How to Write Better: What I’ve Learned
When I was a kid, I wrote stories all the time. I wrote about anything that came to mind, like an alien named Pookie, and headhunters in Borneo. I also wrote 20-page letters to school friends I saw every day. And I kept diaries. I have 22 filled notebooks, some even in French, from when I lived a year in France and found it easier to think in French. I wrote when I couldn’t find the words to say aloud. I wrote because I had so much inside me that talking didn’t fulfill my need to express myself. I wrote unapologetically and honestly and without fear. All that mattered to me was that I loved to write.
In high school I wrote stories and plays, one of which was produced for a variety show. In university, I took creative writing and kept writing stories and started entering them into contests.
And then I hit a giant wall. Something happened after university that caused me to stop doing creative things. I stopped singing, being involved in theatre, and writing stories. I stopped keeping a diary. I felt as though I’d lost all inspiration and fear took over. For years, I agonized over this and felt my identity slipping. I began to have panic attacks and my world became smaller and smaller. I wanted to write, but when I sat down to do it, nothing came. As time progressed, I became increasingly fearful that I had nothing to write and that what I wrote would suck terribly and be mortifying.
Instead, I took up copy editing. It was much easier to help improve others’ writing than work on creating my own stuff.
The more I read, too, the more I feared I’d never write well, or at least as well as those I admired. But the more I read, the more I felt guilty and miserable about not writing.
Feeling more and more with each job I took that I was moving further away from the real me, I decided to start a book blog, someplace I could write about the things I loved most, in order to bring some relevance into my life. That blog is Bella’s Bookshelves. I wrote about book events and news and reviewed books I read. Suddenly, books started arriving at my door for review, and a prominent Canadian magazine asked me to review for them.
I was finding my strength again and realizing that writing was something I did well. I wrote about the elements of story, but I still wasn’t creating stories of my own.
Then I met Sarah Selecky. I’d read her Giller-nominated collection This Cake is for the Party, and recognized in the pieces her passion for getting to the heart of life, of people, of what it means to be human. I witnessed her carefulness and her love of words. Her writing demonstrated what I value in literature: characters who make me feel for them even if I can’t relate to them, carefully chosen words, sharp editing, and love of the craft.
At first, she intimidated the hell out of me, because of my fears of inadequacy. But talking to her, I found that she knew exactly what it was like to suffer the way I had been, not writing. She understood the anxiety and depression around it, the fears of failure and judgement, the agony of wanting to write but feeling unable to or blocked from making the craft a habit I could revel in every day. She understood resistance. Everything she said to me (particularly, “It’s all already there. You just have to meet it halfway”) resonated deeply, and everything she wrote in her course Story is a State of Mind spoke to me as though she’d written it with me in mind.
With her guidance and generosity, and through one of her excellent TAs, I learned how to think differently about writing. Basically, I learned how to write better. I learned that my writing needs to come from a place of love, not anxiety or stress or guilt or pressure. I learned that patience is necessary and that a good story counts more than getting published. I learned the perils of editing while writing, and that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Revision takes as long as it takes, and nothing is permanent, so I could write what I wanted. I learned how to freewrite, deal with my inner critic, appreciate my own voice and that no one else could write like me, where to find my wellspring of ideas, and how to go deep with details and compassion and empathy and fearlessness. I learned how better to observe people, how to write good dialogue, and most of all, how to see writing as something intrinsic, not apart from me.
At the same time, I started therapy. Here is where I learned how to be kind to myself, how to allow myself to have flaws and make mistakes, to love my inner child, the creative being in me. I discovered the joy of letting go of others’ expectations and judgements, and of just what process, rather than impatience, can reap. I learned that shame is useless and vulnerability is a strength.
Of course, all of this was hard. I cried a lot. I was frustrated and angry. I edited the crap out of the first story I wrote, which was only two paragraphs, and I honestly thought it was finished. I was very resistant to much of what I was learning, because I was set in my ways, and I don’t mean determined but stuck. So I also learned how to become open, how to view my need for change as something that needs to go hand in hand with willingness to change.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a lifelong process. I’m still learning. But what I’ve caught on to is something I want to share.
When I sent those two paragraphs to a writer friend of mine, he said, “But..who ARE these people? I like what you’ve written, but I want to know more!” It was so difficult to get past those two paragraphs, that sense of having finished, that it took me weeks to open that file and start writing again. But I began to ask the same questions he had of my characters and the story, and found that in answering them I was actually creating something good.
I got excited. You know that Crayola ad where the kids sing, “We celebrate ’cause we’re free to create”? Yeah, that. I wrote from real experiences but did what I wanted with those experiences. I “followed my tugs”—which is to say, I wrote about what interested me enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt what it was like again to love what I was writing, to feel the thrill and beauty of the magic happening, what I was thinking, the sitting down and creating. It was fun. Not easy, but enjoyable. Because of my different approach, the difficult stuff became more like figuring out a mystery. And I began to understand what this creating stories business is all about. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is what you feel when you fall in love. There is so much more I can share with you on this.
Now I’ve got a story accepted for publication, that first story I started after 15 long years. I have six others on the go. I think about stories, I do writing exercises, I talk to authors, I listen to music, I colour in a colouring book, I read short stories for influence, I troll through old photos and talk to family and friends about our past, I’m part of an exceptional writing group, I coach others for Sarah’s course and also on my own—I do all sorts of things to keep myself in a creative frame of mind, which means paying attention to past and present and what piques my interest, and seeing that I’m surrounded by stories all the time.
Writing and making a habit of it is all about changing our thinking and our feelings toward writing. It’s not just something we do, it’s part of who we are. We are human. We write about what it means to be human. To do that well, we need to be free of inhibition.
Everyone has different ways of practising. But the one thing that is the same with all good writers is that they understand it’s about WHERE our writing comes from, not how much you write or how often.
All this stuff I’ve said, this is what I mean about having shining eyes when you write. This is what I mean by learning how to write better. When it comes from the right place, your very spirit will be showing.