Words of Warning Before Any Words of Wisdom

I read very little about creative writing. The only books on the subject that I’ve ever read from cover-to-cover are Stephen King’s On Writing and Russell T. Davies’ The Writer’s Tale. But I read the former as a memoir rather than a how-to guide and the latter as a fanboy rather than an aspiring author, so I’m not sure if they really count.

To me, reading writers writing about their writing (say that five times fast) is akin to listening to educators lecture on the way they teach or watching coaches give seminars on how they coach. And, not surprisingly, I spend as little time as I can at education conferences and coaching clinics.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in getting better at what I do. It’s been said that the best teachers are the most insecure people in the world. No matter how good we are at our jobs, all we are ever aware of are our shortcomings and our mistakes. We finish every lesson fixated on the student we failed to reach that day and consumed by thoughts of could have, should have, and next time

But you don’t get better by sitting in a folding chair at a convention center listening to someone talk at you about what they think you should be doing. In the end, it almost always boils down to If you want to be a good teacher, you need to teach like me.

You see the same phenomenon at coaching clinics. A typical three-hour presentation by a noteworthy position coach will probably cover his philosophy, his planning and organization, his drill book, his demeanor with his players, his motivational techniques, and his biggest success stories. It will be accompanied by PowerPoint slides, overheads, diagrams, and then a progression of practice film followed by corresponding game film to show the much-coveted carry-over.

But if you actually follow that same coach out to the practice field? If you were to actually watch the way he structures his practices, sets up his drills, and carries out his plans? If you were to actually hear the things he says to his players when they do well and – far more telling – when they do poorly?

You’d probably be sorely disappointed.

In the end, the only ways to really get better are to go out and observe – to see people teach and coach on their own turf in their own way in their own comfort zone – and to simply keep doing it for yourself. And, most importantly, to continually reflect on both experiences and actively apply what you learn in the process.

To wit, I’ve read the entire Kelly Gallagher bibliography, and I have immense respect for his philosophies on teaching Language Arts. I’ll absolutely purchase his next book as soon as he writes one, and I’ll jump at a chance to hear him speak if one ever presents itself. At the same time, I struggle whenever I try to adapt one of his lessons to my own classroom. The biggest hiccup, of course, is the fact that I’m not him.

Similarly, Kevin Bullis from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is probably the best clinic speaker I’ve ever seen and is one of the few from whom I can say I’ve borrowed extensively. But what I learned from him pales in comparison to what I gained from shadowing Northwestern’s Marty Long for just one spring practice.

When it comes to reading about the creative writing process, I’ve really only come across two cogent pieces of advice that I’ve taken to heart. The first is from On Writing. To paraphrase Stephen King: Just get the story told. Worry about the rest of it – the diction, the symbolism, all the Lit 101 stuff – during the revision process. When you’re writing, just write. The second I found in a recent edition of Writer’s Market: Be able to kill your babies. Be ready and willing to edit the hell out of anything you write.

Even still, neither of these pearls of wisdom meant much of anything until I actually started applying them for myself. But they were instrumental in the shaping of Rottweiler and a large part of why I felt good enough about it to put it on Amazon.com.

I suppose that’s my VERY roundabout way of saying that the best way to improve as a writer is simply this: Write. And when you’re not writing, read. Extensively. And do both with a critical and self-consciously reflective eye.

Too much writing on the subject of creative writing comes in one of two flavors: Recipes for cookie-cutter pulp pieces that are “guaranteed” to be bestsellers OR admonitions to write like me (albeit without my personality, intellect, and creative energy).

So you can learn to write a novel like my freshmen used to write five-paragraph essays, or you can be the “Eddie” in a mediocre Van Halen cover band.

I’ll pass on both.

Writing is a mode of individual expression and a deeply personal one at that. As such, I take all writing on writing with a huge grain of salt. Too often, even the very best of it drifts too far into the category of writing well means writing like me. And if you’re trying to write like anybody else you are fundamentally NOT writing well.

We all are who we are and all we do is stifle ourselves if we try to be anything else.

With that said, I do plan on sharing some of my thoughts on writing. Very soon in fact, seeing as I’ve recently had some. But my comments will always come with the same caveat: These are the things that work for me. Or at least the things I THINK work for me. Seeing as nobody’s ever heard of me and I don’t need to go past my fingers and toes to count the sales of my novel, I might be kidding myself.

So keep the salt shaker handy.

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6 thoughts on “Words of Warning Before Any Words of Wisdom

  1. I agree that writing is the only real way to get better and definitely by reading, but I do have to say that I sometimes enjoy reading about writing. A lot of times authors write about their struggles, and that’s the part I like. It’s nice knowing that others have the same problems you do. I guess you could say that I also don’t really read for the advice, but rather for the feeling of camaraderie. I read On writing, and enjoyed it as an autobiography. A similar work I enjoyed in much the same way was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because she was very candid about her struggles in writing and rewriting.

    • Thanks for the comment! I definitely get what you’re saying. And that was one of the things that was so engaging about The Writer’s Tale. It’s a collection of emails between Davies and reporter Benjamin Cook that chronicles the creative process behind a season of the revived Doctor Who. Because of the way its structured, it’s free of pretense and self-aggrandizement and openly shows the struggles and insecurities of a wildly successful television writer. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you’re a fan of the show. And, like you say, it’s always nice to find out you’re not alone.

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