Writer on Writing (RFW #9)

In third grade, my teacher gave me a journal and inscribed on the inside cover, “Never stop writing.”  I wrote a mystery short story in fifth grade that my teacher claimed reminded her of Mary Higgins Clark.  By seventh grade, I was writing every day and was about sixty pages into my first novel.  I spent hours a week writing until I couldn’t any longer and always showed it to all my eager friends.  Between the enthusiastic compliments and the ability to fabricate these stories using my imagination, I adored writing.  Then I reached junior year of high school.  I decided to show my English teacher (I’ll refer to him as “Mr. P”) a novel I was working on at the time.  When I asked him what he thought, he said, “so you left the two characters off in that ditch, right?”  And that was it.  No suggestions, no compliments, just that indifferent statement.  After that, I barely wrote for about two years and never once asked anyone to read my work.

At the end of my freshmen year in college, I realized I still had to take an English Composition class, which meant I would probably have to share my creative writing again.  That, paired with the possibility of the creative writing class, meant I would have to reapproach something that once was so familiar to me.  It frightened me, but I seized the challenge.  Besides, not every professor or teacher could be a Mr. P.

On the first day of Professor Torgerson’s class, I discovered that I would have to be writing constantly—and for the public!  Not only would my professor read and critique my work, but my classmates would, as well.  We made groups within our class, shared our writing, and reviewed each other’s work.  Professor Torgerson, who radiated enthusiasm for the craft, paired with my interested class mates began to help me diminish my fears.

We had to choose a specific topic that we would work on all semester; I chose fiction writing.  If I could accomplish overcoming the fear of writing that Mr. P imprinted, then I would have a successful semester.  However, simply writing fiction wouldn’t be enough; I wanted to read it, as well.  I decided to examine each book I read and figure out how they succeeded and how they faltered.  However, I knew I couldn’t just jump into this; I needed an introduction to the topic, a hook, just as every story requires.

I started by examining famous first lines from a few different novels: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.  Why were these simple sentences so enthralling that they entranced the reader to continue?  After comparing the first sentence to the rest of the novel, I came to the conclusion that the introduction was as simple as introducing the story.  However, it must be approached with caution.  A good writer won’t reveal too much, but provide just enough to lead the reader on.  The first line of Rowling’s novel is, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Private Driver, were proud  to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much” (Rowling, 1).  As every Harry Potter fan knows, the Dursley’s are, in fact, not normal because their nephew is a wizard.  Rowling’s matter of fact tone reeks of sarcasm.  The “thank you very much,” is what really gives it away. Rowling hints that the Dursley’s are not normal, but they wish to be.  It’s a great introduction to their characters and provides the idea that something odd will occur.  Of course, the reader has to know what, so they continue on.

Along with examining several famous introductions, I decided to read first person narratives so that I could study how other writers took on the challenge.  The first book I picked up was Stephen King’s On Writing.  While this is a memoir, instead of fiction, King’s enthralling and entertaining narrative voice winded up teaching me more than I could ask for.  With the variety of jokes, crude language, and sincere advice, King’s memoir became the foundations for my semester’s work.  He provided memorable quotes, like “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs” (King, 118), and fantastic advice.  If a verb doesn’t portray the meaning as well as the writer hoped, try to find a different verb instead of scouring for adverbs.  After all, actions speak louder than descriptions.  He also discussed something which no one cared to mention before: Writing is hard.  To find out that a famous, successful writer felt such a way was almost relieving.  I find myself faced with writer’s block and can’t figure out how to approach a conclusion that I had in mind.  Sometimes, my writers block consumes any inspriation and suddenly, I have to force myself to write only a few sentences.  King showed me that I wasn’t the only one.

King provided me with the inspiration to dive into what I wanted to do and endeavor to accomplish my goals.  However, I still had to figure out exactly what type of story I wanted to tell and whether I wanted to create several, or follow one character.  I decided to create a character using a hundred character development questions.  Patrick Miles III, a rich college student from Texas, was born.  Not only is he petrified of getting dirty, but he looks down on everyone without realizing how pretentious he actually is.  Besides conquering my fear of sharing my work, I decided to take on the challenge of writing in first person.  Normally, my work is third person because, let’s face it, an omniscient narrator is so much more simple than capturing a character’s voice and keeping it consistent throughout the story.  I decided that if I could practice first person, plus get some helpful advice (unlike Mr. P’s simple remark), I might improve my skills.  My two goals by the end of the semester became to conquer my fear of showing my work and to improve my first person narrative craft.

After writing a few posts about Patrick, my group met for the first time.  We each read our posts allowed and when it was my turn, I had to ignore the naseau errupting in my stomach.  Bracing myself for the worst, I began to read Patrick’s story outloud.  To my complete surprise, they loved it.  Suddenly, my ideas of Mr. P transformed from a well-respected teacher to someone who I wouldn’t care whether he read my work or not.  Mr. P was not my “ideal reader,” which is a term King uses.  It just means the specific person the writer is striving to please through his/her work.  For years, Mr. P’s words echoed through my head and made me feel inadequate.  King made me realize that feedback isn’t always important, especially if it comes from an untrustworthy source.  Mr. P will never be my ideal reader, and now I realize that.  I decided that if the feedback wasn’t helpful in any way, I would take the critics’ too harsh opinions into mind, but not let it get to me.  Besides, if I was happy with something I wrote, and my “ideal reader” was happy, as my peers in the group were, why should I let a lousy comment bring me down?

Just like that, my confidence in my writing boosted up enormously.  I glanced back at my original stories written through Patrick’s perspective and I decided to re-write them for myself.  I produced an introduction with almost four thousand words, far beyond the first few sections I had written.  The best part was that I actually liked what I wrote.  Even through his odd quirks, Patrick became a loveable and interesting character, one who I wanted to work on.  It’s funny what a bit of confidence can produce.

Mr. P suffocated me, preventing me from doing what I adored most in my life.  It may seem silly that I let a single sentence effect me so greatly, but I see that now.  Even if I may not be the next Bronte or Rowling, I should never have felt inadequate for something I love to do.  I guess the notion that facing your fears to subdue them is true.  With King’s words, my group’s support, and my new found confidence aside, the one thing that will always keep me going is my love for the craft.  And no amount of iciness, whether it be from Mr. P or anyone, will conquer that.

Work Cited:

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. New York: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition, 1996. Print.

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000. Print.

Palahuinuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.


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