On becoming a writer.

March 1, 2013 § 9 Comments

Words.Before we write our first word, we listen.

Think back to the early voices you heard, the stories they told, the expressions they used.

Can you hear them?

My own childhood was hung between the Italians and the Swedes.  The older Swedes had a lilt in their voices, an inability to pronounce the letter J.  When my grandmother proudly told one of the uncles that her younger son was going to Yale he slapped a hand on his heart, and said, “They’re putting him in Yale?  What did Bobby do?”

Then there were the Italians.  In addition to being famously romantic, Italians are cautious, superstitious, and live lives fraught with dread.  From my grandfather, Nonno, I learned that one of the functions of story is to teach, and by teach, I mean terrify. His stories all ended, “and then…they died.”

If you were raised by colorful adults, even if they often embarrassed you and ran off your boyfriends, count your lucky stars.  Those voices and opinions and expressions will juice your writing up for the rest of your life.

If you are near the beginning of your writing life I envy you.  As a new writer the material of your life is untouched.  You may struggle with the craft of writing, but you have plenty of building materials from which to choose.

As for the mechanics of craft, getting them right is the work of a lifetime.  My mother, who was also a novelist, used to say that at first she couldn’t even move a character across the room.  How much detail do you include?  He lifted his right foot, he lifted his left foot?  And then, she wondered, did she have to mention, he put his right foot down, he put his left foot down?

Here are a few of tips I’ve picked up walking this road.

Remain alive to language.  Consciously collect words, acquiring any word you haven’t heard before, making it your own. The English language is a well-stocked toolkit.

The spoken word is the writer’s music. Develop a good ear for the way people express themselves. Eavesdrop, then write it down. One neighborhood kid dissing another: “Man, you are so lactose intolerant!”

Never poke your reader in the eye.  For example, when writing dialogue tags, “said” is almost always the best choice.  If you have to use words like exclaimed, babbled, grunted, moaned there is probably something wrong with the dialog itself.

Ditch adverbs: tell your verbs they don’t need any explanation.  If they do, fire them and look for stronger ones.  Adverbs are like crutches.  Go to Lourdes, shout I’ve been healed! And toss them aside.

Have a reasonable answer to the question, whose story are you telling?  Because, when I began, my answer to that question was, “Everyone’s!” my first novel had twenty-six main characters and took me twelve years to write.  It was set at The Baltimore Zoo where I worked just after college.  When I could take it no more, I began killing characters off. Heck, if you have a polar bear pit, use it.

Understand your own best way of working.  There are plenty of “how to” books on writing, but writing is not knitting a sweater. There is no one “right” way to go about it. Some of you will outline. Some will do what I do, which is to simply enter the story somewhere. It is as if I have grabbed the story by the sleeve, slowing it down so I can see what it is about. I don’t really know a story until I write it. Other writer’s how-tos (including mine) should never interfere with the way you write instinctively.  Trust yourself.

Know when to listen to the inner critic. The writer’s worst enemy and strongest ally is the inner voice that says both, “You really stink at this, why would anyone want to read what you write?” and, “If you open with Jack stepping off the ledge you’ll grab the reader’s attention.”

Words, as they are put on paper are not ready for the critic. The writer needs to be allowed to write badly in the struggle to write well. I’ve discovered that if I get up really early the inner critic is largely silent. Perhaps being close to the dream state, that acute, derisive voice has not yet awakened. That voice can keep an aspiring writer from writing, but once the words are on paper, that critical voice is the writer’s first, and perhaps best editor.

Finally, live a life.  For years I balanced writing and a day job.  I was fiercely disciplined, getting up before five to write until I had to jump into my clothes and go out and earn money. Like my younger, Catholic self, giving things up for Lent in the hope of a greater reward later, I gave writing every minute that wasn’t committed to work.

My mother called her real life, “the well.” She said, “Good or bad, I throw every experience into the well, and when I need it I draw it out again.” She went to the well every time she wrote a story.

But the well must be refilled, so live.

Live and write.

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