Tuesday, June 22, 2010


One of the first difficulties to surface in a writing class is unrealistic expectations. People want to learn how to write - meaning how to write stories or poems or articles or essays. They want to know how to start and how to keep going. They want formulas, tips, short-cuts. What they really want is someone to wave a magic wand so that they can be writers.

The woman I already think of as Dutch sweeps her arms wide in a dramatic gesture. "I want the words to flow on to the page, perfect from the beginning - I want to be inspired!" she says. She reminds me of that voluptuously flamboyant old-time movie star Mae West who said "Let Shakespeare do it his way, I'll do mine, and we'll see who comes out better." I don't think Dutch has a sense of humour, unlike Ms West, so I just say that most writers probably want that too but it doesn't happen often. Writing takes work and persistence - inspiration is a bonus.

The Charmer says that he doesn't have much time for that sort of caper, yeah, but. This is the university student whose efforts so far have been insultingly scrappy, on one occasion scribbled on a half sheet of paper in the time it had taken me to set out my books and papers. How does he expect to learn how to write acceptable essays with that sort of attitude? The Poet sighs and gazes poetically at the ceiling.

When the Letter-Writer asks "But how do you start?" I tell her that in one sense it is easy enough. She already has the hang of it. Think of a word and write it down. Think of another and write that down next to the first word. Keep going, one word after another. I see a roomful of dubious stares. Think about it, I say. When you write a letter to a friend, you don't spend hours gazing at the wall. You warm up the PC, type Dear Polly, and jump into it. You rattle on. At some point you read what you've written, change a word or two, add a phrase, correct the spelling and grammar, sit back and evaluate the tone, the colour, the sense, and then you press 'send' and it's done. You have written a letter, and you didn't bang your head on your fist even once.

The looks on their faces say that it can't be that easy. No it's not. But it's a start. That's OK for letters to friends. And here's the thing: it's even OK for the first draft of something more significant. The next step is what makes the difference between a writer and everyone else. That's what we have to learn: how to make that first draft into something exciting, beautiful, powerful, amusing or profound, something that other people want to read. That is what takes effort, judgment and practice.

Writers have to learn the trade one way or another. There are no short-cuts. There is no magic wand. We have to provide our own motivation, our own persistence, our own power. Batteries are not included.

Reminder: The characters in the writing class pieces are imaginary

1 comment:

  1. Superb advice. It should be pinned on the wall at every writers' group meeting. There are also the times when you would rather clean the oven than write -- so setting yourself a deadline is crucial. I-will-not-crack-open-that-block-of-chocolate-until ...