Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Getting Started

I spoke to a group of high school students about writing a while back. They were very polite and listened, but I'm sure what I told them was overwhelming. It usually is when you first start thinking about writing for publication. So much to learn. So much information. Sometimes you have to hear the same things several times before it becomes a part of you.

I wish that every writer who wanted to be published could be published. That is not reality. Every person who wishes to be a writer, however, can be a writer. And you can find readers. You start with an idea--maybe something from your past, maybe something that happened, or maybe just something that intrigues you. Sometimes it takes years for a story to get published, but one thing is certain--you have to serve an apprenticeship and learn and you. must. write. And whether you are someone who has 75 books published, or are just publishing your first book, or are still trying to find that place where readers will read your words--all writers have to learn and start somewhere and must continue to learn.

The students asked some great questions. In doing so, I hope that they learned a little about themselves. The first question was "How did you get started?" Ask this question of authors and writers, and some answers will be the same, and some different.

I like to say that I started off my writing journey in my freshman year of high school. I published a poem that year and seeing my own byline was a rush. I wrote volumes in journals over the course of my high school years. Then, I got on the newspaper staff as sports editor and art editor in my senior year and really dug in. Those articles were sent in to Ball State University and I won a journalism scholarship.

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere," so says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. She describes what her father tells her brother who has a rough start when trying to get going on a school project about birds. "Just take it bird by bird," her father, also a writer, told him. "Do one bird, then do the next." Writing is like that.

I stuttered along in the years following college doing newsletters for service organizations, curriculum material in my teaching and taking a course here and there in writing while raising my four boys. Then, when I was 40 years old, I took a professional writing class at Taylor University in Ft.Wayne, Indiana. That is really where I got my start. Dr. Dennis E. Hensley pushed us to publish. Early on in the class, when I barely knew him, we were on a break in the hall and he walked right into my "personal" space to speak with me.

"I hate you," he said. I think he scowled.

"Really?" I didn't know what to make of this, but I'd heard he was a Vietnam War vet and it crossed my mind that this could get ugly, but as a competition trapshooter and one who had faced off with many a nemesis, I knew I could hold my own.

"Why," and I laughed for punctuation, "do you hate me, Dr. Hensley?" I made a point to not move away from him.

And then he passionately proceeded to tell me what I had done to him, the reader of my story, to evoke such an extreme distaste for what I'd written. In that moment I knew he cared about what I had written and wanted it to be better. It was personal. It was personal to him, the reader. It was personal to me, the writer. And between us we needed to come to an understanding. That is what writing is--a communication between the author and the reader. It is just the two of you in that space--that very personal space.

Someone on a writers' list said she had written eight manuscripts but had never sent one out. If you write, it demands to be read. And yes, it can be painful to hear what a reader has to say. It can be tough to understand what you should write and what you should leave out.But if you are a writer, you must start and you persist.

My favorite quote on this:
"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist."

- Isaac Asimov

If you write, tell me how you got started. 


LeAnne Benfield Martin said...

Yes yes yes!

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Crystal -

Thanks for the encouragement. I've submitted a lot of non-fiction pieces with some success. Maybe it's all the rejection, but sending out fiction is tougher for me.

Susan :)

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