Saturday, May 9, 2009

Writing Tip #207 - Thou Shall Not Covet Other Writers' Skills

Last weekend I had the pleasure of co-facilitating a robust and engaging women’s writing workshop. Halfway through we started talking about what writers fear. The list was long and involved, but the fear that rang true for most, and something I’ve been thinking about for a while, was the idea that some writers just have the natural skills/talents for the vocation and the rest of us are delusional posers.

But let’s be for real, do you really think Toni Cade Bambara, or Barbara Kingsolver never had to use a dictionary or thesaurus to find those beautiful words that litter their stories. Or that Harper Lee or Toni Morrison didn’t slave over the manuscript, that shot them to fame, and it all just magically landed on the page. No matter how the story of any writer’s rise from obscurity is told, it will always be a shorten version that is lacking all the pitfalls, false starts, blank pages, and piles of rejection slips. What I think keeps the myth of “naturally talented” going is once a writer reaches their pinnacle only words like masterful, exceptional and brilliant seems to be allowed in their hemisphere.

I for one appreciate when writers come forward and share how they developed their craft and keep the stone sharpened. A few years ago, I read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and was impressed with how average he seemed and how his story ideas came from very mundane things in his life. Here was the “King of Horror” sharing “write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work.” From that perspective, young writers are correct when they say they could never write like Amy Tan, because they don’t share the same life experiences and would present those moments of story inspiration very differently.
Another stumbling block for aspiring writers is looking at a seasoned writer’s career and lamenting that they will not arrive at the same place. Even a mid-tier writer receives the same kind of scrutiny, but mainly in the form of scorn: I know her and I can’t figure out how she got a story in that magazine.

I say save all that coveting energy for all the work you need to do, to get your skills up to the level of when people forget to mention all the strife and rejection you went through to get where you are. As with all skills it is about time, practice, practice, time, and a little bit of luck thrown in when you are ready.

Here is an exercise to help you see how far you’ve come since that first time you dared to pick up a pen and call yourself writer.

Exercise: Put together an “Artist Resume” that records every achievement you’ve experienced in your “writer’s life.” List the poem that appeared in the school newspaper, the blog you keep, the feature you did at Mocha Hut with Drew Brokeballer Anderson, and the writing workshop you did for your Sunday School class. Anything where you put your writing skills on display and at least one person saw you do it. You will be surprised how impressive you are becoming.

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