Monday, May 20, 2013

Breaking up with the word can't.

Waiting in our car while my husband chatted with a Priest Lake business owner a couple of weeks ago, I began reading an essay by Richard Nelson from a book I had tucked into my bag before leaving home. Nelson’s writing quickly drew me in, enveloped me, yet, at the same time, gave me that sudden itch I sometimes get when reading at home—that itch to close the book and head to my computer with a mad desire to emulate and learn from what I have just read, thinking…THAT is how I want to write, THAT is how I want MY readers to feel.

I love the fact that one writer can inspire another to such a degree, that a writer’s carefully chosen words can make one want to jump up and begin working; can spur another writer to wonder—what words did the author use that brought about that specific emotion? How did the author place that particular phrase on the page to make it work so well? What came before it and what came after it that made it effective? How did the author end the paragraph? How did he transition into the next?

As writers we often study the work of others, a key element to understanding voice, style, tone, and how one constructs stories and articles. Mystery writers read mysteries. Memoirists read Memoirs. Poets read poetry. Freelancers read, well, everything. It all becomes part of the learning process, which brings to mind a comment I heard someone say on a television commercial the other day: “Education means breaking up with the word can’t.”

To me, that education includes self-education. It means tackling what you don’t know with a robust desire to know; to have a thirst for knowledge that drives you to look into all of the corners for what you need. It means reading, researching, connecting with other writers, and paying attention to the methods of those who came before you. Other writers make me want to write better. They motivate me with their knowledge and confidence, with their hard work and push to follow their dreams and to get their stories onto paper. I admire those who treat their writing not only as a business, but as a necessity.

In his book Writing Naturally, David Petersen expresses the idea that, yes, a formal education, writing workshops, and how-to publications can help you write better, but then adds:

“Yet the best any and all such external aids can do is to help you help yourself. What makes good writers isn't nearly so much teaching as it is learning...learning via reading, studying and dissecting the work of other writers, good and bad; learning by writing and revising and getting rejected and revising some more and weighing informed criticism and eventually getting published and never-ever fooling yourself into believing you know it all. These things, such self-directed educational struggles, adapted as a lifestyle, make good writers."

For me, breaking up with the word can’t means taking my education as a writer fully into my own hands, then learning what I need to learn on my own and from others in an effort to consistently and purposely improve my skills and advance my work.

But the hidden, unfortunate, part of such education is that most of those writers from whom we learn, like Nelson who made me want to leap out of my seat with enthusiasm, will never know the impact of their work on writers like myself who, in this case, quite simply, became inspired while waiting in a car near the forested shore of a North Idaho lake.


Jennifer Rova said...

Well stated. I love reading a book that is so well written that I don't want it to end...the greatest invisible compliment a writer can wish for.

Jenny Leo said...

All the how-to-write books in the world can't compare to sitting down with a passage of writing that you love and analyzing it. "How did the author do that? How did he or she work in the backstory so smoothly? What is it about the dialogue that seems so genuine? How did he or she word something to make me laugh?" Learn from the masters (and a "master" is any author whose work you love, from Shakespeare to your great aunt Clara whose Christmas letters are a joy to read).

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I am currently engrossed in one of the best books I have ever read, namely, Wolf Hall. It won the Booker Prize this year which is a first for both the author, Hilary Mantel, and the category of historical fiction. I will take Jenny's advice and instead of reading with jaw dropping awe, I will actually try to see if I can ascertain even one scintilla of Mantel's skill.

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