Stayin’ Alive

I’m not going to spend any time on what’s been going on during 2020 and the first half of 2021 – we’ve lived through some horrible stuff already and many of us are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, hoping that it won’t. A lot of us have lost friends and family to Covid and however much the public health situation improves, the pain and grief will linger, making its impact on our future which will continue to include Covid, since it isn’t likely to be eradicated, just mitigated.

I know there are quite a few people out there who don’t want the vaccine. If you’re worried about its effects, talk to your doctor or another health professional. If you’re not getting a shot because you think Covid is a hoax or you believe you are entitled to not wear a mask or get vaccinated regardless of how it impacts your family or friends or even strangers, then plainly you’re an idiot and I hope you don’t kill someone else with your stupidity (hey, my blog, my rules).

Now off the soapbox and onto the subject of writing.

This year I did something I haven’t done in years: I was invited to join a writing group and I did. Best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time.

Some of you may know that I have often struggled with writing. I seem to have two speeds: words flowing like water through a spigot or nada, zilch, nuttin’. For years I’ve tried to figure out why that seems to be so and have not been in any way successful. (Ideally, I’d find out why and turn the spigot on and leave it on.)

The writing group hasn’t helped me with that. And some of the critiques I frankly ignore because why should I care if my grammar or spelling is off if a sentence or paragraph might not make it to the final cut? For me, spelling and grammar are something to be addressed in the polishing, when I’m satisfied that the story itself is all it can be.

Where the writing group has made a difference for me is in learning how I write, what’s important to me, why I’ve made the choices I have in terms of setting, character, perspective. This has come out of listening to my colleagues ask me questions about the story and them telling me where they had difficulty understanding what was going on. Explaining it to them was explaining it to myself. And that has been exciting.

Asking the same kinds of questions of my colleagues about their own work is also exciting. Writers, like other types of artists, love talking about the craft. It’s fun to talk to another writer about their work, to try to understand what they’re getting at, to help them refine their vision. And you often learn something about your own work in the process.

The excitement then spills over into writing and editing. After our weekly session, I’m often eager to get back to my work. Eager to incorporate the insights I’ve had. Eager to edit to clarify the presentation of my viewpoints (I’ve always liked editing. So sue me, I’m weird.). Even if nothing of mine was discussed at the meeting, I still come away energized by the conversation. It’s like fog breaking in front of me and suddenly I see more clearly than I had the day before and I can’t wait to move forward.

So even if I haven’t learned how to turn the word spigot full on, my excitement has helped get a trickle going that I hope will last.

Writers are loners. Even those who co-author books can’t write each other’s words. We each have to sit down and put our fingers on the keyboard. But there is more than one way to collaborate. And for me, the writer’s group has been the collaboration I needed.

As you might expect, all writer’s groups are not equal. Some get bogged down in petty crap and some have members who may not be so great at being able to ask the questions that can help you make your work better. In that sense they’re like any other type of help: doctor, therapist, teacher. If it’s not a fit, don’t try to force it. Find another group or make your own and invite writers you think will mesh.

Whether you have works coming out the ying yang or struggle to get 500 words a day done, a writer’s group could be just the help you need to find your equilibrium.

Note: also for the first time in years, I’ve submitted fiction to a national magazine. I’ll let you know the result when the email comes.

…Until You’re Older

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about writing advice the authors wished they’d gotten. Generally, it’s about the realities related to writing: that it can take a lot longer to get established than you think, that grammar is important, that having a writing schedule is important, etc.

Thing is, how many of us would really have listened to that advice and employed it?

We all have our own biases and when we’re very young, we all think we’re exceptional. It won’t take that long for me. I won’t have to work as hard as others because I’m naturally talented. While we can recognize good advice a lot of the time, getting ourselves to take it is generally another, ahem, story.

When I was a teen, I questioned my mother about decisions she had made in her life and why she had made them. One of her favourite answers to me was, “there are just some things you won’t understand until you’re older.” Naturally, she was talking about life experiences, but this advice applies equally well to any artistic endeavour. It’s not until you’ve tried and failed a few times at putting a story together, gotten experience in creating your own process, that any good advice you’ve received about writing can be taken to heart.

Seeing yourself in the less than idealized way of your youth is probably a rite of passage. But it’s where a lot of artists give up on their art. And if you’re writing for fame and fortune, it’s probably just as well you do give up at this point, since you are very unlikely, statistically, to hit the Stephen King or J.K. Rowling jackpot.

But for others, this point is the perfect time to reflect on the writing advice you’ve been given and start applying it seriously. For me, the advice, write for yourself, publish for others has become significant. Because I’ve stopped thinking ahead to how publishable my draft might be, I’ve regained my ability to enjoy the process of writing – to give myself over to writing what pleases me, what feels right and good to me – and to come away from the day’s writing session feeling content instead of conflicted is something I never could have anticipated would mean so much.

If I were asked for writing advice, it would be to learn to accept that you will screw up; that you will get lost in the twisty mazes, despair, feel overwhelmed, doubt both your ability and your sanity. But if you love the work, don’t give up. Slowly the chaos will re-form into a sort of order and you will see more than you have before and know what to do with what you see. Because there are just some things you will understand better when you are older in the craft.