Writing is human storytelling

We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we are all specialists of some kind and that you can’t really be a writer unless you’ve got something like a master’s degree. Obviously, we want dentists to be trained, but writing is human storytelling and everybody does it. (Margaret Atwood)

Does overnight success really happen?

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon this piece of advice:

The most valuable thing I’ve learned as a writer: working your ass off actually pays off. Overnight success is rare. 20-year success? Real.

And later:

There’s such mythology around the idea that This Book Is The One That Makes You. Untrue. Every day at your desk is the one that makes you.

Both these tweets come from a writer named Maria Dahvana Headley. I eventually found my way to a Storify collection of her tweets on this subject, and I highly recommend that you check them out (link here).

I know that hard work and persistence and essential to achieving success in many areas of life, and writing is no exception. The thing is, I have a hard time putting the time into my writing that I need to if I want to accomplish anything. I have ideas, but I don’t have the patience to see them through, or the faith that they will amount to anything even if I do.

I guess I’m going through a bit of a dry spell when it comes to my writing, if I’m being honest. Part of me wants to feel guilty about this, and part of me wants to take more of a big-picture view of things.

That part of me says that life is long, that I’m still young, and that I have time to figure things out. After all, many writers and authors came to their success later in life, the voice inside me says.

But (as Maria Dahvana Headley has reminded me) I don’t know how long those writers were working and writing before they achieved their success. It’s true that some people do change careers later in life and go on to be very successful authors, but how much writing were they doing on their own, quietly, before they took that jump?

I can’t expect to coast though my life and then magically find success the moment I decide to get serious about writing. However, feeling guilty about all this doesn’t seem to be a terribly helpful strategy either.

Maybe someday I will figure out how to manage my creative energy and find a balance between all the various methods of creative expression I want to engage in. After all, life is long, and success (in any area) doesn’t happen overnight.


I am not a grammar goddess

I am not a grammar goddess.

Mistakes in syntax and spelling do not magically jump off the page and dance before my eyes when I read. I do not diagram sentences in my sleep. I can never remember the difference between “that” and “which” and I am unable to use the word “whom” with any amount of confidence.

Perhaps that’s just as well. To quote one of my college professors, “If you use the word ‘whom’ in everyday conversation, you’ll have no friends.” She was kidding, of course. But the truth is, if you’re one of those people who is overly pedantic about grammar, it will start to wear on your friends.

That’s not to say that I don’t care about grammar. I do. I notice when people say “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less” and when people spell the possessive form of “its” with an apostrophe.I have passionate opinions about the Oxford comma (use it, please, use it).

(Quick tip regarding “its” versus “it’s”: the apostrophe means that a letter has been left out, in this case the “i” in “is.” When you use the word “it’s,” the sentence should still make sense if you replace it with the words “it is.” You’re welcome.)

There are two reasons to care about proper grammar: using it helps people to understand you and gives you credibility. When you’re writing a paper, creating a resume or polishing a business proposal, you want people the take you seriously and not be distracted by errors you’ve made.

If I had used “your” instead of “you’re” in the previous sentence, some of you might not have noticed, but I guarantee at least one person would have been seriously bothered by the mistake. I don’t get a lot of “grammar Nazi” comments on my blog posts (thanks guys!), but you only have to scan the comments on a YouTube video or a news article to see the denizens of the Internet correcting other people’s grammar (and usually ignoring everything else they have to say).

Using correct grammar helps you create the best possible impression, but sometimes, especially in a low-stakes context like the Internet, we’re going to type faster than we think. We’re going to post comments without rereading them. We’re not going to have perfect grammar. And that’s okay.

My philosophy has always been that if you can understand someone (that is, if their writing is legible to you) and you aren’t in a position where grammar feedback is requested, why do you care? No one appointed me the grammar police of the Internet (or of offline life either, for that matter).

I am not a grammar goddess. However, if you do want to improve your grammar, my advice is READ. Knowing how to diagram a sentence or name the parts of speech is good, but it may not be as helpful to you in the long run as the ability to read a sentence and hear whether it “sounds right.”

Read people who craft their sentences with technical accuracy, and mimic them. Don’t be afraid to look up the answers when you have questions about usage. There are good reference books and lots of online resources as well. (You may be surprised at the number of people who have googled “there vs their” or “well being vs well-being”). Then write, and put your best self on the page. That’s all you can ever hope to do.



Nostalgia and old notebooks

The last time that I visited my parents, I uncovered a stash of my old notebooks. They have all the (non-school-related) poems and short stories that I wrote between the time that I was 14 and the summer I was 18, along with random musings and short descriptive essays.

They also contain a surprising number of puns (most of them dreadful). Example: “When life gives you a dilemma, make dilemonade.” (Don’t say I didn’t warn you).

I spent a good hour or two just flipping through the books and re-familiarizing myself with their contents. For a long time, I thought I’d misplaced those notebooks. In a lot of ways, I see the time that I was writing in them as the beginning of my journey as a writer, so finding them again was a relief. I hated the thought of losing all record of the years when I started discovering my voice and conceptualizing myself as a writer.

I have to admit, I still have a fondness for the words on those pages. In my experience, most people seem to be vaguely embarrassed of the things they wrote when they were younger, but I’m not. Mostly.

There are times that I think to myself, “Wow, I really was a pretentious child.” I read a lot as a kid and for some reason I thought that could help me avoid the pitfalls of adolescence (including that of being a know-it-all teenager). This resulted in a lot of self-analysis and meta moments in which I pondered how stupid all my writing would seem when I was older.

The thing is, when I’m re-reading these notebooks, I relive the experiences too. I feel the same emotions that I felt when I was writing those stories and poems. I know that in terms of technical ability and emotional complexity, I’ve been improving all the time. (With age comes wisdom? Maybe). But still I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a quality of my early writing that I can’t recapture.

Sometimes random lines from a poem that I wrote when I was 14 will jingle around in my head for no reason. Sometimes the ideas from the allegory that I wrote when I was in high school will capture my imagination. But now that I have the opportunity to look them up, I know that they will have to lose some of the luster they’ve gained through my unreliable memory.

Somehow, I can’t let go of my old writing. Part of me sees it with clear eyes, as an artifact of the person that I was, but part of me still sees it “like a red-hot coal straight from the fire,” as I phrased it in the extremely meta preface that I wrote for the beginning of a new notebook when I had just turned 15.

I continued, “like the coal after it’s been out of the fire, my work starts to cool down and turn gray, and I know it’s not the best thing I ever wrote. Maybe that’s a good thing to know.” Yes, I think it is, Me-from-the-Past.

The question is, knowing that, what do I do with this three-volume chunk of nostalgia? Sure, it’s great to be able to trace my past as a writer, but can any of this work contribute to my future? I honestly don’t know.

Is it possible to rework old pieces of writing that you created during a more productive (but perhaps less profound) period of your life? (That alliteration was completely unintentional, I swear.) Is it better to focus your creative energies on new ideas rather than constantly trying to recapture the glow of writing you’ve outgrown? Is there value in revisiting old writing?

If you have any words of wisdom, please share them in the comments! I’m really curious as to what other writers do with their old drafts and rediscovered writing.

My Favorite Words

My favorite word is insipid:

not interesting or exciting : dull or boring

lacking strong flavor  (Merriam Webster)

Or perhaps my favorite word is serendipity:

luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for (Merriam Webster)

Almost everyone has words they are particularly fond of, without know quite why. Words that catch in our brains and bump gently around inside, surfacing at random times. Words that we love for their mellifluous feel in our mouths and their seductive tickling in our ears.

Mellifluous, by the way, is ranked among people’s top ten favorite words, along with serendipity, defenestration, kerfuffle, discombobulated, and persnickety. (Check out the full article here if you’re curious about the other words and their ranks in the top ten).

What’s your favorite word (or words)? Let me know!

“Filthy Language” and whether writers should give a F#@!K

I’m the kind of person who says “fudge muffins!” when something’s not going my way, so it’s not natural for me to swear in print, either. I’ve encountered a few good articles recently about the use of curse words (and authors’ choices to not use them) in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy which have made me think about the pros and cons of including swearing in written pieces.

This article from tor.com has a frank discussion about the trend towards the increased use of this language and I highly recommend checking it out if you are interested in the way the writing landscape has changed over time and don’t mind some salty language used in examples.

If I use profanity in my writing, it is definitely intentional because my first instinct is to find other ways to express that thought. Even as I’m writing about the topic of using curse words in writing, I find myself hesitant to use any language that could be considered offensive, so be prepared for some circumlocution in the following paragraphs 🙂

That said, I do think there are times that using profanity can be the best choice for specific circumstances. How do you figure out when to use it and when to refrain?

Here are some questions I’ve started asking myself:

1. Is it consistent with the characters I’m creating?

If you have a first person narrator, is the speaker the kind of person who curses as part of his or her internal monologue? Does the narrator have pet phrases that act as substitutions for profanity? Is the narrator comfortable repeating  other people’s swearing in scenes with dialogue?

We make assumptions about other people all the time based on the language they use, and use or non-use of profanity is often an important component to this. As an author, your choices in this matter will influence the way readers perceive your characters and communicate different aspects of their personalities without having to state them outright.

For example, in the book An Abundance of Katherines, John Green has two of his characters use the word “fug” (a word created by Norman Mailer to avoid censorship) instead of cursing.  The characters’ use of it tells us that they are the kind of people who are nerdy enough to use the word as a kind of homage to Mailer.

2. Is it the most effective language in this situation? Can I use other words with the same (or greater) effectiveness?

In genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, creating fake curses can allow you to reveal more about that world, including aspects of belief systems. An invented curse that feels satisfying  to say can help add color and depth to a created language.

Alternatively, in a genre such as poetry you want to choose language for the emotional response it creates in the reader. In some cases, a curse word packs the emotional punch you need.  In fiction, if you’ve established a character who doesn’t swear in ordinary situations, having this character drop an f-bomb can show devastation or frustration in a really powerful way.

Profanity can have the power to shock or create a strong emotional response, but it should not be overused, especially in the context of poetry. You’re striving for “the best  words in their best order” (to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge) so you don’t have room for anything superfluous.

3. Is this appropriate for my audience?

If I’m writing a children’s book, I might have a character who swears. Even though many children have been exposed to cursing, I might choose to imply what is happening or describe it in general terms (“The bully swore at me”) rather than spell out the specific words being used.

In an academic context, it’s generally not appropriate to use profanity as am intensifier, even though you might curse for effect if you were having a debate with your friend over the same topic. (“Pseudo” curse words like “crappy” wouldn’t be appropriate in that case, either).

However, if you are quoting a piece of literature or repeating language someone has used in an interview, that’s usually okay. You don’t need to edit it out or use dashes to replace any of the letters. If the passage is pertinent to your topic, go ahead and use it.

4. How much profanity do I need to use to communicate my point?

Dialogue is never a completely accurate depiction of the way people speak. If it was, it would be boring: all fragmented sentences peppered with “um”s and “ah”s. In the same way, if you were to write dialogue that faithfully rendered the number of times some people swear, that could also be distracting and take away from your overall story. In these situations, you want to use enough to indicate what kind of language these characters use and in what circumstances, but you don’t want to be too heavy handed with it just for the sake of realism.

If you do choose to include profanity in your work, always make sure you have a purpose for it, whether it is to provide clues about a character’s personality or state of mind, to give emotional impact, or to illustrate a point. If you don’t feel comfortable using “bad words” in your writing, that’s okay. Profanity is just one of the many tools that writers can use, and there are many cases when purposefully not using it can be extremely effective. In the end, you have to decide what it best for you and your writing.

Motivation, where art thou?

Sometimes motivation is just really hard to find (as evidenced by the fact that I’ve had the beginnings of this post floating around since October). Life happens, you’re tired, you don’t feel inspired, and you think to yourself “I’ll write more some other day.”

And then that other day just doesn’t come, and it’s been weeks since you’ve written anything… (sigh)

I recently encountered an article on Grammarly that isn’t really about motivation per se, but I think it can help provide some motivation when your writing life so grievously lacks it. It’s called “6 Signs You’re a Good Writer (You Just Don’t Know It Yet)” and you should definitely check it out (link here).

The basic idea from the Grammarly article is that you’re probably already doing things that lead to good writing without even realizing it. Things about yourself that you just take for granted (such as a love for reading and for words, or a penchant for vivid daydreams) may actually be contributing to your writing life.

This may not be super earthshaking, but it made me think about the fact that I get stressed out about my writing at times because I think I’m not doing the “right” kind of writing or I’m not taking it “seriously” enough. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

I think sometimes the reason I have trouble finding motivation is that I think that everything has to be formed perfectly in my head before I start writing, or that something great has to come into being every time I put my pen to the page. And let’s face it, that is never going to happen. It can be tough to feel motivated to do something when I’ve already set the bar impossibly high for myself.

I’ve started to think about trying to incorporate more freewriting into my day, and not feel that everything I write has to have a purpose or mean something. If I just want to make a list of words that sound good together, I can. I may use it some other time and I may not. That’s okay.

I like to talk about how things seem to take shape in my head as I write, how things seem clearer to me at the end than at the beginning of a writing session. And a lot of the time, that is true. But if I start writing with the expectation that these things will happen, it’s a lot harder to get motivated, because I’m tired (or uninspired, or whatever it happens to be that day) and it’s hard for me to believe that anything good could come out of a mind that feels like a solid lump.

I’m going to try to remember that the little things are worth motivating myself for, too.


Poetic Exercise (Metapoem #3)

I grapple with this thing that I have wrought;
Why is there such a gap
Between my words and thought?
I look at the page, full of wordy rabble—
Rouge syllables that fight me at each line.
Sense has done quite poorly in the struggle;
Sound has pinned it down upon the gravel.
I picture a stern judge, at a final test,
Banging down his gavel,
Declaring my work a mess.
No respite from unruly thoughts—
My mind is turning to a pulp
From wrestling with my inner ogre,
Whose small mind worries at each word,
Never satisfied. Why can’t I
Trap my meaning? I confess
I’m troubled by this failure on my part.
Still, sometimes there’s no shame in losing
As Jacob found, grappling with a stranger.
Just when his hip snapped out of joint,
He had a moment of jagged clarity,
Finally saw what he was wrestling,
Learned why it was worth the struggle.

Metapoem #2

In a previous post, I talked about what I like to call “metapoems”–poems about the writing process. Here’s another one that I found while I was looking through some of my older pieces.

Sometimes, writing
Is lancing a boil,
Letting all the blocked up thoughts
And feelings flow out
In a single stream of pus.
The results might resemble
Word salad, but
The process was necessary
For relief,
For sanity.

“I Hide My Poems”

In honor of the new year, I thought I’d share something a bit different in this post. I like to think of this as a “metapoem”: a poem about the experience of writing a poem.

I hide my poems
while they’re still bloody,
wait for my flesh to re-knit itself
into an untroubled whole,
wait until my words no longer throb
like a fingernail jammed backward,
in sync with each beat of my heart.
I leave them shut in the dark
gestating between pages,
then birth the poem again
when I revise.