By Sandra Novack
1) I copied.
I never aspired to be a writer until my late twenties. But during teen years when I seemed to always be tucked away in my bedroom, I developed a love affair with poetry. The words were so precise, so sublime, that it wasn't enough to simply read the poems. That was too passive. I had to write them down, obsessively. I'd pen the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay ("I knew her for a little ghost that in my garden walked"), Thomas Hardy ("We stood by a pond that winter day/And the sun was white as though chidden of God"), Walt Whitman ("I wandered lonely as a cloud"), Robert Frost ("Tree at my window, window tree"), until I had a book of poetry that I'd copied, until the lines and rhythms and worlds of other writers were part of my mind, heart, and fingers.
Now I think, What a great idea. Copy a few stories, poems, pages, word for word. Get a feel for form, language, rhythm, without all the obsessing and worrying (they aren't your stories, after all, but others). All writers agree that reading is essential in order to write, yet few think about actual copying. Still most art forms take advantage of it. Line by line, novice painters sketch the work of established ones to better understand the possibilities inherent in shape, form, and color. Composers study masters. Yet many writers cling to the idea of the "original" voice, style, and plot. This is also true in terms of finding influences and inspiration. For example, the stories of Richard Bausch owe influence to Carver. If we look at Carver, we can find Hemingway and Anderson. Eudora Welty's "No Place for You, My Love" clearly borrows techniques from Virginia Woolf. Cormac McCarthy's sentences and plots owe at least an influence to Faulkner. All writing aspires to, or pushes against, other works of literature. Nothing takes place in isolation.
2) For a long while I wrote in the direction opposite my bad habits.
I still have bad habits. All writers do. But during my MFA, I had no concept of what made a story. Despite this, I'd inflict upon my adviser thirty page 'short' stories that fell apart by page four. My adviser was not happy about this. He gave me this little two-page story by Grace Paley called "Wants." Surprise, he wanted me to COPY it, word for word, to get a feel for what she was doing. For how clean her sentences were, how direct, how very unlike my circuitous ones. Then he told me to write a two-page story in the same style as Grace's. Focus on a couple, an interaction. Stick to the present moment, dialogue, without relying on another bad habit, lapsing into back story and hoping that would carry the plot. Keep it simple. It's harder than it looks, he assured me. When I got that down, then he said I could start adding the three-to-six other narrative threads I wanted to. "By the way," he told me. "I predict you'll be a novelist."
So I wrote a hell of a lot of short, short stories--two to five pages. I wrote in the style of a whole lot of writers, most notably Carver. My first real short stories scream of his influence, so much so that my adviser eventually ended up telling me to cool it on Carver already. (Is there any way to make teachers happy? Geesh.) The practice, however, was useful. Writing in a style not natural to my own taught me cleaner lines, more direct thoughts, tighter plots. It gave me a solid base, from which I could eventually extend. And Carver is a master of repetition, rhythm--a thing I still cling to. Sometimes when I can't get my crap together on the page, I cut threads. I remind myself: Go back to basics. Present moment, conflict interaction, clean lines, dramatic action. I hear my adviser say, "Keep it simple." Simple is decidedly ambitious many times.
3) I developed a healthy balance between saying, "Great point! I'll revise for that" and "Fuck you. It's my story."
To be a writer, and more importantly to keep writing, a writer has to find a way to cut out a lot of noise. Despite how much you have studied and learned and written, readers, critics, and friends will always weigh in with their take on your work. Opinions are, as they say, plentiful. But at the end of the day, you have to trust yourself, your writing, and your vision. This doesn't mean you tune everything out. In one regard, a writer has to be open to criticisms and advice, or she'd never grow. But, on the other hand, if a writer revises and doubts her vision and craft every time someone says something remotely negative, she’d stop writing, or go nuts. Not everyone will love everything. And that's OK. And really, not everyone knows what's best. The Zen of a 'fuck you attitude' keeps writers alive in the game. It keeps them writing beyond the first book.
4) I never stopped being a person learning to write.
Obvious but true. Every single time I pick up a book, I am reading as a writer and learning new tricks. Time compression, narrative flow, point of view, image patterns, everything. My best mentors today are still other writers, and their books.
Credit image: Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson