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The Discipline of Writing & NaNoWriMo

I was sitting at a sidewalk table last week, enjoying a cup of coffee, when I overheard a group of twenty-somethings at the next table talking about the writers’ conference that was starting over the weekend. The conversation turned to the art of writing.

“It just takes so long to get inspired…”

“I get stuck making the first paragraph perfect, and never get any farther.”

“I get this great idea, then the phone rings, and it’s my friend, and I end up going out and when I get back the idea is gone, and I don’t have anything to say.”

“There’s just not enough time. I get home from work, and it’s dinner, catch the news, work out, go out with friends, walk the dog, call my mom, whatever. There’s just not enough time to write.”

“When I write, I have to get my music going, light candles, make sure everything’s perfect, then I can get in the the mood, and it will all flow.”

“I can write pages and pages, and I know it’s good, so I don’t even have to go back to read it. Someday, I’m going to sit down and write a whole book.”

Anytime I hear a conversation about writing, I’m fascinated. Writing is my avocation– something I’ve done steadily since childhood, at one level or another. Although I started with some of the same ideas as the young people I overheard, I’ve since learned a few things.

If you wait for inspiration, you’ll never write anything.

If you stop to perfect the first paragraph, you’ll never get any farther.

If you don’t stop distractions, they will stop you.

If you don’t take the time to write, you’ll never be a writer. You have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else has. You choose how you’re going to spend it.

If you wait for the perfect mood, moment, and method, it’s likely that you’ll still be waiting when the undertaker arrives.

If you fall in love with your words as they spill unedited onto the page, you’ll never write well. An 1879 article from the New York Times (download in PDF) eloquently elaborates on Byron’s point that “easy writing is cursed hard reading.”

Almost anyone can learn basic writing skills; many people can learn to write well; a few will become writers. The foundation for each level of skill is not talent, but discipline. If you want to learn to write, you must do two things:

  1. Write
  2. Rewrite

It’s that simple. Sit down and write using whatever method is at hand. Don’t wait for a new computer, a soft leather notebook, new purple pens, 27 years of backstory, full biographies for all the supporting characters, the perfect name for your main character (just use “Fred” until inspiration strikes), complete details on the historical context, or the stars to align. Just sit down and write.

When you have written, it’s time to edit and rewrite. Evaluate your prose; cut the fat; sharpen your verbs, tighten the narrative. If you have trouble evaluating your own writing, find a manuscript evaluator that you can trust, and get some feedback.

If you aren’t writing, you can’t be a writer, no matter what you

  • want to do,
  • plan to do,
  • intend to do.

If you aren’t doing it, you aren’t a writer. If you want to write, sit down and write. That’s how Jane Austen did it. That’s how Victor Hugo did it. That’s how you’ll have to do it, if you really want to be a writer.

You may or may not have the creativity, knowledge, and skills needed to become an Edith Wharton or a C.S. Lewis, but if you have self-discipline to sit down and write, whether or not conditions are perfect, you’ll grow in the skills you need to become a writer.

Teaching Writing

If you are teaching students to write, the two best things they can do are

  • Read
  • Write

As I always emphasize in myTeaching Language Arts” workshop, input must come before output. Your students must read well-written writing before they can be expected to produce quality writing of their own. Reading good writing not only helps fledgling writers to develop an ear for the rhythm and cadence of well-constructed prose, but it also teaches them how to express big ideas in concrete ways.

There is much more I could say about writing and teaching writing, but it’s time to wrap up. This blog serves as one of my rough draft “notebooks.” I capture ideas in my blog posts, and often develop them later in articles, workshops, or books. Now there’s an idea you can use!

Announcements

NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month is coming up, and it’s the perfect time to leap into a solid writing discipline, if you aren’t already there. November is the month when thousands of otherwise sane people commit to writing an entire 50,000+ word novel in just 30 days.

When you sign up at at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll find WriMo Radio, the blog of founder Chris Baty, interviews with other NaNoWriMo participants, and message boards for support. Baty has even written a book, No Plot, No Problem, to guide you through the process.

The value of doing this is not in the liklihood that you’ll produce a publishable manuscript (highly unlikely, actually), but in the discovery that with a bit of self-discipline, you actually CAN write a novel. Rather than getting stuck on perfecting the first paragraph, you’ll find that the deadline pushes you to just keep writing. There will be plenty of time for revision and rewriting once the month is over.

If you participate seriously, NaNoWriMo forces you to break through the barriers that have kept you on the writing sidelines, rather than in the game. You don’t have time to wait for the muse, or for those perfect purple pens, or even for the perfect word. You write. You write more. You keep writing, and pretty soon, you have a novel.

If you want to be a writer, NaNoWriMo may give you the kickstart you need. Why not try it?

*****

Blog Carnival: This week’s blog carnival is being hosted by the Davis family at HomeSchool Buzz. The host has chosen the theme of “Missing Day,” a clever new holiday they’ve suggested. Be sure to visit the site and read about it, and check out some of the excellent blog posts they’ve collected. You’ll find a lot of food for thought–enjoy!

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