Letters on Writing
By Jane Tawel
March 4, 2020
I work with a young writer who, like all young real writers, angsts over everything. I have only known her a short time and I adore her. Maybe because I am an old angst-er myself. She is, I am sorry to report, typical of the average American student today, in that she gets excellent grades and learns little. She, as so many, tragically learn precious little except what will take them any further than the next A- or the next school year and eventually the next job.
My dear student has been taught to write with great form and no substance. Or rather, she has been conditioned to ignore the substance she wants to write about, and to shove her writer’s dainty Cinderella feet into the huge ugly shoes of the Stepsisters of five-line paragraphs and “active prose”. So, I cheer her on with counterarguments to the propaganda that many poor unwitting, hardworking teachers of writing have been led to believe themselves. And I help her swim against the current of her own “shoulds”, until she can find the right way to swim with the currents of her ideas and imagination.
When writing, at any age or for any genre, one should not reach for the buoys and lifeboats of form until one has found one’s own strokes of function. Maybe a good writer has to even be a little afraid she will drown, but at least if she jumps into the deep end of writing, and she keeps moving, she will learn how to swim before learning how to tread in place or before she ends up standing and watching other people write from the shores of her couch or desk chair.
Now, I know, I know — what is going through my audience’s mind right now is, “Those who can’t — teach”. Well, I am very, very proud to have been a teacher and to still teach, especially writing. I think the fact that I am not a famous writer or even a particularly good writer, might encourage my audience to take what I will say more seriously,rather than less, because writing is for us, not for them. I have grown quite fond of my little “community” of writers here in the world of “Listen to Me, Please” Platforms.
I often will “like” or “follow” a young writer in my own writing platforms merely because I want them to know they are worth listening to. I like young people who want to write. I like all people who want to write. I think the loss of the idea that humans should daily be writing down their thoughts is one of the greatest losses of the species we call “humanity”. I think everyone should write out their life stories for prosperity and everyone should write down for their personal benefits their thoughts on everything from “What I Did Today” to “My Bucket List” to War and Peace.
I thought I would periodically share some of my recent back and forths with students, as we together explore ideas on writing. I like these letters through which I have listened and then tried to teach something, particularly because they have their genesis in my student writing a letter to me (via email of course), and my responding in writing. So, to learn about writing, we are expressing ourselves through writing.
These are thoughts that I have been eking out, teasing forth, and involve a sort of question / answer or a sort of Socratic teacher /pupil format. But what I love about teaching and about addressing specific student’s questions is that I am always learning myself. Plus I realize that the art of writing is so vast, so eternally creative, that the hows and whys and methods into finding the golden eggs, mining the nuggets, revealing the truth and addressing the crux, are an ever fluid, flowing fountain of possibilities and achievabilities. Addressing the way to write is both maze and Russian doll. One never reaches the end if one begins without knowing where it will lead, and that is where the joy of discovery — the joy of discovering what you will write — lies.
The letters between my student and me will, in no way, give you hints on how to be successful and make money as a writer. They may however, I hope, free your inner muse and make you, if not exactly happier, (because writing means hurting sometimes) perhaps fuller and more at peace with why you write. I hope they can do the same for me, because we writers know that what we say, always comes with the caveat: “Physician, heal thyself”.
A Letter Between Mrs. T and Cara
(I have changed my student’s name to protect the innocent.)
Letter One: February 28, 2020
Hi Ms. Tawel,
So, I was going through old documents in my laptop and came across a few unfinished stories that I thought would be fun to finish now. But then I realized why I abandoned them.
Too many subplots.
At least I think that’s what they would be called. They’re just random ideas I had for individual characters, the storyline, and backstories.
Anyway, the reason why I’m bringing this up is because I don’t want to get rid of them. They’re all (in my opinion) great ideas that’d make up a good story, but when I look at everything put together it’s all really crowded to the point where somethings seem out of place and very random.
But I really want to keep these ideas in! They seem fun to write about and would bring out a part of my story that’s somewhat unique.
I know we’ve already touched on this issue, but I think I need to hear it again.
…Darn, this’ll probably end in me having to get rid of most of the subplots. :(
OH! And also…
I have an issue with backstories. Now, I LOVE good backstories, especially sad ones. But I tend to give it a lil’ too much love and end up making them quite complex. Do you think complex backstories are bad? I guess I could always start my story earlier and make the backstory shorter, but then… I’d just rather start my story when I originally planned to.
So, in short, are complex backstories okay? If not, how can I make them okay? How can I make it so that the beginning isn’t so hectic? Is a hectic beginning okay? Gah! I have so many questions, but I have to eat dinner so this is it for now.
Thank you for your time.
So here is what I think — although please don’t think I mean to make this sound easy, okay?
I think you need to give yourself permission to get rid of your inner critic in the initial stages of writing. For a true writer, there can not be “shoulds”. If all the world’s great writers had started with “shoulds”, we would never have a Fitzgerald or Dickens or Dickinson or Steinbeck or even Rowling. Even just regular writers, those who find creative joy in writing or those who are just beginning to find their voice and muse as you are or just so-so writers like I am, even we need to release ourselves from beginning with the ideas of some one else’s “should”. Think of that old adage from “Field of Dreams” — “If you write it, they will come”. You can not determine either your purpose or audience before you let yourself write what is inside you and in your heart / mind. Because separating the heart from the mind, is death to good writing and this is what happens when form comes before function.
As you know, I personally believe, you should never, ever, ever get rid of anything you have created. Yes, sometimes you have to lop off a limb from the tree of your writing to give it the best shape possible — like a bonsai tree, sometimes smaller is better and that means pruning. However, you don’t annihilate anything EVER!. You store it away for another day, cut and paste it into a stored document somewhere, just like keeping a tree limb in the wood pile to use someday in a construction of a different sort, or a fireplace that will keep everyone warm.
If you have to save an idea, a subplot, a metaphor or description “on a shelf” for a while, do it. But don’t do that until the FINAL stages which is when you edit — but editing is last, last, last — AFTER you have discovered by writing freely with love and joy and of course sometimes pain and sorrow — AFTER the purpose, style, and meaning are revealed to you. This is the old idea of listening to a “muse”. And a muse is not your teacher or your marketing shares. When a teacher or sales are made our audiences, we create characters without souls, and writing without nurturing love. Writing for school assignments today is like being taught how to have babies in test tubes.
It is good to have critical reasoning, and you are right to know that in the final stages you will need to shape and mold your stories and essays in ways that may hurt a bit, but to do that now means you are, frankly, finding an “excuse” not to stay vulnerable to your voice, ideas and “muse”. You must be vulnerable to your writing, just like you must stay vulnerable in any relationship that you want to survive the tests of times and trial.
Thank you for trusting me to “give you permission” to go with what your heart, head and gut tell you. Don’t be afraid of what the future tough minded, surgical “editor” — which will always in the end be yourself — may do. A surgeon is often necessary but not right now. Right now you are a parent, a grower, a writer. Write.