In the wake of the publication of my first book (Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989), I’ve been looking at and even joining a few online writers’ group. Everybody has a story to tell, and so many want to be a writer, the only thing stopping them being fear, doubt, and experience.
Not inexperience in telling stories, which we all do easily among friends and family. But shaping the stories, or poems, or dramas — or any idea for public transmission — into publishable form.
Most of the questions posed in writers’ groups are naive and childish, seems to me. Seeing them, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let me show you a few examples here and see what you think.
In a Facebook group, a would-be author asks, “What is a good title for a memoir about surviving a double lung transplant?” To date she’s gotten more than 700 suggestions, all manner of “help” from would-be helpers, including
- A Different Kind of Windfall
- Wind-Owe to My Soul
- Wind-Oh to My Soul
- How to Breathe
- Out of Breath
- Breathing Gratitude
- Thank God I Survived Twice: The Story of Two Lung Transplants
- Within the Rib Cage
- Branching Passages of Air
- Double Your Pleasure
- Heavy Breathing
Most of these suggestions are going nowhere fast. They’re embarrassing or off the point, if the point can be divined. I commented, simply, “Write the book, Snoopy, and forget the title. It will come to you, easily, after the heavy lifting.”
Writers Helping Writers, the name of this group, suggests that writing is a lonely craft, which it certainly is. Do writers need other writers? Certainly. They need people with experience and judgment to help them through the long, lonely task — the heavy lifting — of writing, revising, and finishing a book. What the experience and critical capabilities of the people in this Facebook group are, however, only the gods know.
Writing is lonely. You’ll have craft if you put the necessary blood, sweat, and tears into the task. To paraphrase the title character in Henry James’s The American, I would exhort all young writers, “Read. Read all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” (James’ character, the ambassador of the title, Lambert Strether, tells the young man he’s talking to, “Live. Live all you can,” which is also great advice and necessary for the writer.) Live all you can and read the best stuff you can find, wherever your interests lie. For how can you write if you do not live, or have not read, or written enough to punch your way out of the kraft bag (craft bag) you have put yourself in?
No, you don’t have to enroll in a formal course of study, the way I did way back when (majoring in English in college and then earning a Ph.D. in American lit and teaching literature and writing for years). You don’t have to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or any other formal school, though joining a local writers’ group may be helpful if the members are competent writers and compassionate, knowledgeable critics too. (Face-to-face writers’ groups don’t always work out, as I can testify from experience. Sometimes there are petty personal disagreements. Sometimes you simply can’t get much interest or attention in your project. There may be too many members, or too few. But at their best, writers’ groups offer live support and immediate clarification if not gratification.)
Reading the best stuff will help you form your judgment and inform your craft. Your writing will become a stronger mix of direct day-to-day experience, stories and ideas you’ve heard from friends and family, and the most intriguing craftsmanship. There is a divide between high and low culture, of course. I’m not suggesting you must stick strictly to the high road, but if your idea of craft is informed only or largely by pop music or genre fiction, you’re on pretty shaky ground as to influence.
In another online writers’ group, on LinkedIn, a member passes on advice for struggling writers, as in “How To Overcome Writers Block: 12 Simple Ideas That Helps with Creative Blockage.” Not a bad read, actually, if you’re on the ball and don’t take everything here literally. (Shouldn’t writers, of all people, learn to distrust the literal, the concrete, the superficial, that which pretends to be anchored in the “real,” whatever that is?) If you think, for example, that writer’s block is caused by “emotional distress,” you may not have sorted through or dealt otherwise with your emotions. Indeed, you might say we write precisely to sort through our emotions, to banish or lay down distress in the dust, to master that which has threatened to master us.
What about the suggestion here to “Take a shower”? Excuse me, I think I’ll pour myself a bourbon. Or “Meditate/Yoga”? Up to you, my fine feathered friend.
But here’s a good one, an excellent idea: “Read other people’s writings.” Of course. Other professional writers’ good writing, celebrated and justly acclaimed writing. It’s a mistake not to!