so you want to be a writer?
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it…
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else…
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
(From: sifting through the madness for the Word, the line, the way, 2003)
It’s not infrequent that at the end of the writing workshops I’ve led over the years that I’m asked, “How can I continue to write—and grow my writing?” Writing, when you’re in a workshop setting, can ignite more than a casual interest in writing and yet, without the structure of a workshop, the prompts and activities introduced by the instructor to get you started, every good intention to keep your writing going often wans when you sit down to write—alone—and are confronted with the blank page.
This past week, I completed yet another writing workshop through Gilda’s Club for men and women living with cancer. As always happens, many people feel a bit timid about their writing or reading it aloud to others—even without the addition of critique. That’s normal. But suppose you’d really like to take your writing further? Reading your work out loud; sharing it with others is a routine part of the learning. And in creative writing classes, where critique is part of the process, it can be close to a deterrent for some new writers, even shut them down temporarily. Writing, one of my former teachers often said, is a courageous act. Yes, it is, especially when you’re writing from your own experience or you are called upon to share your first writing assignment in a class of strangers. It can be downright terrifying.
And yet, you want to write. And more, you want to improve and grow your writing skills. How can you do it? Google “writing tips” or some other similar phrase, and you’ll find no shortage of writing tips, advice and books on writing by the dozens. A lot of it is quite similar, but if you’re like me, there are some books or writing sites you love, and many more than you don’t. The thing is, there’s no magic formula for becoming a writer other than to write… At some point, you just have to jump in and get serious about it.
But suppose we could sit down together over a cup of tea or coffee, and you asked for some tips on writing and becoming a better writer. The first thing I’d likely say is “begin.” In other words, establish a writing habit. One that you can solidify into your writing practice—a discipline of writing for uninterrupted periods several times a week. But begin slowly. It’s a bit like learning any new skill: it takes commitment and practice.
. Just start writing, by hand or on a keyboard. You can find prompts and tons of writing advice in the dozens in the many writing books available from the library or Amazon. You can also just write whatever is on your mind. But write, three to five times a week—fifteen or twenty minutes is manageable. You can extend the time as you solidify your practice. Regularity is more important than the time allotment you give your writing. I have a writing habit, well cemented now, and it’s rare I don’t write daily, usually for an hour or two each morning. I get up early, make coffee, and settle into my chair and write. I recommend you keep your writing in one notebook or one location on your computer. It’s all potential material for other pieces later on. Don’t throw anything away.
. What to write about? At first, just write about what is on your mind or in front of your eyes. I sit by a window, and often I open with a haiku that often has something to do with the weather or what I’m seeing and feeling. Anything can be a starting point. The fastest way to un-motivate yourself is to sit down to write something “serious” and “possibly publishable…” Play around with words. Be honest on the page. Sketch in the margins…but let it all help you nudge your creativity into the open.
. You can take inspiration from most anything—and also writers and poets you like. You’ll learn something by doing it. Some years ago, I used William Stafford’s poem, “What’s in My Journal” to have a little fun … and wrote a short, similarly phrased poem entitled, “What’s in My Refrigerator.” Not only is it fun to imitate, but you can learn about poetry by getting inside a poem, trying to copy the form, the rhythms, the twists and turns, as well as using fresh imagery.
. Prompts are very helpful in getting you started. This site is one source, but there are so many sites with writing prompts and ideas…scan the internet and pick out some you like. Years ago, I wore out Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write and Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge as I worked to solidify my writing practice.
. Read. And read widely: novelists, memoirists, essayists, poets—learn from them. Pay attention to the genre of writing you are most comfortable and happy reading and writing, but try them all.
. Ready to do more? Take a class. I’ve tried several online courses over the years—and I’ve taught some too—but I like classes I can take in person the best. Whatever works for you, do it. But you’ll learn from the instructor, the readings, your assigned writing and even critique from your peers—which is scary at first, but infinitely valuable. You want to learn how a reader experiences what you’ve written if you have aspirations to publish.
. Remember though: writing is NOT synonymous with publication. If you want to write, then write. You never have to seek publication unless you have the goal to do so. Nevertheless, if you do decide you want to publish, join a writing group. The group is intended to be supportive to one another’s desire to write for publication. It’s a chance to learn from one another, share your work, receive feedback, and continue to write and refine your work for publication. I’ve led several writing groups over the years—and some of them continued well after I had left them to write together on their own. The support and feedback from a supportive group is invaluable.
. One of my favorite definitions of a writer is William Stafford’s. “A Writer is someone who writes.” Chances are, you’ve already fulfilled the criteria. The only way to continue to grow and improve your writing is to write—and make it a priority in your life.
And if you’re interested in some writing resources for your library and learning, here are just a few I’ve found invaluable over the years:
- If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
- The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
- Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
- The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes
- Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long
- The Elements of Style by Wm. Strunk & E.B. White
- The Truth of the Matter by Dinty Moore
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
- Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
- The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux
- The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
- The Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves (prompts)
- Writing Alone & With Others, by Pat Schneider
- Unless it Moves the Human Heart, by Roger Rosenblatt
- The Writer’s Book of Hope, by Ralph Keyes
- Room to Write, by Bonni Goldberg
- Poem Crazy, by Susan Wooldridge