Several LinkedIn forums provide an opportunity for writers at all levels of success and commitment to pose questions and participate in discussions. The questions often reveal the writer's status as inexperienced beginner, academic, journalist, critic, or published writer. A few seem earnest, genuinely baffled by the mysteries and complexities of writing. To these, I’ve answered, as has Stephen King and countless others: “Read!” They must dig and delve in the art form in order to make their own art.
Consider the infant who watches mouths make shapes and sounds. He sees actions and reactions based upon what someone says. He recognizes that sounds work together to make words and words in specific orders make messages. He acquires language, sound by sound, syllable by syllable, word by word, and sentence by sentence.
Of course, he’s not alone as he does this. People in his life help him. They enunciate words clearly and repeat themselves to nurture the link between sounds and meaning. Mom might say “blue block” and “red block” as Baby pours them out and picks them back up, placing them one by one in a bright, yellow container. She will follow her baby’s attention and teach vocabulary, saying “doggie” or “kitty” when Baby spies a four-legged, furry critter. With her help, Baby learns that objects have names: words that distinguish one object from another.
But don’t overestimate Mom’s help or underestimate Baby’s. A child’s brain is electric, in overdrive much of the time, as he compares, contrasts, sorts, sees, smells, tastes, touches, and hears his world. He masters language with no formal instruction. He doesn’t know a noun from a verb, and he doesn’t need to know words as parts of speech in order to use those words correctly and well. Immersed in his world, he makes sense of it just as Antonio Banderas’s character, Ibn Fadlan, did while living among the Vikings in 13th Warrior.
Writers, too, immersed in a world of words sorted and selected by others, compare, contrast, sort, categorize, and comprehend as they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the music that words placed side by side makes, as they revel in the senses invoked by another. So if you would become a writer, read!
Furthermore, if you wish to write, write! LinkedIn newbies sometimes ask how to develop the discipline to write, and when they do, I suspect the newbie is only a wannabe. Writers feel the need to write. Some have even suggested that their lives make no sense unless they write, and I sympathize.
I cannot converse with people as well as I can compose a letter because a letter, you see, requires that I take care to uncover what I know and think, that one idea follows logically from another. I must give my thoughts a form that can be understood when I am not present, unavailable to offer tone, inflection, facial expression, or gesture. The words must speak so loudly, so clearly that tone, inflection, facial expression, and gesture live in them and through them.
I often fail at that, by the way. I am often misunderstood, but every time my audience asks me to repeat myself and clarify, I learn how difficult clarity is to capture and release. I know that only by writing will I learn to be precise, clear, and effective. And so I write every day, sometimes short remarks, sometimes just words and phrases that beseech me to pay heed, and most days, at least 1,000 words.
Each writing session begins anew by reading the previous day’s 1,000. I proofread and revise as I read. Nothing major though. I just correct words that I omitted or set down incorrectly in my haste. I spot weak constructions and confusing passages because overnight, my words have taken hold outside of me. We, my words and I, now exist in a permanently separated state. Words live on the page in spite of me, and my work is to be sure they are the words with which I can live when we decide to move in together again.
But this daily read of my own words is quick, light. I am eager to uncover the next 1,000. Only when the story is at an end do I labor over the draft, reading it once, twice, and sometimes many more times in order to insure consistency of voice and that elusive clarity in character, plot, and motifs.
Joyce Carol Oates, in an interview about The Accursed, said that she conceived of the novel in 1984 and now and then, in the intervening years, returned to it, but not until 2012 did she uncover the voice. In 2012, she “discovered a way to present the material, and … felt a sudden deep sympathy for the narrator and primary characters” (Oates, Joyce Carol. "Books: Interview." Ed. Dawn Raffel. Reader's Digest Mar. 2013: 173-74. Print.). During those 28 years, Oates could not find the voice or the clarity required to pursue her idea, but in those 28 years, she read and wrote other works. She learned and practiced until she uncovered what she needed.
This, dear LinkedIn newbie and Readers of this blog, is what writers must do: read and write every day. Writers, Oates says, are “unusually diligent.”
Read anything every day. Pick up a magazine and study the organization of content as well as the language. Reread a short story or essay that has stayed with you over time, but this time, read it to discover why it’s memorable and powerful. Look at the list of 2012 Fiction Award finalists and choose one to read. Contrast story-telling in 2013 with story-telling in 1913 or 1963. How might the new uses of multiple narrators inform your own stories?
Write 1,000 words every day. If you’re stuck for ideas, return to the first year of this blog. You’ll find a specific writing challenge from first post to present post.