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Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to Become a Writer

I recently posted something on my Twitter account, @jamesjbjorkman, just to be provocative.  I do that occasionally.  People like to share their thoughts about things, but they need an opening.  I appreciate thoughtful replies, I usually learn something from them.  I am all about learning.

What I posted was, "If you need a class for creative writing, you will never be good at creative writing."

Simple enough.  If you want a response to something, you generally have to show that you have an opinion of your own.  Sterile questions are just that, sterile.  You will seldom get a good reply unless you show that you are willing to put yourself out there in the first place.

I received a few replies.  The consensus seemed to be in agreement with the statement.  However, one thoughtful tweeter pointed out that colleges often require completion of such a course, and they can instill or stimulate an interest in writing that was previously dormant or simply undeveloped.

Fair enough.  I only partially believe the statement that I posted.  It is difficult to make a nuanced argument in 140 characters or less.  But that is the beauty of Twitter, it is understood that you must throw nuance right out the window.

Good writing comes from within.  It is something you develop over time.  It is not something that you learn in a classroom.  If you do wind up learning something during such a class, it is because you put in time and effort to improve your technique.  You could have done that on your own.  But, this is the real world, and some need the motivation and encouragement that a classroom setting provides.

So, if you took a class on creative writing and that propelled you into the ranks of successful authors, my hat is off to you.

But for the vast majority of people, a class will do little good.  I think a prerequisite to becoming a solid author is that you have read well-written books from good authors.  Lots of books from lots of good authors.  And they don't have to be great books from great authors, though that no doubt helps.  Different styles, different genres, classic and recent.  You have to know the form.  It is like writing a Haiku, you aren't going to create a good poem if you don't know the required structure.  Or at least have a general sense of the possibilities.

I don't believe in re-inventing the wheel.  Read and read and read, over time and throughout your life, and you will absorb the principles of good writing.  Trying to memorize technique or themes, as if you were trying to pass an Algebra test, will get you absolutely nowhere. I used to visit the local library weekly as a kid, and read hundreds of novels, biographies, and history books.  I still think back to those days and, to tell the truth, wish I still had that much time.  The lessons I learned from reading so much are ingrained in my psyche and will always be a part of me.  No class can duplicate that.

Which is not to say that your own writing has to be anything like that of anyone else.  In fact, it is probably better that it isn't, if you want to be "creative."  But, writing gibberish will get you nowhere.  Unless you are James Joyce.

Anyway, the second prerequisite to becoming a solid author is that you write.  You write and write and write.  It really doesn't matter what you write about, though it helps if it is something that receives feedback.  Honest, varied feedback on your writing will help you advance even further than simply writing.  Yes, your creative writing instructor provides feedback, but it is the reaction of an audience, not an individual however competent, that is vital.

For example, I write movie reviews (  That may or may not seem to you like the most scholarly of endeavors, but it satisfies a need I have to communicate.  I have hundreds of movie reviews under my belt.  People respond to some, with hundreds of "thumbs up" and "thumbs down," and don't even seem to notice others.  In my opinion, some of my best reviews are the ones that nobody ever seemed to notice.  But from those reviews that do receive feedback, good or bad, I learn a lot.  Believe me, I want that feedback, because it helps me hone my craft just a little bit more each time I see that I hit a nerve out there in the binary world.

As an example of something I learned from feedback, a positive review will generally receive positive feedback, and a negative review will be panned.  Unless, of course, the movie truly and obviously sucked, in which event the reverse is true.  But those cases are exceedingly rare.

There is one final ingredient to becoming a solid author.  You must have experience or ideas that you need to share.  I say "need" because to get through the process, you must have more than a mere "want" to be heard.  There must be ideas bursting out of your head that absolutely demand expression.  This comes from living, and having lived.  By that, I don't mean getting up every morning, having your morning coffee, and putting in your workday.  Instead, it springs from experiences you have had, friendships or romance, interactions with humanity and the world at large.  This has nothing to do with simple technique and everything to do with having something to say.  And you will not find that in a creative writing class.

Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that there are such classes.  They keep a lot of authors employed, and they no doubt are an entryway for some to the field of creative writing.  But I don't think that taking such a class will help you with the three prerequisites that I pose above, any more than you could, and should, help yourself on your own.

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