In the months before we moved to Arizona, I met up for lunch with a young writer who asked lots of “how do I get started” kinds of questions. He was an energetic guy with lots of passion and just the right amount of oblivion to the idea failure to ensure he would make it through all the earliest hurdles. He seemed brimming with energy, and willing to do all the work. I liked him right away.
Then we moved west, and he left Indiana to head eastward. On very rare occasions he drops me a brief note chatting about what he’s doing, a couple days ago being the latest such occasion. This time he asked me an interesting question: “What do you do to get better at writing?” he wrote. Then he followed it up with a second interesting question: “What do you think is the best way to get better at writing?”
I read the questions, gave a head nod and considered a perfunctory response. You know what I mean, right? Something like: you get better by writing more, which is not wrong, but also not really right. Purely writing often is a requirement for getting better, but that’s not the point—nor is it any guarantee anyone gets better. This is an art form, after all. There’s a certain mindfulness one has to bring to the table, a point of view that one needs to obtain in order to do whatever it is you’re going to do. I considered saying something like, “join a workshop!” or critique bad stories, or go to a convention. I pondered several other possible responses—things having to do with craft, structure, and just generally how to deal with the pure psychology of what it takes to make something of a life out of things that spring fundamentally from the inside of your head.
Maybe I should tell him to read Algis Budry’s Writing to the Point, or Barry Longyear’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing.
But, no. I don’t know if those were the kind of response this guy needed, or deserved.
It’s a tough thing to talk about, really. Just how do you get better at an art—how do you get better at something that mixes creativity and inventiveness with the carpentry of language.
So I thought about it harder.
What do I do to get better? What do I think is the best way to get better?
First, I thought, there’s that word: Better.
I love “better.” I grew up in an engineering and corporate world, a world where “better” was a way of life. But, yeah, that’s a tough nut to crack here. Perhaps because of this pondering, the first thought I had when I sat down to respond was “can you please define better?”
Is it a style? Use of language? Developing deeper characters? Streamlining your manuscripts? Is it pacing? Is it being happy with what you did? Is it selling material? Awards? Is “better” being able to do something today that you couldn’t do yesterday? How much improvement in one area makes you a better writer? What does it take? And just how do I know I’m better? Give me the data, please.
With this thought in mind, I started to reply with a view that says “it’s different for everyone,” which is again true, but not the answer to his question. No, I thought. My friend didn’t ask a generic question. Instead, he asked what I do to get better. He asked what I think are the best ways to get better.
So here’s what I think.
Yes, I get better by working a lot—though mostly I don’t feel like this gig is “work.” I’ve done “work” before, some of it I loved and some I loved not-so-much. There’s a difference in work I did for punching the clock and work I do on creating art. And, I don’t mean the drudgery of the office vs. lightness of being that presumably settles over writers as they happily pound out 5,000 words a day. No. Writing can be frustrating. When I “struggle with my art” to use a highbrow phrase, I can get even more angsty than I ever got working the corporate 50-60 hours a week. Punching the clock can suck, but so can writing. But, yes, writing is writing. I get better by putting fingers on keyboard many hours a day.
I also get better by filling my brain with information from lots of people and lots of points of view.
These days, since we live in a pretty isolated, monolithic area, I have to take some specific steps to do this. For me, it’s a lot about listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, and reading stuff—focusing on areas that are outside my normal upbringing and outside my normal mindset. I think a writer is stronger if they can take on perspectives that are not theirs, so I look for things that make me think about things differently or expose myself to things I may not have looked at before. As an example, my last few podcasts have been a This American Life episode on how life in a car dealership works, a collection of Where Should We Begin episodes—a program focused on couples therapy and that makes me think about how people interact within their most intimate relationships, a very interesting series of podcasts on the history of the Supreme Court titled More Perfect, and a set of The Future of Everything episodes that are focused on futurism and how the world is already changing.
I absorb stories and interviews of artists in all fields, and those are often the most useful in direct relationship to my work. Hearing other people who make amazing things talk about what they do brings a certain validation to the effort that I find to be freeing. I find that hearing musicians, in particular, talk about how they built their work to often gives me license to try things and tinker with things until they’re right…even when that tinkering happens over just a single draft.
Being a white male who grew up in a safe middle class cocoon, I look for African American and Latino perspectives, and try to put eyeballs (ear canals) onto anything that I think I might not understand. I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of the history of gender politics and the “true” currents of racism in America in particular. I’ve spent hours with Junot Diaz on the other end of my ear buds, and just as long with Rob Sawyer. I listen to stuff from Libertarian political folks as well as Noam Chomsky. I take in Malcom Gladwell’s work—which I find fantastic from both a content and story structure standpoint (his podcast on creativity, is amazing). When I hear something I like, I make it a point to riff off it in more of my stories—not steal from, mind you, but be influenced by. The feelings and thoughts I get from these sources come out in situations my characters are dealing with. The more random and varied, the better.
Nora Ephron’s Everything is Copy is great. The recent documentary on Stephen Spielberg was a fascinating look at what being a filmmaker was like in his time, but also showed bits and pieces of how his mind worked in putting together stories that made a difference. Ken Burns’s Baseball, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, Ken Burns’s Vietnam. I pick whatever interests me at the time, or even if it doesn’t seem interesting on first glance I give it a go. Who woulda known Bitcoin could be so fascinating?
I can honestly say I’ve never walked away from a podcast or documentary with having some kind of thought or idea that I can use to make my work deeper in some way. But, you know, part of that is because today I’ve come to understand that I get better by having a point of view, and bringing that point of view to the work, and that in order to have a point of view I need to be thinking about things a lot more than I used to.
Bottom line: my personal writing journey took a major turn that I consider positive, or at least “for the better,” when I decided that (1) I was going to do work that mattered, and that (2) I was going to do work that mattered to me. And, let’s be clear here, at the end of the day, per my definition of “better” no one else matters. Of course I want other people to like what I do, but once I quit trying to please others, my writing got “better.” I write to tell stories that I care about, otherwise, there’s no point for me.
Perhaps that’s pretentious, I don’t know. But I think I’ve gotten better by deciding that everything I write has to have value to my point of view, even if it’s “just” pulpy science fiction or cool super-hero stuff (hear the sarcasm in that “just,” will you?).
In context of the question, I get better by being mindful of what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. Why is this story valuable to me? Perhaps it’s just a silly moment of joy, or perhaps it’s a deeper, darker comment on our social problems today—but either way, I know what the story is about (to me, anyway…what the story is about to someone else will be totally different). I’ll often write an entire draft anymore just to get to the end so I can decide what the story is about, then go back and rewrite it the “right way.”
Don’t get me wrong, here. There are craft things that I’m working on every day, too. Like everyone else, I get better by being mindful of my sentence structure, and of my word choice. I get better by making my craft stronger. I’ve got a long way to go there, of course. I figure these are things writers keep working on and learning about forever, though. At least I hope so. It would be boring to think I was as good as I’ll ever get.
But, to me, these things are a given. As long as I’m mindful of the fact that I’m trying to get better, sitting down to write every day is certainly the way to go.
In that light, I also get better by reading. Not just reading, though. Reading with a purpose. Mindful reading. (If you get the idea that “mindful” is an important thing here, well…welcome aboard). It’s no accident when Karen Joy Fowler starts a story by showing us a snow globe in a gift shop, then spends two pages wrapping us up in a setting so deeply that we feel encompassed in it. It’s no accident when Kris Rusch puts me in an African American detective’s point of view in the middle of the 1960s with such sharp details that I feel like I’m that man. It’s no accident when Thomas Wolfe writes paragraphs that go on for two pages and still makes it work.
I read for pleasure, but I also read with a mindfulness that lets me get excited when I can see these creators play with the art of words on a page.
So, that’s it, really. That’s how I get better.
I’m happy for the question now, because I hadn’t really thought about this in that context. It was helpful to me to do this. Mindful, even. [grin] At the end of the day, I’ll say that, yes, getting better is probably different for everyone—in fact I can say that the details of these things was perhaps even different for me at different stages of my life.At the end, though, I think it boils down to one thing, really. I get better by finishing projects and moving forward.
I move from one project to the next because once the damned thing is done, I can’t learn from fiddling with it.
I try to do my best work every day. I try to be mindful of doing that good work, or at least making sure I’m doing work I love (even if, paradoxically, I can’t tell if it’s any good or not).
I get better by interacting with other writers, and by going to workshops and forming bonds with creative people who are always there to help.
So, this brings me to consider the second question: Is this the best way to get better?
I don’t know.
But I can say that at the end of the day, I don’t know any other way than this: I work hard (or play hard, as it were), and I try to be mindful of everything I do as it relates to making art out of the stories I tell. I read, listen to, and watch other artists to learn their techniques (or, really, to tie into their frame of mind). I fill my mind with a 100 perspectives so I can build my own, then I try to put myself on the page in ways I find interesting and fun. I trust that if I do that well enough, the piece will find its audience.
It works for me, anyway.
I have an inkling it will work for you, too.
Aren’t you glad you asked?