Learning to Write

I did another interview for a website (look for a post and link around the 1st of April) where they asked about how I became a writer. Oh, I’m sure there are those out there that will claim they were always writers or that they’ve been writing from the time of birth but I’m not one of them. The closet thing I can remember to very early writing was when my brother and I shared a room and I would tell stories about us to put him to sleep. We were always super heroes or on the Battlestar Galactica or something.

My first real story that I can remember was in grade school when I was asked to write a two page story for class (must have been around 5th grade or so). I think I wrote myself as a ninja and there was a deplorable overuse of the word “suddenly” but it was my first story. It was many years before I wrote another. Here are, as well as I can remember, the defining moments in my literary career. At each point, I “found my voice” so to speak. In that I mean that writing stopped being a struggle and started to flow. I figured out how to put pen to paper in a way that made sense to me (and more importantly others) and was fun.

I think the first creative writing I took pride in were poems. Around grade 11 or 12 we were required to write poems in English class. My poems were, to my mind, horrible until I learned that they didn’t have to rhyme. My non-rhyming poems were obscure, often to the point that I was the only one that understood them, but I loved writing them. That was important.

Later on, in junior college, I did more poetry and some creative writing as filler classes. The creative writing course I took was very open ended and at first I struggled. I couldn’t really grasp dialogue and I had a hard time getting a story out that was short enough to be managable in the length of time I had to write them and still interesting. What I ended up with were a bunch of very short (these days they’d call them Flash Fiction) stories that were very, very surreal and often ended with the main (and only) character dying. I’ve kept them but they are in a box back in the States. One of these days I’ll get hold of that box and maybe transfer them to the computer. If they are any good I’ll put them together in an anthology and release them.

At the time I was studying drama. I continued to do so for a number of years until I eventually dropped out. Part of me knew that I didn’t have whatever it took to be a successful director (of plays, not movies) and I just couldn’t finish. At this point, I was working for Pizza Hut and really didn’t have a future. I ended up moving from San Francisco to Mississippi to live with an uncle who used to edit a local magazine in Charlotte, North Carolina. There were a lot of personal reasons for the move but for this discussion, I was going there to see if I had what it took to be a writer.

If you remember my Guilt and Writing post, you’ll know what came next.

Well, my uncle put me through a number of exercises in writing. All of them I hated. Haikus, journals, life plans… ugh. Just thinking about it puts me to sleep. So he gave me the “real writers can’t help but write” speech and declared that I’d never be a writer. I promptly believed him and went back to school. After a number of classes, I decided on psychology as a career. Particularly developmental psychology which deals mostly with children.

I completed my degree and got into a graduate program at Claremont Graduate University, not in developmental psychology, but in program evaluation. Evaluation is, basically, research but in the real world rather than a laboratory. No rats. I worked for a while in Los Angeles for a great company named Vital Research but then moved out with my wife’s job to Jacksonville, Florida. There I started working for the school district.

If you’ve ever worked for a governmental agency, you know that it frees up a lot of your time.

So I started doing two things when I wasn’t working at work (which was often). First, I spent a lot of time surfing the net, specifically to Audioholics.com where I joined and was a regular member of their forum. That eventually led me to the job I now have as Associate Editor. The second thing I did was join a Play by Email game. PBeM games are like traditional RPGs except that instead of sitting around a table and rolling dice, you describe your actions if you succeed or fail and the DM puts it all together after he/she rolls the dice.

At first, I really didn’t know what to do or write. But one of the players, very experienced, wrote a brilliant post. It then became sort of a game of who could write the most original/interesting/exciting post. I got to write not only my own character but also other characters. The PBeM experience is what finally taught me to write dialogue.

So, in the end, it was no one thing that got me to the point where I could sit down and actually write a novel. It wasn’t a single experience or a single class. There were years and years of no writing followed by short periods of frantic writing. Of course, you can’t discount the effect of Audioholics. Having to write every day to pay the bills has a huge impact on you. You realize that even if you don’t feel like it, you can write. You also learn to find ways to be creative in even the most boring of situations (check out my first look of Paradigm’s subs for an example). But most of all you get practice writing. And not technical writing, but writing that forces you to be creative. And that is great practice.

Of course this illustrates that there is no silver bullet.  My history shows that fact. I wrote this as much to share as to remind me of my roots. The point, also, is to say that there is no training for writing like actually writing. You don’t need to master limericks or haikus or flash fiction to be a good writer. Write what you like. Get good at it. Expand your repertoire when you can but don’t feel like you must. Every creative word to put on a page is good training. Lastly, rather than listen when someone tells you you’ll never make it, don’t get discouraged. I did and it took me nearly 15 years to finish my first book. But I did. And you can too.