Thursday, July 19, 2012

How I Began: Info for Newish Writers

I’ve been thinking about the beginning. I remember Professor Joan Weaver smiling and giving me my first assignment in college. I was enrolled for nursing then; I should have stayed a nurse.
              The assignment she gave asked me to write a story about a life-changing event. Most people wrote about their first car, kiss, love, house or childbirth. With some, a grandparent died or parent disappeared from their lives. I’m sure most of you can relate—when I thought of the most life-changing event of my life, I thought of blood—blood has stained my wall of where obsessions hang.
               At the time, I just didn't speak about it—the suicide I failed to stop. But writing it was different. It was reliving the details: the seaside grass whispering frantic and quiet; the outhouse door tapping a wind-driven rhythm; the barren fish tables free of corpses but not black stains; the black Toyota; the man slanted against his truck, tequila in hand, a silver .38 in the bed where his fingers dangled like over a lover's hand—fingers traced the barrel.
               This is just the suicide I stopped after the one I couldn’t—but writing it felt like release. I wrote for three hours and tasted the salt in the air in the middle of Pennsylvania in a little town surrounded by fresh sprayed corn fields. I knew that piece was a good piece of work. It was. It was a good story. The writing in it is really not that great, but for someone in English 101 who couldn’t write, it really was a brilliant story.
                It took me two years of failure to write anything that well again, although there were times I came close. Wish I still had some of those early drafts. The early years of writing were tough and had some obstacles and lessons. Here's some of what I wish I had been told in the beginning.
                1. There was a constant struggle for validation. I was 27 and just taking writing seriously for the first time. I felt like an idiot. I was for thinking I was an idiot. Thank God Jack Kerouac never needed validation;we would not have “On the Road.”
                2. I always sucked at English in school because those damned word trees (sentence diagrams) looked exactly like trees with confused and twisted little branches that reached desperately toward a sun I will never understand. Commas, I’d stick ‘em everywhere. Their, there and they’re—yep, I’d butcher that. Passive sentences—“what the hell are passive sentences?” I’d ask.
                3. Every time something came out half way decent, I was scared to touch it except to correct for grammar. I thought, That was a once in a lifetime deal. I’ll never write something on that topic so well again. And I was so close when I thought that, but then I never properly revised.
                No one craps greatness. If you say you do, it’s not greatness you’re crapping, but bullshit, and no one wants to see that. So, in the absence of true revision, I had nice Fiction 1 papers, but nothing a reputable publisher would care about.
                Truth is, writing is a craft. As you work with the skills of revision, you’ll gain the ability to carve mundane pine two-by-four stories brilliant. But even sanding and polishing takes practice. What I did in the beginning was set aside my first drafts. What if I never write anything that good again? Then I went to town on the another draft, and it was and still is during the processes of revision where I learned more about writing and myself than in any part of my writing, and if you’re writing about yourself, you should be learning about yourself.
                4. From the beginning, I asked for help, and I gave help. Taking my terrible stories and poems to the learning center at  Harrisburg Area Community College’s Lebanon campus did a lot for me. I learned tons, and people that had the knowledge I needed became more helpful to me than I ever thought possible. People want to help a hard worker. Hard work is respected more than lazy talent.
                I also started my own writing group and I passed all the knowledge I was gaining to the people in the workshop and they gave me their knowledge too. They also gave friendship, and friendship that starts around an activity amplifies the activity. I learned more through giving to people than I have from every other process except for revision.
                5. Don’t be afraid to submit. It’s worth your time and rejection is great. Every rejection is one less rejection you’ll receive. The hardest part about rejection in the beginning is that it hurts like hell. But, us warrior writers, we have built a tolerance to pain, and building a tolerance for rejection is the same process. My first publication was in the college journal. It’s a good start. is a good start.
                6. I remember thinking that all my writing was shit. All of it and every time I wrote, I hated it. Two years in I began to get better and my writing is night and day from four months ago and unrecognizable from 3 years ago. It’s cool and worth it if you stick it out.
                7. Please do yourself a favor and find a writer to fall in love with. Mine was and is Kerouac, although Preston Hood and Bill Ehrhart really won a place in my heart as well Weigl and Styron and Gilbert and Carver, etc. Oh, don’t worry about those guys that can rattle off all these writer’s names and then look at you and say, “Have you ever read—“ and then proceed to tell you that you should know who they are. There’s thousands upon thousands of great writers out there to read.
                8. There is nothing wrong with genre fiction. Sooo many literary freaks will curse me for saying that and stop reading at the period at the end of fiction. Screw those snobs! Lol(and use lol, it’s part of our culture, damnit) There’s some damn good genre fiction out there, and some of it not so good, ie. Twilight series although the author laughs with million dollar smiles at all of us struggling to write—fix the tie—LITERATURE. Write what makes your fingers want to fly on the keyboard.
                9. Whenever possible accept any opportunity to write whether it’s for a crappy local art magazine or a blog. Any exposure feels good and its value is owning the title of “writer.” Plus forced deadline writing breeds discipline.
                10. Don’t question yourself, just get the pen or cursor moving and do it for you, not for them.
                                a. If that little voice in your head starts throwing fits about you’re not writing anything someone else wants to read, hit the keyboard harder with your fingers—it’s a way to drown that tiny man.
I hope that helps you. 

We’ll go deeper into the processes of writing next time, but I have a heart for new writers, so I wanted to start with this.



  1. hey joe i think you spelled the website wrong. i think it's www.duotrope

  2. Thanks for that, I was writing this at 3am while falling asleep. You should see some of the sentences I write when I sleep. Drool has a lot to say. Been under a lot of pressure with too many deadlines looming including a finished draft of a book six weeks from now with upcoming radio shows and the NYC poetry festival. You know..."ain't no rest for the wicked."