There’s a lot out there about how to be a writer, but, at the very heart of being one is William S. Burroughs’ description of Kerouac. “Well, Kerouac was a writer. That is he wrote.”
I read a blog post yesterday that left me thinking about where I was when I started — I actually started writing as a small child, so I don’t mean then — but when I started writing novels intentionally (1998?) vs. where I am now. I’ve learned some stuff.
I’ll start by “where I am now” in the most literal sense. I have this WordPress blog because a book I read three? Four? years ago said, “A good way to promote your work is by having a WordPress blog.” Whether a person’s work is conventionally or self published, it needs to be promoted, a task falling more and more on the shoulders of the author. At the time I read that book, I had two novels to promote and had begun a third.
Once on WordPress, I found the “Daily Prompt.” I already wrote everyday without someone telling me to write every day, but, following the instructions in the book, I decided to “attempt” (there is nothing difficult about it, IMO) the daily prompt. Back then it wasn’t just a word; it was a topic. OK. I thought it was stupid and in no way a challenge, but I did it.
The reward? I’m not going to talk about the relationships I have built with others, though I’d say that’s a yuge reward. I’ll stick to the more writerly rewards.
Because of the Daily Prompt, I wrote some short stories I would never have written or even thought of. Not a lot of them, but one of them won an award last year. Here it is as it appeared first, here on WordPress. The prompt was: “The Setting’s the Thing: Today, we challenge you to create a compelling setting for your story. ‘A man and his wife meet for lunch in a diner on August 5th, 1970, in New York City. She’s pregnant and plans to spill the beans over lunch’.”
I ended up loving the story and I would never have written it without the “Daily Prompt” mandate I’d given myself. I was wrapped up in writing The Brothers Path, not thinking of any other stories. I like writing short fiction and, in this consequence-less world of the Daily Prompt, it’s easy just to write something.
That brings up the question of inspiration vs. discipline. My art teacher in high school said not to wait for inspiration, meaning, don’t just paint when you’re inspired. Paint all the time. He was right, actually. The short stories I wrote first here on WordPress, and later refined on my computer, were not the result of inspiration but of discipline, choosing to do the prompt and sticking with it.
What do you get if you “paint every day?” You get better at painting. You get ideas you didn’t know you had. You paint things you never thought of painting. The same has been true for me writing the daily prompt. Write every day? Get better at writing.
Discipline is also humility. This is important to me as a writer. No inspired person is humble. The word “inspiration” means the gods are breathing life into you. In the moments of inspiration you are as close to a divinity as possible, carried away on the wings of angels — NOTHING can go wrong; EVERYTHING is perfect; your work is AMAZING because the experience in which you are enveloped is transcendent, miraculous. Discipline is the key to knowing that, when the glorious moment is over, you’ll have to sit down and revise…
There’s a lot written on the question of revision. I think there are several kinds, or perhaps levels. There’s revision as you write (you pay attention to what comes out of your fingers). There’s revision after you’ve written something — a paragraph, a page, a chapter. There’s revision at the level of looking (objectively) at a completed project to see if you’ve done all you can to make it as good as it can possibly be. That’s revision for all the “pretty” things of writing, where a writer can make choices about HOW a story is told. In writing Martin of Gfenn I learned the hard way that, in a very real way, there are two novels; one is the story; the other is the WAY the story is written. It was that discovery that transformed me from a hack taking dictation from “the gods” into an artist.
And, then there are readers. I believe that every writer who is serious at all wants people to read their work. I have accepted that my novels are not on the public pulse, and I understand that doesn’t make me a bad writer or my novels not worth reading. It’s a big world out there and market forces drive sales, I don’t. Burroughs also said that every writers’ work reveals the writer. I have certainly learned a lot about myself by seeing what I have dedicated myself to writing.
At this point — after 3+ years writing this blog — I have just over 1,000 followers.
I am writing a novel now. I don’t know how it’s going to come together — it’s “finished” in the sense that I have written the beginning, the middle and the end, but it’s still a very unfinished work. I don’t even know who the protagonist is. If you write historical fiction, you are bounded by historical events, so it’s possible to “know” a story without having a story, in a sense.
As I go to it at least once a day for however long I can stand it, I think about writer’s block, something I’ve always mocked saying, “So don’t write! Ha ha! Or write something else!”
Yeah, well, once more, live and learn.