I came at writing the hard way. But I’m not special. Every writer comes to their work that way. Writing–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting–is difficult, and there is no single road to…I’m reluctant to finish with the word success because success always means different things to different people.
Many writers start out quite young, pouring their thoughts and heart and stories onto the page. The words seem to flow from them, almost as if by magic. They write by imperative, and their work often feels intuitive. I always wanted to be one of those people, but I couldn’t go back and change the fact that I worried far too much about criticism–especially self-criticism–to produce anything beyond a few truly tortured poems until after I was out of college. But I had two things going for me: I had read a great deal, and I loved the way stories worked. Wait. There might be one more thing: I’m incredibly persistent.
Sometimes intuitive writers have a hard time reigning in their stream-of-conscience, and applying conventions to it. Conventions make writing readable and relatable. Grammar is important. Structure is important. Learning to take constructive criticism is very important. When my daughter majored in voice in college, she had to take years of piano instruction and classes in theory and musicality as well. Creating art is a complex, often disheartening process.
Is it too gross to suggest that beautiful art often floats serenely on a sea of sweat?
I came at writing structure-first, with perfectly correct grammar and all my punctuation perfectly proper. I had stories I wanted to tell. Plot-heavy stories that looked great on paper, but lacked passion. They had lots and lots of characters (if you know my books and short stories, you know that never changed), but I was the one thing that was missing on the page. My characters took risks, but I didn’t take them. It’s almost certainly why I didn’t have much commercial success until I was in my mid-forties. It was hard to learn to put myself in my work. I couldn’t just walk into a classroom or a workshop and say, “Teach me how to be myself. Teach me how to reveal myself.”
Another thing that never changed was my love of story. I can’t abide a book without a story that compels me to turn the page. I’ve slogged through the reading of many bestselling novels that seemed to be written by people in love with the sound of their own voices. It’s something I no longer do very often. My life is just too damned short. God bless the writer who can craft artful, compelling stories. Is it any wonder that those are the kind of writers I want to help create? (Call me selfish. That’s fine.)
This is the second summer in a row that I’m teaching at the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop. I love TMWW. I was there at the start of it when we still lived in Roanoke, Virginia, watching from the sidelines. I had published short stories and essays, and was then writing ISABELLA MOON. Several days a week, all year round, I would go and walk around the loop on the gorgeous Hollins University campus, where my husband, Pinckney, taught, and where the conference is held. I love the summer camp feel of TMWW, and the way the faculty is so intent on everyone having a positive workshop experience. It’s relaxed and serious at the same time.
Again this year I’ll be teaching the genre workshop. It’s wonderful to have a roomful of writers who write all types of stories. That’s not to say that someone who writes mysteries, science fiction, family drama, YA, or thrillers wouldn’t get a lot out of other workshop sections–like developing characters or plots and narrative or writing cinematically. But in my workshop, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about the market and what it takes to reach and appeal to readers, in addition to craft issues like plot, character, and dialogue. And most importantly I want to encourage and support writers in what they choose to write–and to help them write with both passion and attention to their craft. I know what it’s like to sit in a room with other writers who think that writing a novel with the hope of eventually selling it is crass. The professor of the first graduate fiction class I ever took told me I’d never publish because my work was too old-fashioned and was too focused on plot. I was stunned–but as I mentioned, I am also persistent. I teach my writers to be persistent, too.
Most of all, I like my workshops to be enjoyable. Serious, but fun. The same way I like my life.
Come and write with me.
Check out the workshop here: http://www.hollins.edu/academics/workshops-online-writing-courses/tinker-mountain-writers-workshop-residential/