On working with writers

by nike, April 17, 2013

il_fullxfull.96879551No single approach to writing, no single essay or piece of advice, is enough. There are as many ways to write as there are writers, and as many ways to encourage others to write as there are teachers.

I do not pretend to have all the answers.

Instead, I try to offer a playful and peripatetic exploration of a small range of forms, ideas, writing and writers. As a teacher or mentor, I am as much concerned with the careful and attentive reading of writing as the careful and attentive composition new work.

Not all writers are equal, or alike. Some believe only in divine inspiration; some work at it like stonemasons or bricklayers, with an earthy and workmanlike attention to craft and form. You will no doubt have your own preconceptions and biases. Your own ideas about what is right and good. You may have your own techniques and habits: both useful and problematic.

The good habits you should keep – the ones that help you write, and write well – whereas those habits that seem like good ideas, but which rarely, if ever, result in the writing of good work, you should probably consider changing.

Some writers are waiting for the muse who never arrives and need to practice some more discipline.

Some writers turn up every day, chain themselves to the page, and write only feeble, weak sentences: they probably need to stop writing for a while and go and walk in the fresh air. Go to a movie, read a book, light a fire. Dance. Find the thing that makes them want to write, that makes the writing live, and then go back to the page.

No one approach is always the right approach for every writer. That, as far as it goes, is my philosophy of practice – the philosophy I recommend to you – Whatever works.

A Tale of Two Poets

Success as a writer is a strange idea. It’s useful, I think, to consider what success as a writer means to you, and what you can do to improve your chances of being a successful writer on your own terms.

For some writers, it is enough to be writing, for others publication is an important goal, for others recognition in the form of good reviews or awards. I believe that it’s useful to have a mixture of two types of goals:

  • those you have control of and can achieve (such as: I will enter ten poetry competitions this year),
  • and those over which you have less control (such as: I will win a poetry award).

If they’re connected, as these examples are, all the better. It’s useful to set goals you can achieve without needing any luck or external support, but which will help you achieve the goals that are beyond your control because they improve your odds, skills, etc. You might also need to have a mixture of both short and long-term goals.

I’d like to tell you a little story about two writers I know. Something of an Aesopean fable, though it’s based on a true story. Let’s call the writers who are the main characters Q and J.

Q and J are in the same writing group. Q is the writer whom all of the others in the group admire the most. Q’s stories are the kinds of stories everyone in the group – including me –  wishes they could write themselves. They are almost shockingly good. Most weeks, Q tables a story for discussion. The group offers feedback, most of which is positive.

Q has never used any of the critical feedback received. Sometimes, while the group is discussing Q’s writing, Q appears to be completely disengaged. Every now and then, when the group insists that the story is wonderful, Q sends that story to a magazine or competition. Once, Q was shortlisted for a national prize, but was so appalled not to have won outright that Q asked for her name not to be included in the press release, or published in the subsequent anthology of poems; Q found the whole experience so difficult that Q has now stoppped entering competitions. Not long after this, Q received a form rejection from a magazine. Q has not sent out any of her writing since. In fact, Q has not written any new work since that last rejection. The stories Q submits to the group for discussion are old ones. Stories from the bottom drawer that she wrote a long time ago.

J is the writer whom all the others in the group are most worried about: they wonder why on earth J persists, when their their is so ordinary, so lacklustre. Every week, J tables a story. They are sometimes terrible. Sometimes ok. The group discusses the story and J pays careful attention, takes notes, asks questions. J’s writing is steadily, but slowly, improving. Finally, J tables a story that the group agrees is publishable. J sends it off to a competition and writes another. J reworks some of the earlier stories, and writes new ones, and sends them out, too. When J receives a rejection, J files it, and does two things: sends the rejected story to another market and, sends another story to the market who has rejected the first one.

After a year or three, Q is in a state of despair. Confidence at an all-time low. Why isn’t their writing improving? They feel it’s good, but they also feel as though they are in a writing rut, unable to write better stories than they were writing a year ago. Why is J, who is clearly a weaker writer, enjoying such success? How did J manage to get a story published in the same magazine that rejected Q? Why is J’s list of publications looking quite respectable, while Q’s is … well, it’s short. And J? J is happy. They feel that their skills as a writer are improving, and they are getting things published here and there.

The moral of this fable? Well, to me it’s perhaps not as obvious as it seems. Yes, there is the obvious one: hard work and dedication generally improve your chances of succes. Another lesson to be learned from Q and J’s experience is that it isn’t always the ‘better’ writer – or the most naturally gifted one – who achieves their goals: as a teacher of writing I have seen examples of this principle over and over again.

It also seems clear to me that Q could be happy if they readjusted their sense of what they want to achieve as a writer, and either adjusted their approach (sending more work out, perhaps, and working on coping with rejection), or accepted that if they aren’t willing to send things out, and can’t cope with rejection at this point, they aren’t likely to get published so they should adjust their goals to suit. For now, at least. Perhaps they could set themselves a goal of writing 10 new stories – 30 – this year that they won’t show anyone. Stories that they will write without any fear or ambition, but purely to write the best thing they know how to write. They will try new forms, new methods. A writerly experiment in courage, designed to break old habits, improve confidence and output, and generate a healthy disregard for the difficulty of writing a single story.

Perhaps there are other lessons you see in our Tale of Two Writers …

For now, the point is to illustrate that I don’t believe that either J or Q’s approach to being a writer is wrong. They are different people, with different needs, and different aspirations. The questions I ask myself in working to help J and Q improve their lives as writers is twofold:

  • first, what are you doing that is good for you as a writer, and/or as a person?
  • and second, what are you doing that is not good for you as a writer, and/or as a person?

As a writer and a teacher of writing, my approach is, I hope, open and respectful of different types of writers and people. But I do have have some biases to declare, which you should know about if you’re thinking about working with me:

  • I believe that some skills required to write well cannot, perhaps, be learned. Inspiration and dedication, for example, in their rawest form, you seem to either have or not have.
  • I believe that some things that cannot be learned can nevertheless be nurtured and developed. Room can be made for inspiration to enter; discipline can be practiced and become a habit.
  • I believe that no one form or style of writing is inherently greater or more admirable than any other though, like all readers and writers, I have my own tastes and make no apology for them.
  • I believe that stories and poems often can, and perhaps even should, be analysed in order that they reveal to the reader the true depths of their beauty and complexity. I have little understanding of those who seem to feel that analysis murders a piece of writing. For me, analysis of a good piece of writing opens it up, deepens my appreciation. (Analysis of a weak piece of writing, however, often only makes its flaws more apparent)
  • I believe that analysis of writing can lead to a greater understanding of writing, and – for the writer – a greater understanding of how to write.
  • I believe that reading and the writing are intrinsically connected; that writing new work is partly a matter of responding to the works that you have read.
  • I believe that honest, supportive, informed feedback is useful to most writers, though some find it difficult to work with, either emotionally or technically.

Fundamentally, the courses and workshops I run, the way I work with writers as individuals or approach critiquing or editing another writer’s work is based on the idea that learning to write better is partly a matter of developing a richer, fuller understanding of the medium, and learning from the practice of other writers, including each other, AND that constructive but empathetic (not sympathetic) feedback is useful to most – though perhaps not all – writers.

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