Thoughts On Writing

This is in response to a challenge, by Lorelle, to come up with a post about someone who changed your life. I've been wanting to talk about this anyway, so here it is: 

The other day, for a reason I can't now reconstruct, I began to make a list of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life, but the list was so long and distressing, that I finally decided maybe I'd just stick to thinking about a single mistake. 


The first thing to come to mind was a mistake that has to do with writing, a topic that comes up frequently here on BlogLily, so a good topic for today. The mistake? My belief, held for as long as I knew there were writing classes , that only losers take writing classes. This mistake is based on another mistake:  my belief, held for a similarly long time, that good writers are born that way.  If you don’t have the gift, it’s lame to try to develop it through any kind of writing class — that, anyway, was my foolish thought. 

When I finally dragged myself into a writing class at the age of 40, it was not to develop as a writer.  Rather, it was to be the final step before giving up altogether on the idea of writing.  This was an act so self-denying and self-defeating that it’s a wonder they didn't sniff me out at UC Extension and bar the door.  In other words, to be painfully clear about what I intended to do, my plan was to force myself to confront my lack of talent and discipline. I’d take a writing class with the other losers like me and I’d discover I wouldn't stick with it and wasn't any good, and then I’d stop telling myself I'd like to write and move on to other things in my life.

Never mind that I have written all my life — beginning with little plays when I was a child in which I forced others to play supporting roles to my own lead princess.

And never mind that I do know how to recognize good writing, at least in people other than me. I went to a fancy ivy league college and studied English literature. I went to another fine university and studied English literature further. This isn’t the way to become a good writer, though. Generally, what happens when you go to graduate school in English (particularly in the United States) is that you develop horrible writing habits, not least of which is the habit of using words no one else uses, like "hermeneutics." Or French words.  Or you begin to use ordinary words, like "locate," in an abstract and prissy way.  ("I wish to locate, in these texts, the authors' moments of transgression and defiance."  That kind of thing.)  The best thing that ever happened to me was when I went to law school, instead of continuing on in the English literature world.  Although, come to think of it, I didn't do much writing of my own after I became a lawyer either. 

So, back to the writing class. The class I took was a UC Berkeley Extension class. It was an absolute beginning class and was called something like, Finding Your Writer’s Voice. From the class description (find your crazy child within, learn to quiet your internal editor), I knew immediately my fellow students would be people who believed writing was a matter of venting.  In other words, the more self-indulgent you were willing to be, the better a writer you would be considered.  And that, I knew, was stupid.   

Now, here's the road to Damascus part. It happened gradually. I wrote the assignments. The first one was really painful. My youngest was just a baby and I was tired all the time. So I wrote something about the snazzy school crossing guards at the French school my older boys go to. That it was not very good was not really the point — I had done it, one word at a time.  It was coherent.  I wrote a short story, and a poem. I read them out loud and it was not as hard to do as I'd thought.  Another poem followed, from almost out of nowhere.  I found I really loved the moment when I left the trail I was on and discovered an image or a thought I hadn't planned out ahead of time.   Comments were respectful and interested.  My fellow students were a lot like me — we all had hurdles to overcome on the way to becoming writers. Some of them were a lot further along in getting past those roadblocks than I was. Best of all, I found myself, for short periods of time, not thinking about whether I was a good writer, but about what detail would best express what I wanted to convey.

The man who taught this class, Clive Matson, saved my life in a way. He preached over and over the importance of being non-judgmental about your work (he called it shutting off the "editor"), which is not the same thing as being self-indulgent.  He showed us skills — he talked about the importance of physical details, especially odd and dissonant details, he talked about poetry, not as an academic, but as a writer. And he never condemned. He did not falsely praise, but he made sure you heard from other people what was striking about your work.  He was gentle about what your work "needed." 

Although I would not use the phrase "crazy child" (which is how Clive describes the freely roaming imagination) I was still inspired by Clive — along with hundreds of other people he's taught — to shut off my doubts about my work and simply write. I took another class, from someone he recommended. And then I took a third class, from him again. I learned how dialog works, about three years in to writing.  Pretty soon after that, I joined a Thursday evening writers' group he hosts with his wonderful wife Gail, who is, like Clive, a poet. I am on the brink of finishing my first novel.  I have a good idea for the next one. I will never stop writing; I love it too much.

Getting help is not for losers. It is what we should all do when we know we love something. We honor the things we love when we work at them.

So I leave you with a list of some things I now know about writing, most of them thanks to Clive Matson, things that I wish I’d known all along, or at least a little sooner:

–write often.  This doesn't mean you have to clear four or six or eight hours out of your day to do this. I have found that it's easier to write short bits and write frequently, than to write every once in a while in long galloping stretches.  This is particularly true if you’re writing a novel, because you want to live in the world of the novel as much as you can. I write on the train as often as I can — that’s half an hour to work and half an hour home.

–by all means get help. Take classes. Read books about your chosen form — there’s nothing wrong with reading these books, but don’t let them keep you from writing.

-find people who are like-minded, people who’ll read your work intelligently, people who expect you to show up and have a certain number of words written.

-pay attention to everything around you. When you see something odd, that strikes you, write it down. It will come in handy.

–don't worry too much about being published or finding an agent.  Stick with your job:  to write what you really want to write.  That said, do remember that we work and live in webs. Behave well to other writers, give honest praise, pay attention to work other than your own. If you can help someone or promote someone’s work, by all means do that. There is room enough for all of us.

–and, finally, write to please yourself. Write what you love to read, what amuses you and challenges you. If you feel these things about your work, the chances are good that other people will too.

Now go sign up for a writing class.

18 thoughts on “Thoughts On Writing

  1. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

    And thank you for sharing what so many people believe and perpetuate. The myth that talent arrives with birth. Whether you were born with it, or groped around in the dark for it, whatever it is, unless you nurture, explore, learn, study, use AND abuse it, you’re just living with the light turned off inside of you.

    Good for you for overcoming your prejudice and getting past yourself to find your passion. It was with you all the time, you know. You just had to get past your biggest obstacle: YOU.

    You go, kid. Live your dreams.

    And thanks for reminding us of ours.

  2. I liked what Lorelle said–“…get past your biggest obstacle: YOU”. Thanks to her for prodding Lily to finally write what was on her mind about writing. And thanks to Lily for writing about her personal experience of writing. I am always moved by her reflective essays. (I love Lemon Ice, too.)
    Along about her paragraph “Getting help is not for losers. It is what we should all do when we know we love something …” the lump in my throat knew she had nailed yet another big idea. And what a well deserved, eloquent tribute to Clive Matson, my favorite inspiring teacher, too.

  3. Lorelle is so right – I think for most people the biggest obstacle to living their passion is within. I know mine is but I’m still struggling to find a way around.

    Thank you for sharing BlogLily.

  4. The concept of turning off your internal editor really is true. I’m not the writer in the family — that’s you, Lily. I’ve been the jack of all trades person (sort of like Dad).

    I enjoy taking pictures. Not that I’d ever consider making much of a living doing it. I’m just not good enough at it. (My inner editor is talking now.) But I can take classes to improve what I do.

    I start to think I’m too old, and then I remember our mother. 🙂 How old was she when she first started at Microsoft? Just a few years older than I am now.

    Kudos to you for taking the classes. I’ve very much enjoyed seeing your blog. I just wish I did more with mine than post pictures of the grandbabies.

  5. What a nice story!
    I am going to do a writing class in September. Not because I think that I am a great writer or will be one, but because I love writing too much to not give it a try. And then – you never know what surprises life can come up with.

  6. I go to sleep and wake up and look at all the lovely people who've stopped by to visit!

    Lorelle — thanks for your comments. You've asked a wonderful question, one that simultaneously directs your readers outside themselves to think about people who've mattered and then takes them back inside to see what they're doing to live up to the person who's made such a difference. That's briliant!

    Smokey– You're very sweet. We're lucky to have found a teacher like Clive. See you in class tonight!

    Hello Kerryn — Your story of your Catholic childhood really resonates with me — I was a lot like the girl you describe — obedient, unquestioning, a nice Catholic girl. Reading is the thing that made me less good — I remember a terrific book I picked up in the library, right next to the shelf of books about how to be a cheerleader and how to be well groomed. It was called Girls' Lib. I'm still living that life, as well as I can, asking questions about how things are organized, why we are supposed to do what we do, whether certain things are okay. Surprisingly, I have found answers I didn't expect to find. That's what I write about here, on occasion. I'm looking forward to seeing your answers too.

    Hey Sue! How nice of you to come by. You're such a great sister. You're not too old to do anything, baby. And I think taking classes will be fun. Your pictures are beautiful by the way. Oh, and one other thing — money does not validate how worthy your project is. If you like doing it, that's all that counts. It gives you pleasure and it certainly gives other people pleasure. Those pictures you took of my boys playing soccer are things of beauty.

    Ingrid, that's so great! I hope you blog some about how your writing class goes. I'll be sure to check in!

    Cheers to all of you! BL

  7. When I retired from the “real” world job-wise, I decided to do what I took pleasure in, and hoped I made enough money for the house payment and food. So far so good, it’s been about three years now.

    It’s also been almost three years since visiting the SF area. Time for more picture taking. 🙂

    I am almost ready for a new camera, though.

    I wasn’t around during your cheerleading days. Time to dust off that yearbook.

    Time to go hold my newest grandbaby. Brandon is fussy.

  8. BL, I’m glad you mentioned this in your reply– “Surprisingly, I have found answers I didn’t expect to find. That’s what I write about here, on occasion.”

    That’s what my 13 years of writng poetry, not begun until I was in my mid-fifties (in Clive’s UC class), has been all about–discovery–personal and whatever the other thing is. Speaking of late careers, my mother, an English and Latin teacher, went back to college at 58, studied intensive Russian (the Sputnik effect), took a class field trip to the Soviet Union at 60, and taught it for 12 more years, and then taught remedial English to struggling technical college students until she was 86. Thanks again, BL, for your stimulating ideas and grace-full writing. Smokey

  9. How very remarkable. A little birdie recently told me that you take a writing class–which surprised me, as I had assumed (wrongly) from a comment you made earlier that you didn’t write. Just this morning I thought to myself how I should ask you if you have anything you’d like to show people, and now I hear from you first!

    Thanks for sharing–yes, the dual urges to create and critique can be so self-defeating. Getting them working together is like two opposing muscles on a limb–each needs the other for the limb to function properly. For whatever maddening reason my creative side all too often kicks in between 2 and 4 in the morning–lay awake or get up and work? So often I rise, scribble away (and then struggle to stay awake afternoons). The second best time for me seems to be later in the morning–but I’m very conscious that this is some inner voice I can channel but the floodgates aren’t completely controlled by me. So I have to listen and respect that–though it isn’t always easy. (Too passive. I want control!)

    As for the editor or critic, Hemingway called it “the BS detector”; I liked Fitzgerald’s term “the separator” better. For there is a parsing function–does this work here? does that? Can I make this better? But this “muscle” for me is not only much more important to control, but easier to control than the muse (fortunately!). This separator is what I’m using most of the time. Keep going or start over? Start elsewhere?(Must! keep! it! constructive!) But the thing is, once I’m wielding it comfortably, this is the voice that lets me know yeah, this feels like it’s working. It’s as much “Eureka!” fun as the muse, but fun in a different way, and this is what lets me know I’ve got something I’d like to show people. (Who so often surprise me with what they like. “That? You liked that? But that was *easy*–this part over here, this was the blood and sweat part…”)

    Anyway, I’ve battled with inertia, too. I so identified with your “because you want to live in the world of the novel as much as you can.”
    My wife respects that, but I’m not sure it makes sense for her, deeply, that it takes time to re-enter that mind set. All too often by the time I get the engine running and the wheels turning and some decent speed up overcoming the day-to-day inertia there’s some other task I need to go do!

    She is very kind and supportive and asks, “did you get any writing done?” Which makes me reflect. Well, I put some note in there. I know the adjectives I’m looking for now. There *may* have been a new sentence or two …

    Thanks again for sharing.

  10. Hi Sue — sometimes a new camera is just what's needed to get going in a new direction.    Smokey, Your mom was an amazing woman. And thanks Ben for your thoughts about writing.

    One other thing: I didn't mean to cast aspersions on fine academic writers. My friend Catherine, who teaches at UC Davis, comes to mind when I think of people who are good at that kind of writing. And right here on wordpress, we've got Make Tea Not war ( and litlove ( Sorry about the inelegant links — I'm at sea in the comments section.

  11. Hi bloglily, thought I’d drop by and what a lovely post to discover! It’s a fantastic story and inspiration to us all. I, too, hope to drop words like dialectics and hermeneutics from my writing (although I might keep the odd French word in) and write a bit more from the heart. It’s difficult though, I find! But reading posts like yours certainly encourages me to keep going. I’ll be back!

  12. That’s all fine and good Lily, but I want to know more about why that list that was so long and distressing. We need to address that. 😉

  13. Oh, things like how I never let my older brother Tom help me in physics, because I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know as much as he did. For a fuller list, you’ll have to ply me with lemon drops.

  14. What an intense piece of writing that is!

    I had a similar Rilke experience in college — only for me it was Letters to a Young Poet. I still remember the bit where he talks about how good things are hard. It’s a simple observation, but it helped me perservere when, in the past, I might have thought that, if something was hard, it meant I was not good at it and should give up. What I remember also is his tone: he was so gentle, and so full of love for and confidence in his Young Poet and, I suppose, his unknown readers, the other young poets.

    I’ve been meaning to re-read Letters to a Young Poet this summer and see if it still resonates. Thanks for your essay litlove!

  15. Thanks for your inspiring words. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, and yet I’m sitting on a half-finished manuscript and blogging instead of working on it. Blogging is easy because it’s short and crisp (usually), but addressing myself to a work of fiction is so much harder. I like the idea of living in the world of the novel and I admire you for finding a space – on the train – to do so.

  16. Hi Charlotte — I see from your blog that you have three really young children. I think the blog is the ideal form for people with lives like ours. I enjoyed seeing what you’ve been writing over on Charlotte’s Web, especially your piece about your daughter’s new school and the religion segregation scare. I’m looking forward to seeing more. Best, BL

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