Saturday, September 12, 2020

ON WRITING: Why the Habit?


Day 5 of getting back into the writing habit (looking at the title, seems like I'm taking the "write what you know" saw a bit too seriously; ah, well):

The most obvious benefit from making your writing a habit is the fact that you actually get some writing done. Working every day, the words build up until you have pages of your work, which becomes dozens of pages, and, eventually, hundreds of pages. From that, one ends up with stories and articles and analytical essays, for submission. After that, it's just a matter of aiming well and firing off your shot (in this metaphor, the aiming represents...oh, forget it; moving on).

All through school, I excelled at my studies. Writing was no different -- straight A student, all the way down the line. I was the cream of the crop, baby. 

And I had no effing idea what the hell I was doing.

This is the biggest frustration, I've discovered, since I set on this journey of actually writing fiction for possible publication. My teachers didn't give me the tools that I needed, in order to do this work with the facility necessary to get published. I've had to learn a lot -- often aspects of writing of which I was aware but had no idea how to recognize them, or fix them if I found them in my work -- as I've written stories and articles and blog posts over the course of these 15 - 20 years. These are issues I know were a part of my writing in high school and college, when I was getting excellent grades. I don't want to dwell on this, or take the time to try and investigate why this occurred (that would be one helluva research hole to fall into), but I do want to make it clear:  even though I did extremely well in my written pieces for academic classes, all of that writing was sloppy and unprofessional and in need of some serious revising. 

And that's the other -- and I'd say, far more important -- thing that will come from a writing habit that has you in the chair, tapping the keys on a daily basis. You actually do get better at your writing (people like to make the comparison of writing daily with a physical workout at the gym, and I never bought into that, but it's true, writing daily strengthens the "muscles" necessary for making good work). I found it easier to get the word I was looking for, found it easier to craft metaphors and comparisons, found descriptions to come more easily (all things being relative; this is a weakness in my writing, I think). Maybe it's a better focus, or just years of checking the online thesaurus and working to come up with a pithy description, I don't know, but there are definite benefits. 

Also, and more to the point in my mind, is the fact that, having written, examined, considered, and revised, thousands and thousands of pages of my own fiction, I've come to discover what people meant by keeping your tenses consistent and not writing in a passive voice, among other literary offenses. I know, for a fact, that I committed both of these stated errors, on a regular basis. 

In the first case, I think that's just how I tell a story, aloud, and I don't believe I'm alone in that regard (maybe I'm wrong, but I'd like to think I'm not a complete dimwit). When speaking off the cuff, it's easy to switch from present to past tense and back. And it wouldn't be uncommon in a first draft of a story, especially from an inexperienced writer, as I was. But, at some point along the way, I became aware of what I was doing, how I was flip-flopping around in those drafts, and I worked to fix that. Soon after I first started to notice it, it became a glaring red light, whenever I would read through some bit where I'd fallen back into that hole. It was a matter of living with this writing every day that had allowed that major lesson to seep into my brain. 

It's a similar thing with the second idea -- not writing passively -- that I mention above. Stephen King, in his great memoir ON WRITING, states that passive writing is a sign of a lack of confidence. Check! This is completely spot-on. Being definitive in your writing, especially when you're just starting out or haven't had all that much success, feels wrong somehow. There's a built-in guilt complex because you're completely making up a story and then expecting others to find it worthy enough of publication, of being read, and of being enjoyed and appreciated. That's pretty heavy. So, it's natural to fall into a passive voice; it's not as obtrusive, not as in-your-face, not as demanding of notice. The word 'seem' is a common culprit. Instead of writing that something happened, you will write that it seemed to happen. There's a bit of romanticization in the use of the word seem; it sounds like something from a very proper fairy tale, like the ones we were fed as children, but it's wishy-washy and it doesn't engender confidence from an audience. This was something I wasn't overly conscious of in my writing, and I can't say when it finally clicked (I do know it was many years after I read On Writing), but when it hit, it hit like a hammer. And now, I excise it whenever I find it. Strut like a peacock, I say, because anything less isn't your best.

[and keep that habit going, because good things will come of it.]


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