In these early weeks of school, I spend a lot of time reviewing the basics of how to write a paragraph with my students—crafting topic sentences, developing body sentences, writing concluding sentences. I imagine my students think I’m an expert.
I think they would be surprised to hear I often find writing a challenge and fraught with frustration. Maybe you’re surprised to hear me say this too.
Perhaps every writer feels this way about the writing process. Maybe we all believe the silly myth that everyone else has an easier time than us. Somehow, I still think that I have to revise and edit more than others.
Over the years, I’ve read numerous books about the writing life. I’ve listened to authors talk about their writing practices and noted some of their tips and tricks. I’ve learned a great deal. The hard part for me (besides the actual writing), is embracing who I am as a writer and what my process looks like. Rather than comparing myself to other writers I admire and respect, I’m slowly learning to acknowledge where I’m at.
Partly for myself and partly for you, I decided to tell my story of what the writing process looks like for me. A couple of years ago, I wrote a Writer’s Manifesto and posted it on this space. I still believe what I wrote, but I felt the need to revisit this topic again, explaining some of the specific practices I’ve adopted as I continue to learn and grow in my craft. In many ways, the writing life mirrors ordinary life. I imagine you will find some truths here that apply to your circumstances, whatever they may be.
The dreaded “curse of the blank page” is a common refrain among many writers. I’ve experienced it a couple of times, but I don’t consider it to be my main struggle. I often have a number of topics or ideas rolling around in my head, waiting to be developed. The challenge begins once I start writing. A subtle transformation occurs. The inviting Alicia that can easily chat with a friend over a cup of coffee for a couple of hours, disappears. She’s replaced by the professional Alicia who keeps her readers at arm’s length and sounds formal. Boring! Why the switch? To be honest, I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. In my efforts to teach my students how to write solid paragraphs that strike an appropriate tone, I’ve made writing seem more formal than it needs to be. Yes, my students need to know how to write a persuasive paragraph or analytical essay, but that’s not the kind of writing I’m attempting to do.
Good writing allows the reader to hear the writer’s voice. It makes you feel like you’re hanging out with a friend. Or, at the very least, a friend you wish you had. The writing doesn’t feel forced or contrived. For me, finding my inviting Alicia voice requires several drafts. I know she’s there, but she often hides and needs to be coaxed to come out. What can be particularly frustrating is when I write something that I think is pretty solid and my husband—hands down the best editor—tells me the piece needs some more work. That it’s not quite there. That the piece sounds too formal. This is the point where I become discouraged, when I want to give up and move on.
When I hit the wall, I’ve learned it’s time to take a break— go for a walk or do something active. As my feet hit the pavement, the “block” often lifts and I can see the parts that need to be reworked more clearly. The elusive word or phrase becomes more evident. New ideas emerge and the frustration lessens. Many writers talk about carrying around a notebook just for these moments—noting the idea or the word before it’s lost. It’s a good practice. Once I return from my break, I write some notes to myself or fix whatever was troubling me and call it a day.
Letting my writing “sit” is another practice I embrace. Perspective is everything. Fresh eyes can see revisions in a clear light. Plus, I’m less inclined to unhelpful self-talk after letting a piece perlocate for a while. I’m able to sit and do the hard work in front of me.
Sometimes, the hard work is letting go of a paragraph, an illustration, or the entire direction of a piece. This is challenging when what I think I wrote is gold. I’ve heard other writers say the same thing. How can I cut or seriously edit this perfect piece of writing? Are you sure it doesn’t fit? Letting go in writing is hard, just as it is in real life. But the truth is, the times I’ve done it, my writing is better. I still save the illustration or idea, tucking it away for another piece, another time.
Lastly, it comes down to practice. I need to practice writing, lots and lots of it. And the truth is, I don’t. Every writer I’ve read or listened to says the same thing: It’s in writing a lot of garbage that the good work emerges. There’s nothing flashy or glamorous about practice. But, when you read that piece that makes your heart constrict because it captures the deepest longings of your soul or your mind expands because of the beautifully written words with their spot-on descriptions, you can rest assured it’s the result of lots of practice.
I plan to keep plodding along this writing journey, with its challenges, joys, and frustrations. I want to become a better writer. I’m learning to share my weaknesses with other writers. It’s okay that I may not be as good as so and so. I’m learning to quiet the inner voice that thinks all the good ideas have already been taken by someone else. I’m choosing to believe that there’s still room for my ideas and my voice. I’m learning to keep writing.
Great advice, Alicia. I would add that reading poetry helps develop an ear for language, a sense of imagery, and appreciation of economy. With my students, I always used examples from the masters to illustrate a particular craft point such as: POV, voice, sensory details, or dialogue. We wouldn’t think of teaching kids music or art without showing them the works of skilled artists.
Good point, Evelyn. I love the reminder that poetry can teach us to be better writers as well. Thanks for your comment.
Alicia, another great writing piece! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing.–One of your favorite admirers–Mom