How to be a writer. Write.

I’ve been a writer for so long that I don’t think much about my own process of writing. That is, I didn’t think about it until the day I was challenged to come up with a defense of how this writer goes about the act of writing.

“Anybody can write,” said my boyfriend. 

He’s my ex-boyfriend now.

I float something akin to this claim, however, by my students. I teach writing at a community college in New York City. Many of my students have never thought of themselves as writers, and indeed, are more likely to think of themselves as “bad writers.” They have decades of red-inked essays to prove it. They’re surprised when I tell them how writers like Anne Lamott say they’ll have to do a lot of bad writing so that they can eventually do some not-bad writing. I teach writing the way I write. I start every class with a mini-journal prompt and tell students to write as much as they can until I call time. For myself, I started the practice of journaling many years ago, inspired by Julia Cameron’s recommendation in The Artist’s Way to write pages every morning. Most of the time, I keep up with this practice, but add in a heavy teaching load, committee work, and my own research, and sometimes I don’t go near them for days. When this happens, I judge myself. Hard.

In grad school, I had a teacher, the poet-star of that state college’s English Department tell our class, “If you don’t write every day, you’re not a writer.” Leaning back in his chair at the head of the conference room table, he flipped his wrist in our direction. We all knew he meant serious writing. Real writing. “Not journaling. That doesn’t count,” he said. Sniffed (well, maybe he didn’t exactly sniff, but his comment was sniffy). So even though I write nearly every day, sometimes I feel like I am not Writing, only writing. I tell myself that I’m doing what I need to do in the only way I know how to do it. If I can’t have a Room of My Own, then I’ll scribble as I please. There will be time for “real” writing later, I tell myself. Only what if later never comes? Or what if it does and I discover that whatever minor talent I have has disappeared? (Actually, that’s my greatest fear)

Here’s what happened with the ex-boyfriend: We’re hanging out, drinking a couple of cocktails before going out to dinner, and I’m talking about my new writing project. I get carried away and start talking about purpose and flow, how sometimes when I’m writing, time just kind of stands still. 

“Editing must be different though. More rote,” he says. “Like root canal, the same actions over and over again. Automatic.”

“Not really,” I say. “Editing is writing. For me, they’re not separate from each other.”

He disagrees with this and we debate back and forth for a few minutes. I’m talking about process and revision and he interrupts me. “So how did you learn about craft?” he asks.

“By going to graduate school,” I start to say, but he interrupts again.

“That’s not true,” he says. “That’s not how writing works.” He tells me that he’s read Stephen King’s On Writing and so knows for a fact that writing doesn’t need a formal education. He, himself, has done some writing and his friends tell him he’s pretty good.

“Anybody can write,” he says.

Never has my teaching resonated with my own life more than it does these days. I ask the class where ideas come from and they blink at me, all politeness and patience. Probably they’re thinking of what they want for lunch or wondering about the text messages buzzing their pockets. This question about ideas is an important one. Journaling is my long-form version of the guided freewriting I have students do at the beginning of class and where I find most of my ideas. That’s how the process works for me. Those pages are where I examine the ticking clock of me. But as I lecture students on how important it is for them to develop their ideas into assertive, confident claims, I realize how far from that ideal my own life strayed. Every time I utter one of these statements, or write it on the board, I flinch a little bit inside. I let someone talk over me, deny me. He didn’t value my way of being in the world.

I am an orderly sort. I take my life straight up, neat. I find comfort in a good schedule. I’m always on time or early. Once my sister and I were hiking in the woods. We followed one path, then another, taking as sisters do, until the path ran out. It stopped. In front of us were trees and bushes and weedy ground cover. Behind us was the path we had just come down. My sister wanted to keep walking straight. It didn’t bother her that we would be walking through the woods, not following any path at all. “We’ll get lost,” I said. “We should follow the path back until we see something we recognize.” I got my way; I’m the older sister after all. We traced our way back, path to path to road to parking lot. We didn’t get lost, but neither did we discover anything. My sister’s way probably would have been a disaster, but maybe it would have been interesting. We could have gotten lost, spied a bear, met some hikers, gotten stung by a bee, stumbled upon an abandoned shack, or discovered a secret garden. We would have had a story to tell. But instead we found the car. We were safe. 

In order to write, you have to leave the safety of the path. That’s where the stories are.

My writing process starts with the daily pages. They are where I leave the path for the mystery of the wood. Craft is where I look to the writers I admire to try to understand how they did what they did, why they did it, and how I can learn from it. No, one doesn’t need a formal program to learn craft, but it’s also true that when you’re in one,  you get to read those writers and talk about them with your professors and classmates. You get to practice what you learn and get feedback on your work. That community is where you test out ideas, find what works and what doesn’t. Next, editing is where you discover new ways to say the same thing you just said, only better, sharper. More precise. Finally, proofreading tightens up your prose and makes the work ready for the next step in its journey.

My ex isn’t wrong; anybody can write. That said, not everybody can be a writer. If that’s what you want, however, it’s never too late to start.

Recommended reading list:

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New American Library, 2003.

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. 10th anniversary ed., J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Second Anchor Books Edition, Anchor Books, 2019.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1st Harvest/HBJ ed, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

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