What I’ve Learned by Writing and Reading

 

“Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.” (William Zinsser)

Some days I struggle with words. But this isn’t a post about writer’s block.

Instead it’s a post about learning.

I’ve realized that I go through cycles; words flow then words fizzle but they will eventually flow again. Meanwhile, I fill the void with ideas and possibilities. I keep my mind open to images. I jot down thoughts. I read . . . I read . . . and I read some more.

Since I can’t seem to move forward in my own creative words, I’ve been focusing on the words of others. I’m participating in Sandra’s Writing Workshop on Facebook, despite my own self-doubts. I swallowed my fear, and submitted a chapter of my book for feedback. I haven’t gotten any yet. Does that mean it’s terrible or people simply don’t have the time?

I downloaded other people’s works with caution, fearful of what I would find. What if their work was so spectacular it made me feel ashamed of my own? What if I couldn’t think of anything to say, either positive or negative? What if participating in this group revealed the imposter in me? The person who has taught writing in the past (although granted mostly research writing) and has everyone fooled that I have any ability with words.

But, as I settled into reading, I had a realization. I’ve learned a lot through this writing  journey that I’m on.  Some of my learning has come from ideas, some is personal to my life, and some has made me a stronger writer and/or editor.  Here are a few things I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  • The Value of the Beginning: How many time have you read something that didn’t draw you in immediately? I admit to being a stubborn reader, and struggling through pages or even chapters of a book that has a fascinating premise in the hopes that eventually I will wade my way through the weak beginning and find something to keep me reading.  But I don’t do that as often anymore. Even though you can find gems this way, I would rather be pulled in by a strong and glorious beginning then labor through endless exposition in the hopes that something wonderful will come along. Of course, this means that I often struggle with my own beginnings, but I think the struggle is worthwhile in the end.
  • The Need to Read Out Loud: I’ve always made this suggestion to my students. “Read your work out loud, it will help you find the weaknesses.” Of course, my students often look at me like I’m insane. “If you don’t want to read it yourself, then have someone read it to you.” That doesn’t change the look. At times I’ve even forced them to read to each other in class.  I read my own work out loud all the time. You can sometimes catch me mumbling in public venues as I try to find the flow of a passage that is particularly challenging. This method helps me discover when I’m being too formal with my words, or too cryptic. It’s not perfect, and I still need to make changes, but it helps me find my own voice as well as the voices of my characters. Trust me, before I post this, I will have read it out loud several times.
  • The Power of the Right Word: I am always mesmerized by writers whose vocabulary challenges me, but I’ve come to realize that an extensive vocabulary isn’t always the best choice. Finding the right word can sometimes mean finding the simplest word, or perhaps it means using a word with a twist and finding a new metaphor. It’s not easy, but the way we use our words–the choices we make–defines our style and our voice as writers.  Words can soar and words can flop. Words can propel us forward or make us stop and think. I envy the people who always seem to find the right word, but I also value my own struggle as I search for the words that sing.
  • Questions Matter: In my classes, whether I’m teaching about theater or writing, I encourage my students to ask questions. I’m currently teaching a course called, Studies in Drama, where I’ve focused the course work on works that challenged society with either political or social change.  My students are required to submit a discussion question for each reading to an on-line discussion group and then respond to at least two questions. What does this have to do with writing? Well, I find that I enjoy questions. If someone asks me a question, then I can find the flaws in my own words. If someone challenges me with a question, then I can find my own answers. I’m not always right, but by exploring the questions, I find new ways into material. As I respond to other people’s materials, I try to respond with questions because questions lead to new thoughts and new answers. Do you enjoy questions or do they frustrate you because you say to yourself, “The answer is right there”? If someone has to ask the question, then perhaps the answer isn’t so clear.

What are some of the things that you have learned on your writing journey? Add to the comments below to make this list grow.

 

 

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