Today, my physiotherapist told me that she wants to write. She has a story. She has written four pages. Her excitement was fantastic. Palpable. Electric. It made me remember how exciting writing used to be before I had this concussion and it became a struggle. Then she asked me a bunch of questions. Like I’m Stephen King or something.
I answered, but I want a “do-over.” I want to give her a better answer than I could give when I was on the spot and having my neck moved around and sort of feeling like a big fake because I’m hardly writing at all now (because of the concussion). I want to give a better answer than the answers I first got when I started to write. I don’t want her to give up for a dozen years like I did. I don’t want her to have to feel around in the dark too much. A little feeling around is necessary, but there’s no need to be afraid and in the dark for too long.
If she had asked me another day, I might have told her to forget about writing and keep living her happy life. But today, I am an optimist, and if there is one thing writers know it is that if you are called to write, that’s the way it is.
To be clear, this is not actually what my physiotherapist wanted. She was asking for resources, for “the rules,” for information about how to share her work and who to share it with and what happens now that she has four pages. She wants to do this thing properly, whatever this thing is and whatever properly is.
It’s a tricky business, this advice giving. I have shelves full of craft books, an MFA and a history of teaching. What I do not have is an enviable publishing record. I’m not prolific. I just do my thing, something that took me years to be okay with. I toil in obscurity, as so many writers do. But I’m the writer she knows, the one that is on her table, the one that, thankfully, she feels safe enough to ask. That trust means a lot to me. I want to give her enough to keep the spark alight, but not so much to blow it out.
So, what did I tell her? First of all, I said, don’t worry about the rules too much. You’re doing the most important thing you can do right now, which is to get the story down. Just get it down. I don’t think I told her to do it fast, before she loses it, but I’ll say that now. Do it fast, before you lose it. Even if parts are in point form. Or in diagrams. Or emoticons. Or stick figures. There’s no time for grammar and corrections and worrying about your quotation marks right now. She is worried about her quotation marks.
When the story is down, you can start to worry about the quotation marks because they do matter. They really do. I told her what every new writer is told. Read Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Those are the rules, and when you have a story down, you can revise and follow them. What I didn’t tell her is that after you’ve done that, you can break all of those very same rules. I don’t think she’s ready for that yet. Next, I told her the thing no writer wants to hear and every writer needs to hear. I told her that she will write this story many times before it’s done. What I forgot to tell her is that the first time is the most important time (except for the last) and the one that she needs to have done before she can do anything else.
Because she is sporty, I told her that learning to write is no different than learning a sport; you have to be bad before you are good; you have to practice to improve. I told her about writing groups. In my city, Toronto, there are writing groups that meet regularly at the public library. You can also join a drop-in group with the Toronto Writer’s Collective for free.
Then I suggested Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, with a couple of warnings. I told her it was a little too “inspirational” for me, a person who thinks memes like “Live, Laugh, Love” are the ipecac of social media and prefers to use cute sayings painted on wood for kindling rather than home décor. But, I explained, if you can get past that and the talk of God (or as Cameron carefully explains, whatever it is that works for you if you prefer not to involve God in the whole process), it’s a good self-directed course in learning about your own creative process, what nurtures it, what shuts it down and how to avoid the latter.
And now that I’m at my desk and thinking more about it, I want to offer a couple of other books. Most writers I know list Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones among their favourites. I find something new in them every time I read them and I’ve read them so often now they’re like old friends. And, more importantly, both are good reads, even if you’re not a writer.
Two books with more “instruction” and a solid feminist bent are Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Both speak to all of the important questions my physiotherapist will ask soon but hasn’t asked yet. These are next year’s questions, perhaps, but if she keeps writing, they are coming, and maybe having these two little slim and helpful volumes at the ready will help.
Finally, there is one other book I recommend to anyone who is transitioning from being a serious reader to a writer, and that is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.
I figure this is a year’s work, so time to stop.
And I have one last piece of advice. Don’t talk about your story. Protect it a bit. Keep it to yourself. Talking about it let’s the magic out, or at least it does for me.
Was there something essential to your early development as a writer that you’d like to tell my physiotherapist about, something that might encourage her? If so, please leave a comment. We would both welcome it.