In preparing to speak at a Writer’s Conference this past month, I was reminded of my own writing history and the wisdom I could share with others. So I am relying on friends and followers to pass along this blog post to all the young or struggling writers you know, of every age.
Up front I should admit that life exigencies prevented me from following the most advantageous path to a writing career. My family was poor and a good literary education was and is expensive. I married young; began a family. Early on, I wrote as a journalist, later in business context. It was decades before I finally completed a BA in English and Creative Writing and a Master’s in Fine Arts in Fiction in good (but not great) universities. I self-published my first novel and won a small, lesser known award.
If you hope to become a great writer, I highly recommend you take a different path if possible. That you marry late in life, and dedicate the first 30 or so years to your literary career. That you learn to eat Ramen noodles if need be, but spend every spare penny on the best education you can buy and take advantage of every learning opportunity available to you. Below, I outline some of that ideal path. If your goals are not quite so lofty, or if, like me, you have not begun your writing early or from an advantageous position, then I still suggest you partake of as many of these bits of wisdom as you can.
Almost all great writers were also hungry readers – literature of all sorts. Read-read-read. Focus on the great pieces of literature contained in the western canon. Works that are considered literary teach you about the world; they deal with universal truths — good vs. evil, the meaning of life, moments of greatness and of depravity, the human story. Literature will imprint its quality upon your primitive mind and it will imprint great writing, great craft, upon your writing habits. We study grammar early and often so that the rules permanently make an impression. Learning great writing, learning craft, works much the same way.
To paraphrase an old political phrase (“vote early and often”) I seriously suggest that you write early and often. I recently gave a writer’s workshop at the Arlington Public Library, and one of the attendees was a grade-school girl who already has her cap set for a writing career. Not only will her youthful passion carry her far in the coming years, but she will have years to accumulate more experiences that burnish her craft. As soon as you know you have the itch, start writing.
Short story great Flannery O’Connor is rumored to have said: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. I think they don’t stifle enough of them.” Some pundits believe that going to college kills creativity. I do not agree with the sentiment. Most writers today suffer from poor craft not lack of imagination – and craft can be honed in college. It is absolutely possible for a writer to learn craft in an academic setting and retain their originality. Good craft is the way that we deliver our genius to our reader.
AIM HIGH ACADEMICALLY
For your Bachelor’s, go to the best undergraduate college you can, one that has a highly regarded writing program. Continue on to a Master’s in Fine Arts in your particular writing field – again, at the best school available to you. Not only will you get top tier instructors, but you will tie in to a writing network that will open other doors for grants, endowments, fellowships, and residencies, and provide assistance in finding agents and publishers. You will make contacts that can mentor you over the years and write glowing recommendations on your book jacket. There is a world of difference between studying at, say, The University of Texas at Arlington, and The University of Texas at Austin – or the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Access as many methods for study, workshop or consultation as possible, particularly during your growth years—whether during or following college, or in place thereof. There is an endless list of these opportunities – so select those that most closely match your current stage of growth. I was fortunate to attend the one-week Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland two different summers. There was a high bar to acceptance – educational and writing experience plus a sample of my work – but the lectures, workshops and one-on-one consultations stretched me to the next level of mastery. Had I had the time and money, I can only imagine the growth potential in full-summer workshops or residencies.
In addition to (or in lieu of) intensive university studies of craft, access other resources, whether through workshops or conferences or other forms of study. As a resource, I recommend a subscription to Poets & Writers, the premiere magazine on craft, industry, universities, workshops, agents, publishers and contests. In addition, read books on your particular art form or genre. I must have read 80 resources before I settled on Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction as my bible. Most of the truly bad writing I have seen suffers from a lack of craft, and that can be remedied through education and effort.
As writers, we are emotionally attached to our work. As Ernest Hemingway reminded us, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That is indeed our lifeblood on the page. But it was William Faulkner who also reminded us that, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Every flaw, every ill-defined character, every boring plot needs to be exorcised and replaced. That means time spent editing and revising – yes – but we cannot catch all of our own errors. We are too partial to the darlings we have created on the page. We must invite criticism from people whose judgments we trust. It is not an easy thing to do, but necessary. I learned that when my resistance was highest, I was on the cusp of great improvement.
REVISE AND EDIT
You need to spend a great deal of time in the revision and editing phase of writing your work – probably more time than it has taken to write your original draft. No one writes a perfect manuscript in a single swoop. If you want to see a demonstration of the difference in craft between a first draft and a polished work of art, compare Harper Lee’s two published novels. Her Pulitzer-winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was heavily revised and edited by Lee under the careful tutelage of her agent and editor. Go Tell it on the Mountain (although published last) was rumored to be a first draft of Mockingbird. It was unedited and far inferior.
DO NOT ATTRISH
When I was studying for my MFA, the director of that school often reminded us that if we have studied hard, if we have learned a great deal, if we have polished our craft, if we have written our best, that eventually we will get published. He said that, sadly, many good writers at the peak of their preparedness give up; they are lost to attrition. His advice to all of us was consistently, “simply do not attrish.” I know that coined word looks strange in print, but for all of us in that MFA program it was perfect advice. I assure you, we all still hear the director admonishing us. If writing is truly your passion, soldier on . . . and take advantage of the best education and coaching available to you along the way.
— JONNIE MARTIN
Jonnie Martin began her writing career as a newspaper journalist. Responding to life responsibilities, she completed her BBA in Accounting and pursued a business career as an executive. She continued to publish for business newspapers and journals, and within her corporations, writing everything from strategic plans to legal pleadings. Later she completed a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction. She published a western romance entitled WRANGLE that won a Will Rogers Silver Medallion. Jonnie Martin teaches English Composition (writing) at the T.C.C. South East campus. She blogs, does freelance writing and is currently working on a second western romance entitled KATE’S PRAIRIE.