How To Be a Great Writer

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First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.

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Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

17 thoughts on “How To Be a Great Writer”

  1. I think the trick to living that life, is probably, not to do it intentionally. I don’t know that you can choose to live your own personal hell for a year and plan to return to your regular life after, circumstances must provide.
    Jackie Collins writes, successfully, about priveleged lives, I imagine she loves what she does and that’s the important thing (certainly not the literary contribution she makes to the world, but face it, we all need a mindless holiday read at some time, choose your pulp poison and enjoy).
    I love your tips, I love your honesty. The 10,000 hour tip- spot on.
    I’m a writer, sometimes paid, sometimes not. I’m yet to be an author.

  2. Sometimes I am amazed at how we are running along the same thinking path. 🙂 I almost added that bit about living life to my post last night but it was too big a topic to bring in in the penultimate paragraph, I decided. So I’m saving it for another day. (And even your promise for tomorrow echoes a post I’ve had written for months but haven’t run. Ha! I love the way you think!)

    My kids and I recently had a discussion—and this after we watched Waiting for Superman together (he has an education degree), which made me cry—about entitlement, and why his generation (X) and the next (Y) stride the earth like they are kings of all they survey.

    1. Well, Jamie Chavez, reading your post this morning after being alerted to the pingback on the Blue Lit blog kind of helped me put all of the stuff I’d been thinking about writing the last couple of days in perspective.

      I have a kind of running tab of ideas in my head about blog posts. They’re always swimming into one another, so sometimes I start out wanting to say one thing, and wind up saying something else.

      I am totally jealous of your backlog of blog content. I write and post the same day.

  3. Brilliant piece, April! As you know, I used to teach writing. I always would ask my students what kind of books they liked to read. Invariably, there was always one student who said they didn’t like to read books, or fiction. I’d say, “Then what makes you think you can write one?” Also invariably, they dropped the class after a week or two, once they found out they actually were expected to write in a writing class. Go figure.

  4. I think you and I would have a fine time over coffee swapping tales and just plain enjoying one another’s forthrightness!

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I certainly have the life experience! Not that I’ve done anything that was super-dangerous, but I have had, well, life. I know it informs my writing and gives it depth. I also have the reading under my belt. It’s the writing practice I am working on. It’s good to know I have a good start.

  6. This is interesting. I’m in the middle of reading Moby Dick and PBS aired a special on Whalers last week and I was thinking the exact same thing about how much Melville lived life before writing that book. Melville really jumped off whaling ships and lived with the cannibals. He knew that life of which he wrote. I didn’t know that he wrote the book thinking it was going to be the best book ever written. People rejected it during his lifetime, as being too wild and behind the changing times on the way to industrialization. But that imagery and those characters in his book – Unforgettable! Can’t imagine him getting that out of a desk job. Unfortunately, the publication of Moby Dick began the decline of his literary career and he ended up being an accountant or something. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I haven’t gone back yet to look it all up.) The sobering fact is that Melville wrote that book when he was in his mid 30’s after living life on the ocean, hitch-hiking off whaling ships and braving the hardship of the seas and unknown lands. In today’s world of writing, we get Carrie Bradshaw worrying about dripping some of her Cosmopolitan on her Manolo Blahniks.

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