Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Monday, January 4, 2010

Becoming a Writer

I am currently reading the biography of Truman Capote, Capote by Gerald Clarke. Along with interesting details, like an inside look at the post-WW II publishing industry, and disturbing details like how widespread homosexuality was even back then, is the story of how Truman Capote developed as a writer. Like many authors, he knew what he wanted at a young age and he stayed focused on that despite his unhappy childhood and adolescence, his problems at school, and his physical handicaps. (He was barely 5', had a high voice, and looked like a child even in his twenties. A beautiful child, but to be taken seriously when you are 22 and look 10?) Capote filled notebooks with his writing. He was never seen without one of his notebooks.

In his book On Writing , Stephen King shares his story of becoming a writer. As a teenager, he churned out short stories and sent them off to his favorite magazines. He collected rejection slips in his attic room, tacking them up to the ceiling near his bed. His first novel Carrie became a bestseller in the 1970's, and he has been writing ever since. Because he loves it and it's what he does. Referring to authors who only publish one or two books in their lifetime, he states: "If God gives you something to do, then why the hell aren't you doing it?" (Or something like that...this is pretty close to how I remember the quote, and I have since taken the book back to the library so I can't look it up, sorry.)

I'll bet most of us writers have similar stories. It's our early career dream, we have collected a lot of rejection slips, we do it for love not money, and we all have obstacles to overcome along the way. The obstacles (I call them excuses when they keep me from writing) are countless. They don't matter. They are real, but they don't count as reasons to not write. As my mother in law used to say, "Excuses are like armpits. Everybody has them, and they all stink."

Even if you can't work on that novel you've been planning for years, you can still write. Take a notebook with you everywhere. Write daily in a journal. Write letters. Blog. Whatever form your writing takes, you must write something to practice your craft. It's an essential part of becoming a writer. Anything worth doing takes effort, practice, work and due diligence. Why should writing be any different?

My obstacles/excuses were many. When I was a child I wrote stories that always ended with the main character waking up and realizing it was all a dream. I hated that but didn't know how else to resolve the conflict. I stopped writing stories and wrote letters and diaries instead. And I read every book in my small town library.

In college, I took creative writing classes so I could learn "how to write." A college professor said I was brilliant. So I knew I had some talent. (Either that or he had a crush on me, I was never sure which.) But when I tried writing outside of class assignments, I realized I had no life experience, nothing to write about. That was my excuse. I needed to live and get experience before I could do any more with it. I gave up the fiction attempts and went back to the journal and letter writing. Back to reading every book in the world.

I set out on my life-- marriage and children. Lots of children. My life experience began to add up. I tried writing again, and sold a few stories to The Friend. (Only one got published that I know of, the rest must be in a file cabinet somewhere.) I took a mail order course on writing and loved it. It taught me more than any of my college writing classes had. By then I had eight kids. Lots of excuses. Lots of life experience, not much writing. Except in journals. Stacks and stacks of journals and notebooks. It's a family joke about "mom's journals." I used to buy those nicely bound, elegant journals, but that got expensive when I went through one every two or three months. I decided to punch paper that's good on one side and fill fat, three- ring binders. I write on the blank pages. One of those lasts me about 6 months.

During those busy decades of home and family when I wrote very little for publication, I still wrote. I was a secretive, reclusive writer. Three hours a day in the 3-ring binders, an essential part of becoming a writer. No one knew the intensity and depth of my obsession. No one knew my dream. When Farm Girl was published, friends were amazed-- "I didn't know you wrote" was the common refrain.

Whatever you do, however you do it--your writing counts. Just so the thoughts get put into words. Publication can come later, when you have practiced your craft well enough and long enough that people will actually pay to read something you wrote. And those of you with publishing contracts know how great that feels!


  1. "Excuses are like armpits. Everybody has them, and they all stink."

    My MIL and husband say, "Excuses are for losers." That statement shocked me at first, but it's now one of my favorite mantras.

  2. I get tired of friends telling me they want to write a book like me but don't have the time.

    I made the time. They could too.

  3. I can relate... minus five children. Life experience is necessary, even within the home. I needed to get out and live, too. Right, David. Make it happen.

  4. I often read what other writers have done and I think, I should have done that or that or that. But all I can do is what I've done and keep working.

  5. This is a lesson that we all must learn: writing is writing. Whatever form we take to practice is still writing and will teach us more about our craft. Poetry taught me about fiction. Fiction taught me about blogging. Blogging is teaching me about nonfiction. Thanks for the reminder to just keep writing.

    Stopped in from Nicola Morgan's blog party. Love the cover of Uncut Diamonds.

  6. Hi Megan, I visited yours and wanted to comment but couldn't find the spot! I'll try again. I enjoyed your posts and will definitely visit you again.