Sunday, January 23, 2011

Advice for a New Writer

The Dude (see May 4, 2010), a freshman in college, had some exciting news for us. His class schedule leaves Fridays open, and he plans to use the uninterrupted time to write. Not papers and course assignments: his own stuff. Things pulled from his imagination and deposited on the page. He has an idea for a play, and goes to a college where students regularly bring their creations to the stage, so apparently he's been inspired.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm, because The Dude withdraws, turtle-like, in the face of overweening parental eagerness. But I’ll confess, I’m thrilled. I’m a big fan of the creative life, and never dreamed that one of my own might choose it. I’m curious to see where this might lead.

I’m also DYING to talk writing with him. Oh, I want to heap my thoughts and advice and writing stories on him in ways that would undoubtedly make him run for cover and never, ever, take pen to paper again. An apt metaphor would be my woodstove, which gave me a lot of trouble early this winter, because I put too much kindling and fatwood in it to start, and filled the house with smoke. I piled on, way too quickly, and almost destroyed all hopes of lighting a fire.

I don’t want to do that to The Dude.

Start small with a fire, and gently feed the flame, one piece of dry kindling at a time. Make sure the flue’s open and the smoke is gently rising. This takes a bit of patience, but eventually the flames are strong enough for the big wood.

So I’ve kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and just expressed a lot of enthusiasm for his idea and his plan. However, if he were to ask, and I were to tell him, these are the two (only two) pieces of advice I would give a New Writer. Not a young writer: a new writer. Someone with a desire to write and a kernel of an idea:

Get a comfortable chair. Writing is, first and foremost, about sitting alone for long periods of time as you string words together, one by one. This is a basic, physical reality, and the key to The Creative Life. You don’t write by just thinking about it, or talking about it, or sipping cocktails at parties and saying, “Well, this is the novel I plan to write when I retire,” or “If I wrote a play, this is what I’d do ….” Nope.

This is solitary, sedentary, and maddening. You will spend an hour on a paragraph, then throw it out the next day. You will write three pages, only to realize that the last sentence on the third page is actually taking you in a completely new direction and the entire story is going to shift. It’s a process, and discovery happens during that process, but only if you sit down and just do it. Alone. For hours. So get comfortable.

Get acquainted with your characters. I’m a great believer in “Plot Follows Character” and have absolutely found that once I know my characters well, their actions (a.k.a. the plot) naturally follows.

So … how do you get to know your characters? Well, write about them. Move than pencil across the page and get them talking. How do they speak? Accents? Good grammar and big words? Bad grammar and profanities? What do they look like? What do they hum while they’re working? What’s at the gritty bottom of their backpacks? What do they find in the pockets of their winter coats when they pull them out each fall? What do they eat when they eat alone? What secrets do they have?

And … that’s it. Yes, certainly, I could write tomes of advice and suggestions and it would actually be a lot of fun to go over all that. I love to think about writing and talk about writing. But the fact is, I think it all boils down to these two suggestions.

So … good luck, Dude. Fly. Create. Be fearless. What did that teacher say on the Magic Schoolbus, that PBS show you always watched when you were a Little Dude? “Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!”

Yes indeed. You’ll find great things in the mess.

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