The Top Ten Things Every Writer Should Know
10. It’s All About You.
“You have to be someone.” ~ Bob Marley
Whether you have chosen the word or the word has chosen you, the vocation of writing is about creating a self, and this will mean cultivating a set of values that will guide your work. And I mean YOUR work and YOUR values.
I like to use the analogy of soccer when I talk about this. There were some days when I was on the soccer field and I could do no wrong. I could just stand there and the ball would bounce off me and end up in the opposing team’s goal. And then there were days when I had to scramble so I wouldn’t score on my own team. On those days, it was back to basics: move to the ball, control, pass, and move. But I had to know the basics. The basics will get you through when your imagination is floundering and you can’t write a decent sentence and you think everyone hates your writing. And the writing basics (See A Few Writing Resources) will also get you through those times when you think even the great Proust cannot match your imagination.
But whether there are good times or bad times, I want you to remember those words of Brother Bob whose “Get up, Stand Up,” has been one of the most influential songs that has guided my life. As young minority writers, you have come through and you are living in an environment that says you don’t exist or you have no right to exist. Make the time to read Invisible Man byRalph Ellison.
Yet as Bob sang in “Get Up, Stand Up”: “Life is your right/ so you can’t give up the fight,” I think you need to realize that behind you are whole generations that have been silenced, are being silenced. YOU have to be the strong one because despite the odds, you’ve made it this far. You’re here on the grounds of the University of Miami—a place where many of your parents and grandparents would never have dreamed about being let in through the front gates, and yet, here you are! So, guard your self-esteem: “Don’t give up the fight!”
9. Stop Waiting for Stories to Happen
“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” ~ Finley Peter Dunne
The first stories that you write will probably be gifts that you can’t help but write. But after you’ve written these stories, what are you going to do? At this time you have to go out (or in) to find the stories that have to be written, and usually these stories come out of a conflict between YOUR values and what is happening around you.
Robert Frost once said that he had a “lover’s quarrel with the world,” and I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I’ve always thought that Finley Peter Dunne's words, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” as a good way to begin.
And we have much to “afflict the comfortable.” Think about the abandonment by the mass media of the “broad range of human achievement” that Dana Gioia recently lamented at a commencement speech at Stanford. Instead of real news, we are being given day and night coverage of Lindsay Lohan and Brittany Spears while we have all kinds of contaminated food coming in from China without any real checks and balances. We don’t care. But I think we should care. Even for selfish reasons. Today is Friday, and later, I’m going out to a Chinese restaurant with my wife.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ~
In order to really listen, you have to listen with your whole being when anyone is talking to you. Look into her eyes. Look at his hands. Look at his shoes. Practice empathetic listening. Then ask yourself, why is s/he telling me this? Does s/he just need an ear? Does s/he think I am a voice? Can I be her voice?
John Keats talked about “negative capability” and that is an ability that writers need to cultivate—the sense of intentional open-mindedness so that you can really listen even if you find the message to be distasteful.
7. Find a Mentor
“Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before….Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete….Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences.”
I have been blessed many times in my career to have found really great teachers and to have spent time with them. Here at the University of Miami, I had the good fortune of taking classes and workshops with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kamau Brathwaite, and George Lamming. At theCaribbean Writers Institute, I had classmates such as Robert Antoni, Zee Edgell, Michael Anthony, and Velma Pollard.
The great thing about having a living mentor—breathing the same air in the same room—is that sometimes a casual comment can have a lasting impact. I’ll never forget and I’m sure he won’t remember some advice that Mervyn Morris gave to the poets at the Caribbean Writers Institute about about choosing words with multiple connotative meanings. I used his advice in writing the collection, hurricane center, and the “Lent” section was heavily influenced by On Holy Week.
Of course, if you can’t find a living mentor, don’t despair. Find a writer whose work you admire and read everything s/he has written. For example, when I wanted to know how to write a Caribbean short story, I turned to VS Naipaul-- one of the greatest living prose stylists—yet he remains a writer I have no intention of ever meeting in the flesh.
I may have touched on this in the previous note, but ~William Faulkner says it best:
“Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
This is why I have no problems with the Harry Potter books. I grew up reading Batman,Superman, and Fantastic Four comics and my mother forced me to read Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Any kind of reading forces you to concentrate on the text and if you have parents and teachers who have high expectation, you’ll read demanding texts. The more one reads these demanding texts, the greater the appetite. But the original impetus, the original expectations have to be there in the parents and the culture. If it isn’t, the whole culture won’t be Smarter than a Fifth Grader .
Reading widely will also take you out of your comfort zone and you will meet characters that you wouldn't ordinary life, so that when you begin to create your own characters or if you are interviewing someone you can try to see the world from his/her perspective.
5. Whom Do You Serve?
This is the question that knights in search of the Holy Grail were asked once reached the last stage of their quest: Whom Do You Serve?
The vocation of writing has beencompared to that quest, and along that journey, you will be asked that question many times. One journalist from Jamaica , John Maxwell, one of my heroes, has answered that question many times.
Maxwell is one of those ethical journalists who has always upheld the highest journalistic standards and he is firm defender of his vocation.
I won’t say much more because as with all good writers, his words speak for themselves:
“We are delegates of the people…We are …the sensory organs of the body politic….the body politic's immune system… heralding, detecting malignant intrusions...In the circulatory system of the body politic, we are the white corpuscles and the T-cells.”“Ethical journalism is a human right: that people are entitled to the truth and that journalists are not entitled to tell lies or mislead.”
4. Use All Your Talents
As you grow in this vocation, you will find that you are involved in a process similar to alchemy—a burning away of the droll, useless parts of your personality in favor of a more refined, honed craftsmanship.
You will learn as William Sanders says:
“Talent is such a small part of it….Willingness to work hard to learn the skills. (Including the nuts and bolts like spelling and grammar.) Patience to do the necessary revising and if necessary rewriting to get it right. Persistence in the face of rejection. Judgment in deciding what advice to listen to and whom not to trust. Humility to know when you're exerting suction. Knowledge, all sorts of knowledge, knowledge of what's been written…knowledge of the world and its peoples, knowledge of at least one other language to give you perspective on your own. And most important …understanding of human beings and why they act the way they do and the way they interact with each other, which can take a lifetime to master but without it a writer is a failure."
And the key practice that you must nurture is writing. Write, write, write. There is no substitute for writing.
“Synergy means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself - the most empowering, unifying and exciting part.” ~Steven Covey
You will never be able to do all this on your own. Despite what Ayn Rand says, nothing is ever done by a singular human effort. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about “Inter-being,” and Rastafarisays, InI. Whatever the case, your writing, your life is part of a continuum and this is why synergizing effort—inter- and intra-generational conversations are important.
One of my mentors, Jimmy Carnegie, died recently. As a teacher and a historian, he had observed Caribbean and Jamaican culture, and had a whole set of internalized, Creole Jamaican values have been shared with only a minority that were fortunate enough to have known him. Whether through the diaspora or mortality, the Caribbean and many other minority communities are losing the soldiers who made it through the “war years,” and these soldiers and scholars are taking their wisdom with them to the grave without anyone or very few ever hearing that voice.
So build networks with other writers, begin oral history projects with your parents, grandparents and your family, strengthen all the bonds and relationships that will not only help you to become a better writers, but also a healthy human.
There has never been a great need for synergy within our communities.
“Art is nothing but the expression of our dream; the more we surrender to it the closer we get to the inner truth of things, our dream-life, the true life that scorns questions and does not see them.” ~ Franz Marc
This may be an extension of the “negative capability” theme, but sooner or later you’ll realize that you will have to surrender some things. Right now, the surrender may be listening with to an editor or a veteran in the business and realizing that neither of you has the “right” answer.
This is where you apply the humility that Sanders talks about. You admit your mistakes, sometimes take the expedient route, and move on. This is not an all out surrender. Begin to choose your battles wisely.
And yet sometimes you will have to give up some core values for a greater vision of yourself—an embrace of new ideas that may put you at odds with the community that you’re supposed to be representing.
What are you going to do at that point? Give in to the crowd even when you know that they’re “wrong,” but you don’t have a “right” answer? Speak your “truth” even when you know you may be “wrong”?
How will you choose? What will you choose?
And the more you surrender to your dream and the vision of your potential to be an agent of change, the more you will grow and have more to offer.
1. It’s Not All About You
TS Eliot wrote in “East Coker”: “In my end is my beginning," and once you’ve embarked on the great journey of writing, you will see that the once selfish aims with which you began writing, soon fall away. In my case they were: getting a girl to go out with me, having the respect of X, seeing my name in print, and the hunt for fame and recognition by my peers. But once you realize as the Buddha teaches, we will never have enough, then things begin to change.
It falls to us then to find a larger meaning or value. Or as George Bernard Shaw
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy… I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can….I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations”
I thank you for this opportunity and wish you all the best!
A Few Writing Resources
The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
The Writer's Journey, Second Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan G. Wooldridge
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization) by Eudora Welty
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg (Author)
Dear Reader, please add any books about the craft of writing that you have found helpful: