Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Take Yourself Seriously

A few days ago someone on Facebook asked writers to please give one line of advice to beginning writers. “Take yourself seriously,” is mine. It’s my mantra to myself because I wasted so many years not doing it.

When I first started writing, I treated it like a lark. Like so many beginners, I thought writing must be easy—unless you were writing Moby Dick, in which case it was probably hard. But since Moby Dick had already been written, I didn’t have to go there. But look at how easy Jane Austen made it look. And Eudora Welty with those nuggets of short stories. Look how you could breeze through Elmore Leonard and Dame Agatha and Elizabeth George. Right? Right? Must have been easy to write because they tripped so easily through the eye and into the brain. I’d take nwriting classes in which my prose was almost always praised. Piece of cake.

So I started writing a novel. And at some point I reached a hard spot in my novel. What to do? What to do? Abandon it in favor of another book that was going to be fabulous, that’s what. So I started another book.

Finally I finished a novel and it seemed good enough. That’s all I was asking for—good enough. But publishers sent rejections. Not good enough. Okay, now I knew more. I’d write another one. Good enough! No. And then another. And another. And all this time I was not taking myself and my writing seriously.

Here was my magical thinking:
1)   If I just knew the right person, I could get a foot in the door.
2)   If I could just write something “good enough” an editor could fix whatever wasn’t working
3)   If I could just write a book that happened to catch a wave of a popular theme, the book would be snatched up.
4)   My writing is good, the details should take care of themselves.

Meanwhile, I gave careless consideration to all the real things that needed to be addressed: voice, character, plot, structure, setting. I was pretty good at each of those things—hadn’t everyone in workshops said so? But I had someone gotten the impression that these elements were the by-product of writing, not the heart and soul of it.

What I mean by not taking myself seriously is that I was not requiring a serious attitude about the one thing I wanted to accomplish—to become a published writer. In the parlance of education, I was an under-achiever. The thing is, I put in a lot of hours—and I thought that’s what was meant by “taking myself seriously.”

Eventually I got to the right workshop, in which the words “take yourself seriously” was described in a way that hit home and I understood that I had to write from my brain, not just my instincts. Maybe I needed all those years of failure, all those “almost” books, before I was ready to hear it. But boy, did I waste a lot of time and energy before that.

So I’m saying to anyone sitting down to write a story, whether it be your first or your twentieth, whether you’ve published or not: take yourself seriously. That’s the way it works.

Book Recommendation: Attica Locke's Pleasantville just won the Harper Lee prize for legal fiction. It's a phenomenal book. I highly recommend it.

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