Friday, March 13, 2009

But how do I start writing? -- part one

By Jennifer Stevenson

This post is for about twelve hundred friends and acquaintances who have said to me over the years, “I’d like to write, but how do I start?” Three new ones this week. One enterprising and hard-working woman has even gone so far as to take grammar and rhetoric classes. (Holy heck! She’s learning craft, not just taking a memoir class! This is impressive.)

What I started to say to her, and then stopped myself, was that when one reaches a certain age it may not be possible to train your brain to write with good grammar. But with the power of positive thinking (and maybe a glass of wine) you can train your brain to let your true voice come out.

I’m not talking here about “how to get published” or “how to get an agent” or “how to write a good book as opposed to a sucky or lame or merely adequate story.”

I simply want to address crossing that line in the sand, a line that so many people perceive as a huge brick wall, between seeing yourself as “not a writer” and seeing yourself as a “writer.”

The simplest answer is, You’re a writer if you write.

My mother once said “How do I become a writer?” to a cub reporter at the Chicago City News Bureau. He told her, “Put the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair.” The cub’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

I know a hell of a lot of writers, already published in book form, who talk, talk, talk, but who do not write very much.

By contrast, the amateur who has never even submitted so much as a joke to Reader’s Digest may write hundreds of pages a year. That gal is a writer.

So rule number one is, Write.

The second rule is, Stop worrying about your grammar, your market, your story structure, what your mother/your kids will say if they find out, and “whether you have anything valuable to say.” Especially the last one. Good gravy, you can't worry about them things!

This is where arrogance becomes your friend. All professional writers have some, though they’re smart if they mask it. It’s hard to survive a life of rejection and, worse, waiting for rejection, without arrogance. If you think arrogance is too much to ask of yourself, call it something else. Faith. Self-confidence. “I can do better than that.” Many a first novel has sprung from the sound of a paperback hitting the wall, followed by, “I can do better than that.”

It really doesn’t matter why you choose to write. Raging to set the record straight? Bored? Dying to become famous? Fed up with the last bad book you wrote? Want to get rich?

Put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

-Jennifer Stevenson
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