A couple weeks ago, my daughter came home from kindergarten with a paper for career week in her homework folder. (Yes, she has homework in kindergarten. Pretty advanced stuff, too! I was amazed to see a sheet that had her figure out how many carrots there would be if she planted three rows of five carrots per row. Yes, they’re teaching her multiplication. In kindergarten. I never had homework in kindergarten. Of course, back then kindergarten was half day. And apparently I walked to school. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways.
But I digress.)
For career week, my daughter had to interview one of her parents and have them answer some specific questions about their job, what responsibilities it entails, and what someone her age should do if they wanted to have that job in the future. I’m the one who helps her with her homework every day, so I, the writer, was the one she interviewed. (Admittedly, though, her dad is an astrophysicist, so she wasn’t going to get conventional answers no matter who she asked.)
So I was asked how many hours per week I work (as many as possible), what my responsibilities are (writing new fiction and promoting the fiction I’ve already written), how I worked with my co-workers (…co-workers. Yeah. Um. Editors, proofreaders, designers, managers, etc, sporadically, briefly and through email?), what subjects in school helped me the most in my job (all of them. English, very important, but writing fiction is, in my experience, near impossible without a broad curiosity of every aspect of the world), and, finally, what would I tell someone my daughter’s age who wanted my job?
There are, of course, any number of ways to answer that question, and I’ve seen them all, in compilations of quotes from famous authors, in books written about writing. Don’t is a popular answer, but singularly unhelpful. Learn to deal with criticism and failure is another popular answer, and much more useful, but is just as true in life as it is in writing. So I gave her How To Be a Writer In Two Easy Steps!
Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can.
That’s it. That’s always it.
There are a LOT of books out there about how to write. I’ve read quite a few, but there are many, MANY more. Recently I read about five of them back to back, since I limited my computer time during Lent and had to do something with all the free time I had (yes, the internet is a huge help and a huge hindrance and a hydra I wrestle with constantly and that’s a subject for another post). What became clear was that every book was, by necessity, an expression of “this is how I write, this works for me, hence you should do it too.” And that’s fine. Being introduced to the practices of successful writers can give you things to try that you might not have thought of on your own (Natalie Goldberg inspired me to write more in my journal, Ray Bradbury encouraged me to write as much as I can with the assertion that quality comes out of quantity). The danger, though, is in thinking that just because so and so does it this way, you must do it in exactly the same way. That’s not only unhelpful, it can be actively harmful. Take Ray Bradbury, for instance. Now, I absolutely adore him and his work. And I agree that if you want quality, you need to write as much as possible. But he also strongly advocates finishing a story every week. As in, writing the story on Monday, spending Tuesday and Wednesday in revisions, writing up the finished product on Thursday and sending it out on Friday (I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist). That’s great that it worked for him, but I know from experience that it doesn’t work for me. And when someone who is new to writing picks up this book and reads that the way to do it is a story a week, and then they can’t work that way, they’re liable to give up, thinking that because they can’t work like Ray Bradbury did, they must not be cut out for writing.
There are, however, two things that every writing book worth the paper it’s printed on advocates.
Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can.
The two easy steps.
I’m being facetious, of course. Writing is often hard. Writing well often seems damn near impossible. But if you want to write, then that’s the way. Read everything you can get your hands on, soak it all in, let it teach your brain the myriad ways of translating thought into the written word. And then write as much as you can, whenever you can, to practice, to strengthen your writing muscles, to learn about what you need to say and how you need to say it.
When you do that, you will learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Can you write every day? Great! Do you only have two hours a day during the week while your four year old is in preschool? Great! Do you write best when you drag yourself out of bed at 5 a.m. while the rest of your family is still asleep? Great! Does the very thought of waking up that early make you physically ill, and you’d rather write during your lunch break? Great!
Whatever you do, though, always, always return to the two steps. Read. Write. When it’s hard and you’re sure everything you write is crap. Read. Write. When you’re writing page upon page of brilliant prose every day. Read. Write.
And it is never too early and never too late to chose to be a writer. A friend of mine teaches writing in nursing homes. And I will tell any kindergartner who asks that yes, they can be a writer.
Read. Write. That’s where it starts, and that’s what it always comes back to.