My adult life keeps making me eat my words. I’m not. I can’t. I don’t. I don’t sew; I don’t knit. (Spoiler: I now do both of those.) So, so many I-can’t’s locked up in theatre, in being onstage. So much fear of being asked to do something awkward, embarrassing, uncomfortable when those described everything about me in high school. Coming back to acting ten years later, those had disappeared. Well, mostly. Enough.
The same has been true of writing. I don’t write short stories. I don’t write poems. Except now I do. But that’s old news by now. Here’s the new one: I don’t write non-fiction.
Ok, I know that’s funny. What are blogs, if not non-fiction, right? But I decided that this year I want to learn how to write essays. Not the meaningless gibberish of thesis/supporting arguments/topic sentences bullshit, but real, meaningful, powerful essays.
I may never get to that level of skill, but I started by reading those books on writing that seemingly everyone with an opinion recommends. Books that of course I’ve read by now if I consider myself a “real” writer. Kind of like being a fantasy writer who’s never read Tolkien. (I tried, but life is too short and there are too many amazing stories out there to force my way through something I just can’t care about.)
So now I wish I’d read Zinsser’s On Writing Well back in high school–or at least college. On the other hand, I can now articulate what turned teenage me off so hard from any writing advice books: I do not see myself. I am not represented.
Examples given of “great” writing? 99.9% of the time male authors. Women don’t rate mention, apparently. Default male pronoun when referring to a theoretical writer. If they give any mention of SF/fantasy/popular fiction, it’s either with utter bewilderment or dripping disdain.
Representation is important, folks.
Anyone telling me that my voice doesn’t matter? That my stories, my experiences don’t matter? Yeah, I won’t be inclined to listen to whatever else they have to say. (And I come from a significant amount of privilege as a white woman; this erasure is more insidious and pervasive for folks without my privilege.)
But I swallowed my pride and read the damn books and seethed. And there was good information buried in all that crap. A lot of stuff I already knew, which is why it would have done me more good to read it as a teenager. I learned things, too, and that was the point.
Know what else I don’t do? Writing exercises. Even the books on writing that I love–anything by Natalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron, or Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook–even knowing the exercises are there for a reason, I’ve done barely more than glance at them. So this is the next thing I’m working on.
I’ve done some. I’m slowly (so slowly) working my way through seasons of the Writing Excuses podcast. Or I was before the pandemic hit us. At times it feels tedious and I just want to roll my eyes and move on to something else, but when I set aside my pride and skepticism, magic happens. Feeling myself grow as a writer is a wonderful thing.
My skills have always grown in fits and starts. Sometimes the growth is small, gradual (like how I didn’t know I’d become decent at description until my writing group complimented me), and sometimes it happens in a flash (like becoming a parent–my writing after having a kid was immediately a class above what I’d done before). Working at prompts and exercises grows these skills perceptibly and steadily.
This satisfies my control freak tendencies. In so many ways, I can’t afford an MFA program (but that doesn’t stop me from drooling over Stonecoast every chance I get) and I can’t afford workshops and classes that can be hit or miss for the learning and growth I hope to get out of them. So doing these prompts and exercises on my own, while still imperfect, gives me a way to appreciably improve my skills. I’m a pretty damn good writer, but I want to be better.
I don’t know if I succeeded with the non-fiction–if my essay writing has improved (guess I just need to post more in order to figure that out)–but I’m oddly excited about doing more writing prompts and exercises. At least, when I can get past that initial aversion. (Some of the results from these will end up on my Patreon and/or Ko-fi, if you wanted extra incentive to join me there!)
On further consideration, maybe I should keep using the I’m not/I can’t/I don’t. If only so I can have an idea of what comes next.