Writing, of course, can be taught. This is obvious. My six-year-old daughter is in kindergarten and learning to do it now. It’s all about letters and spelling. It’s mechanics, punctuation, syntax. It’s understanding the stuff of a great sentence, being given some good books to read. This is the exact thing your best MFA programs teach, as well.
What can’t be taught, however, is literary vision. What makes a writer unique? What turns one particular organization of words into a dynamic story and another into a snooze-fest? Tolstoy’s idea was that writers need to have a “clear, definite, and just view of the universe” in order to make Art. Although this is one of my favorite phrases of all time, it’s also a pretty heavy demand and can paralyze a young writer if dwelled upon. So, I encourage my students to simply try and find their weird, their own true individuality. This journey alone, way more than completing a hodge-podge of writing exercises (write from the POV of a lava lamp, etc.), will get their writing headed where they want it to go. It’s not as hard as you’d think. Here’s a plan:
Column by M.O. Walsh, author of the Feb. 2015 debut MY SUNSHINE AWAY
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons), which was an Amazon Debut Spotlight Selection for
February 2015 and a New York Times bestseller. It was also praised by
Oprah.com, Entertainment Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and more.
Connect with M.O. on Twitter.
1. Embrace the First Truth: You’re a freak. No use denying it. I mean this very literally. After all, by definition, a freak is an “abnormal phenomenon.” So, if you believe that all humans are unique individuals, as I do, then there is technically no absolutely normal person and we are all, therefore, freaks. This is simple logic. You don’t need to be a one-legged pansexual shrimp boat captain who escaped persecution in your homeland to start a non-profit website for people addicted to quinoa to be interesting. You’re human. That’s weird enough.
2. Distrust the Obvious: Tattoos, body piercings, brightly dyed hair. The present tense. The second person. A non-chronological post-apocalyptic tale that includes stick figure drawings and hyperlinks. A live Iguana in the pocket of your vintage t-shirt. These are merely the ornaments of weird, the shorthand of interesting. These are quirks for the sake of quirk. Enjoy them, sure, but don’t depend on them. It turns out that none of these things, on their own, actually make up a good story. So, dig deeper. Open yourself to the subtly strange.
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3. Celebrate Contradiction: Look for the things in your life that don’t make logical sense. You’re allergic to cats, yet you have three of them. You trust other people’s children but are skeptical of your own. You are driving, right now, to a place you know you should not go. Why are you doing this? What are you up to? Now you’re getting somewhere.
4. Flex Your Wonder Muscle: Get OK with not knowing. When you and your parents disagree about how many times you went to the beach as a kid, for instance, and whether or not your sister was there with you the first time you saw the underside of a starfish, don’t lose your mind googling that beach or combing through old photo albums to prove them wrong. Instead, wonder why you place her in that memory, your sister, a person you’ve lost touch with, the first time you saw something stunning. Then, wonder why your parents don’t. These small mysteries make up the living fiction of our everyday realities, and once you can recognize them, you are likely to notice how abundant and peculiar they are. Now, use them.
5. Be Armageddon Honest: Tell the kind of truth on the page you don’t tell in real life. Not the “I would have preferred a little more mayo on this” truth, but the “This is what I do when no one is watching me” truth. It’s scary to reveal this, I know, but that is why fiction is made up of plots and characters and not journal entries. If you are scared of what your momma might think, then you know you are on to something good. If you don’t write or submit a piece because you are afraid of what others might say about your particular brand of truth, then you will fail, and continue to fail, because you are keeping yourself from being the artist you could be. That’s just a fact. So, put your truth on the page. Make it sing.
After all, your weird is only interesting to others if you do the work (and revision) to make it so. The secret truths you are afraid to confess, those are the exact things that, if well rendered, end up resonating with readers as if somehow connected to their own brand of weird that, until they read your work, they thought was a secret, too. This type of intimate communication between strangers (reader and writer) seems like a miracle but is really just the product of locating your weird and writing it well.
And, in a world where writing can be taught, where practically anyone can do it, then finding your weird is the only advantage you’ve got.
Don’t let it get away.
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:
- Oct. 28–30, 2016: Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (Los Angeles, CA)
- Nov. 19, 2016: Las Vegas Writing Workshop (Las Vegas, NV)
- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- Feb. 26–March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (conference/cruise departing Miami)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
- July 22, 2017: Tennessee Writers Workshop (Nashville, TN)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
This guest column is a supplement to the
“Breaking In” (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer’s Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.
OTHER LINKS TO READ
- Agent Spotlight: Lana Popovic (Chalberg and Sussman Literary Agency) seeks Fiction, Nonfiction, YA and MG.
- 5 Tips For Writing Suspense.
- How I Got My Literary Agent: Margo Kelly (Young Adult).
- Agent Spotlight: Brent Taylor (TriadaUS Literary Agency) seeks YA, MG and New Adult.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.