“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
Lately I have been thinking about the courage it takes to write. I have been thinking about the darkness and dawn I have experienced as a writer. I have asked myself, “Why don’t you just give up?” I believe writers should strive to identify (and revisit) the who, what, when, where, and why of their writing habit in order to continue learning and strengthening their skills. I believe I am a better writer when I stay connected to the wisdom I have developed about my writing habit over time. In an effort to reconnect, I dusted off a few titles from my bookshelf. Looking at these books is like entering a conversation with old friends. I know where I was the first time I read them. I can remember how each validated, in their unique way, the twists and turns of my writer’s journey.
A few of my favorite books on writing include: On Writing, by Stephen King; Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg; and Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. This list is definitely not exhaustive. I went through a period a few years ago when all I could do was read books about writing. (I could not write to save my life.) If I had mined that period for this post, the list would have been unending. I am not even sure if the books I have listed are necessarily my favorites, that is such a special distinction. These are simply a few books I turn to when I am in the writing dumps, when I question every key stroke, when every syllable is a struggle, when I feel profoundly alone with my screen, when I know I have to write about it (whatever it is) and need to summons courage.
These books are important to me for several reasons. They remind me of several things I know for sure about writing.
1. Rewriting is the essence of writing. – William Zinsser
A common statement in writing circles is that writing is rewriting. I don’t think I learned early enough in my writing experience to value each and every draft. I was the precocious high school English student who never saw below an A on a paper. I was the disgruntled college English major who saw my first C on a paper that I had cranked out ten minutes before class because that had always been good enough. It was not until graduate school that the value of a draft became real to me. I had to present the first data chapter of my dissertation to my chair five times before it was accepted. I lived to write another day. Today, I am thankful for every pair of additional eyes that are offered by colleagues and friends.
2. Writing and reading are connected.
I was always read to as a child. Every night. I started a library long before I had a piggy bank. I had my first writer’s crush as a young reader. I read every Judy Blume book and never looked back. As an English major in college, I chose classes that allowed me to read books outside of the traditional canon. My reading list continues to be broad and deep. The uniqueness of my voice has been cultivated by reading books by people who have stories that are distinct and poetic in their humor and warmth. I have learned the essential questions I want to explore through writing as I read the questions others pose. I get closer to hearing my voice when I hear others sing on the page.
3. Be gentle on yourself and with others.
It was such a relief to have Anne Lamott give me permission to write a shitty first draft in Bird by Bird. The idea I did not have to write perfectly right out of the gate made it easier to simply start writing. If I don’t start, I don’t get very far. Quieting writing demons gets a little easier once I find a comfortable place. I am learning to embrace the fear I often feel when I write from an authentic place. I am learning to let words, a sentence, a paragraph, a page flow before I perform surgery on my sentences. I am learning to hear generosity in the criticism of people who take the time to read what I write. Their time is a sincere gift. Feedback is important.
4. I die when I write alone.
Writing is a collaborative exercise for me. I do my best when I am in a writing group or taking a writing class. It helps to have a deadline. It helps to be accountable to both myself and a group. I learn about my own writing by reading the work of others. When I write alone I often find it hard to build momentum. I don’t think I do my best work alone. Feelings of isolation and loneliness set in when it is just me and the key board. I often feel like writing is a conversation I am having with myself. It is even sweeter to invite others into that conversation.
5. Writers write.
Writers write. I feel like I should attribute that statement to someone I have heard it so often over the years. It is so very true. If I want to call myself a writer, I must write. I must sit down and pull my thoughts together. I must gather the gumption to take a stand and say something. I must go to that place and create. It is like exercise. Your muscles need to be used to get in shape. Ultimately, it is about finding your writing juice. The thing you are called to write about. The thing you must write about. The thing you wake up composing before dawn. The thing that brings tears to your eyes when you are driving. The thing that only you can say, and you know you must say it. The challenge to writing is really finding your juice. When you find your juice, you must sit down and write.