Monday, July 8, 2013

Musings about Successful Writers

People often ask: “What makes a person likely to become a successful writer?”

A friend of mine wondered about this a few years ago, reminding me that her elementary school-age son loved to write and approached every classroom writing assignment with relish. She sometimes sent me his writings, perhaps hoping I possessed some form of occupational ESP and could tell her she was raising a great novelist or a future Pulitzer Prize winner. Students in my college classes know I'm a writer "in my other career" and seem to feel a need to tell me about their writing acumen or lack thereof, though I don't teach writing. They will say they love to keep journals and diaries, and I tell them I did too, as a child and still as an adult. Journaling and writing in diaries are good habits. But there's more to being a professional writer, I remind them, than writing every day. They’ll offer confessions of sorts: “I’m not a good English student, so a writing career is not for me.” Or, "English is my favorite subject, so I'll probably become a novelist." Or worse, "I love to write and want to become a full-time writer, but I hate writing on topics teachers require. I'm at my writing best when doing my own topics the way I want to write them, not constrained by a teacher's demands." (Editors are laughing at this admission!)

Doing well in an English class certainly isn’t a guarantee. I aced almost all of my “English” classes in high school and college and even received a small college scholarship "For Excellence in English," but I feel sure I did not become a writer because of these achievements. What's the explanation/answer/reason then? Musing onward....

In a writing class I taught in the late 1990s, a student told me she was driven to write. “I have stories to tell,” she said, “and I have to get them down on paper.” Another added, “I read everything I can get my hands on and am always thinking of how I can turn ideas into stories.” I like both of these statements, because I think they hint at what it is to be a writer—an avid reader, an obsessive word-weaver, and a story hunter. Here I am this morning pounding the keyboard when I could be doing something else—messing about in my flowerbeds, reading a novel, watching an old movie, sewing or crafting (I've re-discovered macrame!), or taking a long walk—all activities I enjoy. Instead, I’m looking at the monitor as my fingers weave ideas. I realized long ago the computer monitor is really the public, my audience. I know good writers are adept at many skills, but most important I think is identifying audiences and imagining conversations with them. When my students get stuck on their writing assignments, I tell them that writing is, at its simplest, a conversation on paper. Who are you talking with? Why? What is it you feel the need to tell them? Pretend they’re interested in what you have to say and are asking questions and adding their comments. Believe that what you have to say is important and detail it without a hammer. (Nobody likes being hit in the head with a hammer.)

Those high school and college papers I wrote so long ago, marked up with corrections and comments by teachers, all had something in common. A positive comment I frequently received was: “You target your audience well.” Long before I became a professional writer (meaning I'm paid for my work), I understood the importance of knowing who I was talking with and how to speak with them. There are other skills necessary beyond ID of audience, of course, but the listeners are critical to successful writing.

How do we learn to ID audiences and speak directly to them? I think an appetite for reading is part of the process, along with a great desire to talk about the ideas discovered in a reading, either on paper or with others, and glean the message. Translating that message into something new and useful, even if just for entertainment's sake, is satisfying. Reading generates ideas, but it also brings familiarity with good writing. It's instructive if you're willing to think about how the author presents it. The old adage about imitation being a form of flattery is true, but imitation is an excellent tool for developing writing skills, including audience sensitivity.

I read voraciously as a youngster and still do. I loved (and still love) characters that carried messages, mostly implied (no hammers, please). The guy pictured below is a good example, a guide I followed early in life. He now hangs in a maple tree outside my office window, a sort of inspiration on days I need a boost. I made him from a bucket and cans in honor or my favorite childhood character from Frank L. Baum’s "Wizard of Oz" tales. The scarecrow had so many wonderful things to say about choice, confidence, and brain power, not to mention the fact that goofy and clumsy is okay. For years after I first met this character in the classic Judy Garland movie and an entire summer in about 1962 spent reading Baum's Oz books on the glider on our front porch, I sought out characters who weren’t human in the physical sense but had important things to say to flesh and blood characters. Often, they were sci-fi and fantasy characters.

These days, my husband will hear me complain that all my reading seems to be targeted at specific research for a book or article or for my classes, leaving me little time for leisure reading. I still relax on porch funriture to read, in fact, but I know I don’t leisure read. I can't. I realized this long ago. Reading is an obsession for me. I do enjoy it, but every book I choose for entertainment fills me with new writing ideas and IDs new audiences. A good example is Peter Fitzsimons Batavia, a sprawling piece of historical fiction I read about a month ago that’s more fact than fiction and details the 1629 wreck of a Dutch ship on its way to Indonesia during the spice trade. The history therein sparked my interest, again, in the Dutch East India Company, in the issues with navigation before the chronometer, in the marking of Indonesian shores with navigational aids, and in the horrendous eruption of Krakatoa in August 1883, resulting in the loss of several lighthouses on Java and Sumatra. After a few weeks of research, I went to work on an article roughly titled "Krakatoa and the Loss of Light in the Sunda Strait" for my favorite audience—readers of the U.S. Lighthouse Society journal, The Keepers Log.

I like lighthouses for much the same reason I like the Oz scarecrow, robots like Gort (shown below from The Day the Earth Stood Still), talking animals like Garfield, and other anthropomorphized characters. Lighthouses speak; it’s fun giving them a voice. And...they're not so different from the Tinman and Gort.

Those characters made us think about ourselves; they had a message of welcome, warning, strength, and salvation. (Note: The modern version of The Day the Earth Stood Still spun Gort as a destructive character rather than the instructive one he truly was.)

Like the student in my writing class years ago, my antennae are always up looking for new ideas and new audiences, or looking for new ideas to entertain and educate a proven, reliable audience. It’s audience I crave. That's what drives me to write....even if that audience is myself. I think most successful writers agree.

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