"I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. . . . And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen. Then I wrote some terrible, terrible stories."
bird by bird | anne lamott
I used to shun books about writing. "Just sit down and write," I'd groan. "Reading about the process won't give any polish to your rough draft. Write and learn as you go." And for a while, I lived on that advice. Violets Are Blue, Rifles in the South Field, Anath's Song, and bits of other novels were all scribbled by the so-called seat of my pants. I had outlines. I had various marked up notes. I did bits of harem-scarem research here and there, sometimes specific (but more often broad). It worked — for a time. But when I realized I was rusty on the basics — when my dialogue failed to carry the story; when my characters fell flat; when the whole business frustrated me with its half-baked approach — I knew I needed to go back to the most basic elements of all.
I'm still not a proponent of self-help books. I still live by the same writing advice I first swore by years ago: read good books and keep at your own writing until you can produce good books. But if you're like me and you're realizing there are aspects of your craft that could really do to be sharpened, well, there are masters aplenty at your fingertips.
Any athlete who tries to run before he can walk will fail. He'll fall to the sidelines and cough in the dust churned by his superiors' pounding feet. That's exactly how I've felt for the past three years: determined to write full novels, but with little on which to go. My plots were in shambles, grown dusty after months of neglect. I once wrote fluidly, but as my essays have improved, my fiction has fallen to the side. My best writing comes in the bursts of spontaneous dialogue and impromptu flash fiction that I scribble down from time to time and occasionally post.
The day came when I decided to put the madness on hold. I'd talked with my dad about my frustration over my seeming inability to produce any decent story material (sound familiar?). He recommended I change my approach to fit reality. Each morning, I've been waking up an hour earlier than usual to read fiction. Currently it's Flannery's Complete Stories; next I'm hoping to begin Anna Karenina. I know if I wait until the day starts, it won't happen, but if I make a point of rising early enough, an hour of leisure reading sounds quite appealing. At night, I read a chapter or two from a book about the art of writing. I recently finished Dorothy Sayers' Mind of the Maker (highly recommended) and have started in with the ever-hilarious Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I'm imbibing quality fiction, as well as refreshing myself on the elements of good stories.
In short, I've given myself permission not to write a novel right now. Rifles in the South Field sounds too forced when I try to pound out a few thousand words; perhaps, like a good wine, it still needs to mature. After this semester ends and I've gone through my shelf of books and essays on writing, I'll be ready to attack that list of research books: not half-heartedly as I once did, fitting in a chapter a month in the midst of school reading, but patiently and methodically. It's true that we make time for what we want to do, but we do our work with excellence when we're not stretched too thin.
I'm glad to know that the learning process can still be an exciting one. For once, I don't feel anxious over the fact that I'm not currently working on a novel. I look forward to reading Flannery in the morning and Lamott at night, and I've learned much from each. I've pulled away from my own fiction, and as a result, I'm able to see the flaws. It's both humbling and fulfilling to accept the fact that I am still the student, to stop speaking and instead draw up a chair and listen. Youth used to seem an anxious space of time in which I needed to fill files with complete pieces of literature, but the rush to finish high school with so many documents heavy with words means nothing if they're not good words.
So, reader, don't discredit the writing books. More importantly, don't discredit the books. I struggled alone for too long with little to no results. If you've noticed your own words coming stale and flat, know that you're not the only one. The cracks in your prose may have to do with a decline in the words going in. Is your fiction intake healthy? Are you well-versed in the art of the written word? There are good, credible authors at your disposal, and these time-worn gems won't empty your pocket like the newest how-to-write-a-book-fast manual. Newton spoke truthfully when he called these wordsmiths giants, and you'll see so much farther if you step on their shoulders.