It’s Your Wheel, or, How to be a Writer

Wheel, reinvented. (Harper’s Ferry, WV, June 2012)

A friend came by today to talk to me about writing. She is smart, sensitive, articulate, and passionate. She’s learned a great deal about a particular subject by living emotionally and intelligently through it, and she’s ready to share the knowledge that quite frankly she’d rather not have gained. She has some clear ideas and has already started documenting her story, but she wanted to talk about how to proceed. “I’ve never considered myself to be a writer,” she said. “I thought the best approach would to be to do research on it. Figure out proven methods before I just start,” she said. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

I understand that feeling. In preparation for my upcoming first day teaching creative writing to forty-two third-graders, I’ve observed two teachers in two separate classrooms, pored over volumes of the “Tried and True: Collected Lessons of WITS,” brainstormed a 25-week lesson arc with our patient and devoted director of professional development, left at least 5 desperate voicemails with other writing teachers, and finally had a reassuring talk with one of them. Today, I had a preview of that first teaching day when my friend asked me to tell her how she should begin.

There was a brief flash of wonder: why is this sharp, capable woman asking me how to be a writer? Why did WITS hire me to introduce a fairly significant number of impressionable young minds to the magic and madness of poetry and prose? Then I remembered: I’ve been writing for more than thirty years. I may not know all the mechanics of writing, all the proper forms or rules. I may not know all the definitions or even the names of most of the important literary devices. I may not know how my kinsmen of the shelf write, but I know how I write. And based on that, this is what I told my friend, and what I will tell my third-graders, and what I think anyone who wants to write anything should know:

  1. If you are holding a pen with intent, you are a writer. You don’t have to earn an MFA or publish an article or finish a novel. Nobody is going to confer upon you a title. It’s something you give yourself, because it’s something that you do.
  2. There is no right or wrong in creative writing. If there were a “wrong” there’d never be anything original. From Shakespeare’s invented language to the idiosyncratic poetry of e. e. cummings to the PowerPoint chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad—and everything in between—writers who violate convention often create the most memorable work.
  3. Nobody can tell your story but you. Fiction, non-fiction, limericks or lampoons: in whatever genre, in whatever medium you choose to write, let your unique voice come through. Don’t bother copying other writers unless you’re doing it for practice or for fun. They’ll tell us their stories. You tell us yours.
  4. Try to be fearless when you confront a blank page. Don’t think—feel. Don’t critique each word as it lands. Give into that Dickinsonian “bolt of melody.” Even if it’s nonsense, write it down. Liberate your imagination on the page and you’ll discover something to pursue. And that critic inside your mind that’s tugging backward on your pen? Tell her to settle down—you’ll deal with her later, after you’re finished.
  5. Write for one reader. Choose one kind, sensitive, generous reader to write for. Especially for early drafts, it helps if he or she is particularly given to applause. Avoid thinking of the potential critics or gatekeepers that you may encounter in the future; that will only stall your progress. Instead, imagine your favorite reader enthusiastically encountering your pages, praising your dedication, extolling your talent. (Hey, wouldn’t it be great if your favorite reader were you?)
  6. Be free, but be disciplined. In order to let the genie out, you have to rub the bottle. So must you sit down for however much time you can give yourself on a regular, predictable basis, and work. Really work. Don’t wait for your muse to show up before you get started; that’s like waiting for the genie to pop out before you start rubbing. You can write longhand in pencil or type into a Word document. You can start at 5 AM and finish midsentence two hours later, or pour yourself a drink at 9 PM and begin after uttering a particularly motivating incantation. You can do whatever it is that makes you do it. But do it.

I send love and good luck to my sweet friend as she embarks on her writerly journey. I’m proud of and excited for you, and I’ll be following along. And remember this: it’s OK to reinvent the wheel. It’s your wheel.