt recently, after reading the beautiful poem “Listen. Put on Morning,” by W. S. Graham . I discovered this poem from the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” email list. If you haven’t checked it out yet, go on over to their website and take a look!
Listen. Put on morning. You’ll wear those pinks, those pale blues, with such aplomb. You were made to be on the horizon, you were made to fly along the rainbow. Put on the morning sadness, the morning feasting, the morning that you knew you were a foreigner. Think of French bread, think of croissants, think of the one center of raspberry jam that you know fills the filling of a pie. Of jam. Of a biscuit-scone of the State Fair. Think of how much you love butter, melted butter on hot toast, and of how much you have to give. How much you are looking forward to the next time you are gone.
Listen. Put on morning. You’ll feel much better later.
Take a little biscuit, go out on the patio, with a cup of tea, and make your day start over. Put on morning.
Take care and good writing,