How to be a better writer

young girl pausing with a pencil in hand A good friend of mine has some issues with language.

She is, by her own admission, a lousy speller. While her vocabulary houses more than a few five-dollar words, they're as likely as not to turn up as malapropisms when hauled out. Her sentence construction can be choppy, her grammatical structure inelegant and her punctuation, when she uses it, would most charitably be described as "creative."

My friend is one of the best writers I know, and I'd read almost anything of hers I could get my hands on.

* * * * *

I get asked sometimes how to be a better writer. Me! Who, if writer prizes were being handed out would almost certainly win the one for Least Aware of Her Own Process. (Note: I'm currently taking pains to change this. They are painful pains. More on this shortly.)

Sometimes it's the earnest request of a person wildly capable in another arena, or someone who came up in another language, then moved to the U.S. and got by on things like wit, smarts, hard work and the acquisition of practical skills. Usually, anyone who bothers to ask me this isn't half-bad at writing already, but is frustrated with not being as good at writing as they are at their core competency, or is embarrassed by their lack of facility in arcane areas like grammar and usage.1

Other times, it's the annoying non-question of the dilettante. They don't really want to know, or rather, they have no interest in actually doing the work required to get there. They're looking (maybe) for a class or a book or a coach, a silver bullet.

But I tell them the same thing I tell anyone who really wants to be a better writer: (1.), read more good stuff; (2.), write more, period; and (3.) if you're already doing quite a bit of both of those things, consider taking an acting class or an improv class or something that will get your stubborn head connected to your damned heart, along with the rest of your organs.

While good teachers and coaches and classes can absolutely help move things along (and make the moving-along way more pleasant), there's really no avoiding numbers 1 and 2. (You can get around #3 via other kinds of emotional education, either on a shrink's couch or in the classroom of life. Budget accordingly.)

* * * * *

This how-to-get-better-at-writing business has been much on my mind lately.

Partly because I have been getting a lot of very nice compliments recently via the electronic mails about my own writing. (You know who you are, and thank you. They have been lifelines to me lately, especially given my low spirits from the Crohn's flare.) I usually look at my own writing with a giant shrug of "Meh.", because I'm always looking at other people's writing and comparing it to that. Yes, Mark, I know comparison is from the devil. But I've only recently been made violently aware that I am actually comparing my struggles with writing to other people's finished writing. Talk about your a-ha! moments.

Anyway, sometimes the nice things are just nice things, but sometimes they come bundled with a query for writing services. While I know there's gold in them thar hills (and I also know the only thing I'll never say "never" about again is saying "never"), I'm afraid that's off the table for the foreseeable future. Call me superstitious, but I couldn't write a damned thing of worth until I'd put a fair bit of distance between me and copywriting, and I'm terrified that picking it up again might the writing equivalent of shaving Samson. Or worse, something of more lasting or even permanent nature, a really, really strong depilatory or a laser or something. Besides, at this point, my voice is so my voice, I would probably be a rotten copywriter. I think the best ones are great mimics who thrive on perpetual new intake. So not me anymore.2

But another big reason it's been on my mind is that finally, FINALLY, I am preparing to teach what I know about writing. A very particular type of writing (blogging, natch), but still, writing. I feel woefully ill-equipped for the task. I feel stupid and ungainly and lost. I feel 100% certitude that I am worse than every other teacher of writing who ever taught.

In other words, I feel like those people I'm always fielding the "how-to-be-a-better-writer" question from.

* * * * *

So that thing about pain I brought up, above? We're back to that. Lots and lots of pain and shyness and anguish and nervousness. As I slow down to look at the things I already know. As I bring my full attention to all the things I do not know. The good news in this is realizing I'm actually a better writer than I give myself credit for most of the time. The bad news is everything else: The unknown! The fear of failure! In public! The anxiety over not feeling good enough!

And at the same time, I know that putting myself through this not only will teach me how to teach, but will teach me more about writing. And probably speaking. And definitely learning.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being always wants to be a better writer. The reading changes, and should keep changing. The form the writing takes changes, and should keep changing. But it keeps on keeping on.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being is also, on some level, balls-out terrified. Because if you are really becoming a better writer, while you are certainly building on what you have done, you are always, always, always doing something you have never done before. You are living, you are improvising, you are making it up as you go along.

Which is why no matter how great a writer you are, you should have a few butterflies scattered around the joint. Because if it ain't butterflies, it's probably buzzards.

Remember my friend, the great writer with wobbly vocabulary and the rickety foundation of grammar and usage? She is a great writer because when she writes, she is 100% alive. She is living, which is to say growing, changing, in that very moment. So life pulses through her writing, and flows through you as you're reading.

* * * * *

Read more (good) stuff. Write more, period. If necessary, please do get some improv training or qigong lessons or your head shrunk.

If you really want to be a better writer, though, learn how to make friends with fear and open your heart to change.

And then get yourself used to the idea of doing that forever.

xxx c

1And I get why they sweat it, some people are horrible snobs about usage. I wish I could remember who said it, but someone big, like, Seth Godin-level big, went on record as saying a lot of our grammatical and usage rules are b.s., elitist, kept in place to make people feel bad about themselves. English is crazy plastic (callback alert!); we're adding "bad" pronunciations and rules along with new words all the time. I can be a little on the snobbish side myself, dangerous in someone who plays pretty fast and loose with rules she's not 100% sure of, but only time it really bothers me when people "break" English is when they are trying to make themselves seem more educated than they are. Even then, I mostly just feel sorry for them now that I am all grown up and full of equanimity and stuff.

2I do have an inkling of how I can employ my writerly skills to help you out, though, so if you're interested, watch this space. Better yet, get on the newsletter mailing list.

Image by milena mihaylova via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

"Stasis" is a four-letter word

fear_1While I don't suffer from any paralyzing fears, I do have a few sticky wickets I wrassle with on a fairly constant basis. One is a fear of unwarranted incarceration. While this fear is usually triggered by some random brush with authority (just seeing a police car upends the hairs on the back of my neck), I think I live with a low level of it all the time. And when life gets a little stressful, I know I'm bound for a repeat broadcast of the long-running nightmare where, after a brief trial complete with slo-mo judge's gavel crashing down to an accompanying basso "GUILTY!" I'm cuffed, hauled off and thrown behind bars that slam shut with a creaky, noir-ish clang. When I lived in New York back in the 1980s, I had a fear of getting bonked on the head, losing my memory and winding up wandering the streets with my shopping cart, so crazy I couldn't recognize my own face on the "missing" flyers, so filthy and worn with exposure that no one else could, either.

fear_2But my biggest fear (outside of rats eating my eyeballs, thanks a lot, George) is of winding up the female half of a calcified couple like the one I saw at a Palm Springs Denny's almost 20 years ago: more lonely together than I could ever be alone, my style frozen in time, my hair frozen, period. Of course, I know exactly from whence this springs*, I am not now nor have I ever been a daredevil. In fact, what I'd really like is for everything to stay exactly where it is so I can keep an eye on it, and no tricky stuff, either!

Knowing my predilection for stasis, to prevent ossification, I at least semi-regularly try to hurl myself into some perilous venture (acting, blogging, marriage); a couple of times, I've even hurled myself from an airplane (not bad, but really, a bit de trop around the edges).

fear_4I know I'm doing something good for me if I get a little of that vertiginous feel when I'm doing it. Walking to my first sewing class I felt mildly excited, but running fabric through the machine for the first time, my fingers mere millimeters from a mechanized needle, I felt my glucose level plummet. Likewise the first time I popped open the door on my G4 to tinker or traveled solo.

Sometimes I take to the change like a duck to water (Geek, meet Computer; Computer, Geek) and sometimes it takes a few trips up the coast to make the dizziness go away. Regardless, I figure the exercise keeps me flexible and the Alzheimer's at bay so like the kids say, it's all good.

Yesterday, however, it was great. With a capital G-R-E-A-T.

fear_3I'd run into my friend, David Bickford, at a New Year's Eve party. We'd just closed a show before the holidays and were discussing upcoming theatrical ventures. He's always got some new play going at his theater, but I'd already decided to sit out the next few at mine to work on my own show, #1 & #2, which my writing partner and I are in the midst of turning into a musical.

"A musical?" cried David, who is an excellent musician. "I didn't know you wrote music!"

"Neither did I," I cracked, because really, I don't.

"What do you compose on?" he asked, curious, since he's facile with guitar and piano (and several medieval instruments, too, no doubt).

"Um...I sing into a tape recorder and bring it to Rob or O-Lan," I sighed, because I do, and it makes me feel like an unempowered loser. "I wish I could learn enough piano to compose on."

"I teach piano to beginners!" he cried, following it up with several examples of students who were playing serious classical pieces after only one year starting from zero knowledge whatsoever.

So we hammered out some details, and I made my long & winding way up the canyon to David's little studio yesterday morning. The trip was harrowing, the parking, terrifying (he lives on one of those canyon "roads" that's really more like a bike path) so I was good and dizzy by the time I wandered in. And despite getting an inspirational mini-recital from the aformentioned classical novice (who really is excellent), I was still pretty spinny from all this left-hand/right-hand, don't-look-at-either-of-them drilling (which David did in the nicest of possible ways).

happyBut when we busted out the guitars so he could show me how the scales actually worked, how they were the same no matter what instrument you picked up, how it was mathematical and logical and beautiful all at once...well, I could have grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him smack on the lips. Because while it wasn't all completely clear yet, I had that thrill of Getting It, that exciting peep under the tent at what things would be, could be like a year from now if I kept at it, of the world that might open up to me if I opened myself up enough to let it.

I was so happy, I felt like my heart might explode.

And you know, I wouldn't have been afraid if it had.

xxx c

UPDATE: *Oh, god. No pun intended, truly...groan...