What Is A Writer?
How does a person become a writer? Who or what is a “writer” anyway? Is a writer someone who has been paid money to write? In order to be considered a “real writer” does someone have to be published? If so, in what kind of publication? Would a self-published blog be enough? How about a church newsletter? The local paper? A literary magazine? The NEW YORKER or some other national magazine? A book publishing company?
What about a student newspaper or literary magazine? Or a photocopied manuscript that you’ve bound yourself and given to your grandparents for their anniversary?
This is a question students ask (and all writers secretly–or not so secretly–ponder).
Stephen King in his great book about writing called ON WRITING says:
I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.
Natalie Goldberg in WRITING DOWN THE BONES, takes for granted that a writer is someone who says he/she is a writer. Notice she does not give a definition, but asks the question “Why write?”
“Why do I write?” It’s a good question. Ask it of yourself every once in awhile. No answer will make you stop writing, and over time you will find that you have given every response . . . Yet it is a good and haunting question to explore, not so you can find the one final reason, but to see how writing permeates your life with many reasons.
She also says, “Don’t worry about your talent or capability; that will grow as you practice.”
Here is what I believe: A writer is someone who writes with intention.
When you write, you are present, engaged, explaining or exploring or describing the topic at hand. Not striving at first to write a great poem or story (although you probably will, eventually, want to edit and prune and expand and make it the very best your talent allows), but rather opening yourself up to the topic, reaching deep, getting to the truth of things. More on this later on.
A writer writes with a goal in mind, an idea that begs to be explored, or with a serious intention to create an image with words, to play with language, to see what you can do with the medium of words the way a sculptor creates with the medium of clay or a painter creates with the medium of watercolor paints. A writer likes to tell made-up stories (fiction writers), or wants to capture a moment in rhythms and imagery (poetry writers), or enjoys giving information in a vivid, complete way (journalists), or likes telling true stories about places, people, things (non-fiction, narrative writers, memoirists, diarists, etc.) A writer writes in order to see how a story or poem or narrative idea will turn out on the page.
This may sound serious (it is), but it is not so serious that it becomes a chore–at least not all the time. Because when you are a writer, at heart, writing is work and play at the same time. You may procrastinate sitting down to write. You may dread it. You may drag yourself kicking and screaming to the notebook or computer. In the end, though, when you get yourself down to the business of scribbling or tapping away, something magical happens. Your brain engages. You energy begins to flow out into words and sentences and images and rhythms. Time speeds up. If you come out of the zone for a minute or two (to stretch or have a drink of water–highly recommended, by the way) you realize, gasp! You are enjoying the process.
Maybe it is THIS that makes you a writer. We feel engaged, happy, useful, “in the zone” when we are doing what we are meant to do or have the capability of doing well.
How Do We Write?
Maybe it is like this for you. One part of your brain–we’ll call it Creative Brain–goes off exploring, traveling into your subconscious, making connections between objects and feelings and ideas, searching for treasure, digging for nuggets of truth, picking out the bones of the story (I think this is an image King uses; yes, page 163), hauling them back for inspection. The other part of your brain–Control Brain–stands back at the observation booth, keeping track of Creative Brain, reminding it of that day’s particular goal, keeping a lifeline attached that allows Creative Brain to go exploring dark and hidden crevices, knowing it will be reeled back in good time.
This is the closest I have come to explaining how the writing process works in my own head. Perhaps it is different for you. Maybe that would be a good topic for you to explore. What makes you a writer? How does your brain work when you are writing? Why do you want to write? How did you first think of being a writer? What do you want to accomplish with your writing?
You don’t have to know the answers to all these questions, but they are worth exploring.
So, you are a teenager. You have homework, dances, sports practice, dinner with the family, chores. How do you find time to write a perfect story, a brilliant poem, a masterpiece of an essay about the meaning of life, or an epic novel?
Simple answer: You don’t. At least, not all at once.
Here is the most freeing writing suggestion I’ve discovered so far–Daily Writing Practice. I first read about this is Natalie Goldberg’s book, and I will be sharing a bit of what I’ve learned from her over the next five weeks. Daily writing practice involves three things: a journal, a pen, and a clock.
You may not have time to write a epic poem, but you do have ten minutes a day. A writer writes with intention. Every day, you will write with intention for ten minutes. That’s not so bad, right? And here is the best thing. If you write in your journal every day for ten minutes, you are a writer. Voila! You are a writer! Isn’t that cool?
What is the point of daily writing practice? 1)It makes you a writer. 2)You use your ten minutes of writing to let Creative Brain go dashing off into your subconscious and you’ll be amazed at what he/she/it brings back for you! 3)You will have material that can be used for future projects. 4)You will get into the habit of writing every day. 5)You may even learn some things about who you are, what you believe, what you like, what you dislike, the way you see the world, the way you’d like the world to be.
What Do I Write About?
You start with the things that interest you already. Take out your journal. Turn to the last page. Start making a list of things that you find interesting. Could be earthworms. Could be hip-hop dance. Could be medieval castles. Could be world peace. Could be snotty girls at school. Could be bubble-gum. Whatever comes to mind, write it down on your list.
Now, as you go about your day, week, month you might start to develop a knack for discovering topics, like some people develop an ability to spot four-leaf clovers. Their brains learn to quickly recognize the shape of the four-leafers in a sea of regular three-leafed plants. Likewise, if you begin to keep a writing topics list, you will learn to quickly recognize a good topic when you see it. Start keeping a list of potential writing topics, and you will find them everywhere! Jot them down. Add them to your journal list later on if you have to, but try to write them down so you don’t forget later on.
Now, if I were really pretentious, I would tell you that I carry around a small notebook and a pen all the time for just these very moments when a topic presents itself. Eeangh! (That is the sound of a airhorn blown by a referee to call a blatant foul).
I SHOULD have a notebook with me at all times, but I rarely do. In reality, I tend to write ideas and topics down on scraps of whatever paper I have in my purse or can find lying around me. Then I stick those into a folder called “Ideas and Inspirations.” Since reading Goldberg’s book, I keep a list on the back page, but I also have my folder.
So, get to work right now. Turn to the back of your notebook. Write “Topics List” at the top of the page or not, it’s up to you. You can write, “Stuff I Like To Write About” or whatever. Then start your list. Think about things that scare you. Things that thrill you. Things that make you frustrated. Things that make you feel warm and fuzzy. It’s all good. Grist for the mill, as they say.
(Who said this, I wonder? Hmmm. Maybe I should put that on my topics list as “Look up history of grist for the mill.”)
The topics list is your first writing generation tool. Go!
Okay, what did you come up with? Let’s share our topics. Maybe someone else thought of something you would be interested in writing. Nothing wrong with that. Write it down! If some of your topics are embarrassing to share, skip over those. No problem.
Need more ideas? One very awesome thing about the internet is that so much information is out there just waiting to be found. A quick search for “writing topics” brings up many lists and websites. I have put a few on the Teen Writing Class page found here on my blog. So if you are really hard up for a topic, just go to one of those and pick something. You might want to bookmark it on your home computer or add the sites to your topics list so they are handy. But you can always find them here on the blog or by using a search engine. If you find a cool list, feel free to bring it in the class and share it.
A Word About the Internal Editor
What is an editor? When we are talking about a publishing company–magazine or newspaper or book–an editor is the person who chooses which pieces of writing are suitable for that publication. There is judgement involved. The editor judges the writing–good enough or not. The editor also makes suggestions for changes, corrections,etc. This kind of editor is positive for writers and necessary for publication.
The Internal Editor, however, is not always so positive. In fact, the I.E. can become a block when you are journaling or writing a first draft. When you are journaling, do not worry about anything except letting your Creative Brain free to explore. Do not worry about spelling. Do not worry about grammar. Do not worry about staying strictly on topic. Do not worry about staying on topic at all. What is important during journaling is giving yourself permission to write the worst stuff ever put on paper.
It doesn’t matter if what you write is total crap. First drafts usually are. Let your Creative Brain go off on tangents. If your Creative Brain comes up with some weird metaphor, write it down! It’s just a writing exercise, not a paper being graded for school. Turn the Internal Editor off. Later, when you are rewriting, revising, polishing, the Internal Editor will be there ready and willing to take an assessing look at your piece. For now, forget about it! Just write!
Practice 10 Minute Writing Exercise
Okay, pick a topic from your list. Get comfortable. Turn to the first page of your journal. We are going to write for ten minutes. We are going to follow Natalie Goldberg’s rules, somewhat paraphrased:
1)Keep your hand moving. Don’t reread what you’ve just written. Just keep writing no matter what.
2)Don’t cross out. That is editing.
3)Don’t worry about spelling and grammar. You don’t even have to stay on the lines or margins.
4)Lose control. Let the Creative Brain run free!
5)Go for the jugular. Really latch on. Even if something scary or raw or angry comes up, write it down. That is really getting to the heart of things. That is good . . . even when it is bad.
Sharing in Workshop
How was the writing? How did you feel? Were there times when you felt stuck? Did anything interesting come to the page that you weren’t expecting?
Writing workshops are usually about sharing writing with other writers and learning from their work and getting feedback about your own writing. We will be doing some of that in future classes. Tonight, I simply would like us to get comfortable reading our work in front of the group. Next week we’ll talk about how to give and receive feedback, but tonight let’s just share.
Take a minute to look at your journal entry. You can pick out a couple of paragraphs you’d like to share with the group, circle or underline or put a star beside the parts you want to share if you like. If you are taking this class at home, feel free to copy some of your journal entry an email and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know if you want it printed here on the class page or to keep in private.
Or you could simply share it with someone at home or school who is interested in your writing. Better yet, talk them into taking this class with you!
It can be scary to put yourself and your thoughts out there, but realize that we are all in the same boat. We all just gave ourselves permission to write junk. There is no right or wrong or good or bad here–just possibilities and the occasional surprising glimmer of gold beneath a hill of gray slate.
Yes, the dreaded homework word. Getting the most out of this class requires one thing–writing every day for ten minutes in your journal. From these journal entries, you will draw ideas for future classes on characterization, using details, plotting, and putting it all together. Your journal can be story ideas, notes about a character, telling about a past experience, dreaming about the future, anything and everything that interests you, piques your curiosity, or makes you feel strong emotion.
Writing. It’s dreaming on paper. See you next week!