by Catherine Hedge
One of the cruelest myths of writing is that if you are a really good writer, you start with “Once upon a time…” and reach “The End” in one free-flowing, unstoppable, lyrical explosion of brilliance. Perhaps the novel appears complete in your brain, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Or the characters come to life, take over your spirit, and force the words through your compliant mortal form. No need for erasers or delete keys. No dead-ends, rewrites, writer’s block, or dropped scenes. Beware! For those are hallmarks of the Wretched, the Unpublishable, the Hacks.
If you are truly great, you will be able to write just exactly like your teacher, or professor, or writing coach, and use exactly the same processes that they have bestowed upon you. This is the foundation for traditional writing exercises such as an entire freshman college class writing on the same topic. If you’re desperate, you can buy a thousand books wherein the author describes a fill-in-the-blank outline or 12-step solution to marketable writing. The only problem is these don’t work, unless you find the author whose brain is precisely like yours.
I have a homey example of why this one-size-fits-all approach is a disaster.
This week, I was playing Legos with my five-year-old grandson. We decided to count how many people characters we had. I thought this was a good chance to help him practice his grouping by ten. So, I counted out 10 and put them in a pile. (Exhibit A) Then he counted out 10 and lined them up neatly. (Exhibit B) I counted out the next 10 and encouraged him to clump them together. He counted out and lined up the next 10. This continued to 80. No matter how I encouraged, he crafted rows and politely refrained from organizing my stacks, though I’ll bet he wanted to do so. If I wax poetic on the beauty of the flowers, he takes an appreciative sniff and explains that bees use nectar to make honey. I like reading picture books. He likes sight-word flash cards.
I can predict, I believe accurately, that he will become a vastly different writer than I am. I enjoy the messy discovery of writing, the random insights that make the plot twist like the Snake River, and the eager anticipation of rewriting so everything fits together…eventually. I’m sure this approach would be inconceivable to him. The time I spend in my first draft, he will use to create an outline, a clear direction, and a defined end-point before he begins writing. (I’ve known authors who craft 50-page outlines before they write the first paragraph.) I predict we can both be creative, but the paths we take to get there will be incomprehensible to the other. How could we possibly find a writing teacher who could reach both of us?
A writing coach is powerfully influenced by his or her individual writing style. It is natural to feel, “Hey, this works for me, so it must be right!” Someone who thinks random and abstractly will love brainstorming, sharing bits and pieces from “writing prompts”, and celebrating a thousand starts, perhaps with little ever finished. Others will insist on outlines first and lists of rules, “Never change viewpoints in a scene” or “Never open with a weather report”. One list I saw had 45 “nevers” for the start of a novel. Writers can be kept busy for years doing various writing exercises for the group, entertaining themselves with the weekly assignment, and dodging the difficult task of writing their own, meaningful work with the excuse, “I’m not quite ready yet.” (Sometimes with the writing coach’s corroboration!)
However, if you keep searching, you will encounter a teacher (like Vicki Spandel), a professor (like Elizabeth Dodd), or a writing coach (like Leonard Bishop) who sees beyond her or his ego. You can identify them by some key characteristics. They say, “Yes, writing is hard. But if you really want to do it, there is nothing better in life than to write!” They will tell you when you’ve done something well, but unrelentingly push you to try something new. When you hear their students read their work, each piece is vastly different like jazz improvisation…skilled, flowing, a unique creative expression. They do this by teaching us the strategies to use, elements that must be used to make our writing come to life.
For example, it doesn’t matter if Charlie is writing about an eight-foot tall warrior elf, the 23rd president, or a sentient squid. He still needs to characterize the subject with details such as:
- physical description (including setting)
- what the character thinks, says, or feels (and why)
- what the character does to others
- what others say about or do to the character
Fine writing teachers are able to step back from their own styles. They see that it really doesn’t matter which process the writer uses, messy or tidy, outline or free-form. The outcome is what matters; writing that is interesting, dramatic, and original. They find great satisfaction in the individuality of our ideas. Great writing teachers are masters who lift their students to the top rung of the ladder and rejoice when they start to fly.