Don’t Forget That Writing Is Ultimately a Form of Communication

a closeup of old typewriter keys
Image by Ak~i / CC BY

Every writer has a different story of how they got into it. When they started. Why.

My own story starts in the third grade. Because for a few years prior to that point, sure, I could read and write. But I mostly did so in order to function in the world around me, find things that had previously inscrutable labels on them.

And also to please my parents and teachers, like a seal would jump through hoops. Filling out blanks in school assignments so they’d praise me.

I didn’t really have much of an imagination in my earliest years. I liked TV an awful lot. Would spend hours sitting on the living room rug watching game shows.

Third grade changed all that. Because that’s when I encountered my first fandom. A tiny one, just a part of our class, but one that included two of my closest friends — Emma and Angela.

Emma and Angela were both wild about The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan. The White Witch. Prince Caspian. All those crazy cats.

Since they actually read for fun, they were constantly discussing Narnia in my presence, making connections to the real world, talking about their favorite parts.

I felt really left out. Got angry. And went home and read the entire series in one rage-filled weekend.

When I came back, I was the resident Narnia expert. I began to lead my friends all around the playground, essentially LARP-ing as though we’d found ourselves in the magical land.

After the whole Narnia thing, I found myself straying off into other fantasy novels that were popular among my friends. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. The Hobbit and eventually the Lord of the Rings when Emma wouldn’t stop making Smeagol references that made me feel dumb that I didn’t get.

Somewhere along the way, in the process of trying not to look stupid to my friends, I started to enjoy reading. Relatives began to drop off their unwanted books and pick me up random ones at yard sales.

And as I read, I began to write stories of my own. Sprawling epics that in hindsight were wild fever dreams. Stray tropes in the books I was reading, just forced through a child’s lens. Mixed with parts of life that seemed to be mysteries to me.

Some of it has held up well. The parts that haven’t give me belly laughs as an adult.

But I wrote in a raw way. With passion. It was how I viewed the world.

How Writing Workshops Can Be Like Catholic Mass

Much later on, in middle school, I’d learn that there was a craft to writing. That a whole industry existed to foster it. Writers’ workshops, specialized trade books, expensive seminars you could take in order to learn how to write really well.

Honestly, the idea that there was good and bad writing at that point was revolutionary to me. At that point, I’d enjoyed basically everything I’d read in books, and I hadn’t given much thought to whether or not what I wrote was any good. I just enjoyed what I was doing.

But discovering the cottage industry of writerly how-to advice changed all of that. I suddenly looked at writing like it was a mechanical trade that had its own architectural truisms.

I stared slack jawed at diagrams that explained the correct ratios for plotting. Scratched my head while I read an entire book (gifted to me by an aunt) on writing fully fleshed character sketches in order to prepare yourself for writing dynamic characters.

I wasn’t really ready to process most of it. So I read it and then still wrote what I wanted to. I started to send my work out under pen names and was delighted to find that it was accepted. They were little magazines, so the pay was terrible, but I brandished my free contributor’s copies proudly around my junior high and high school, feeling like a baller. I was published. Huzzah.

When I started to take writing classes in college, I was met with a rude reality. I was promptly told that I had been writing the “wrong” way for years. Every writing instructor I encountered then told me that basically you wanted to write like Hemingway. Simply. Direct. Verb and noun driven. No unnecessary words. Show, don’t tell.

They pressed this advice into my palm like a communion wafer, nodding solemnly.

“You have talent, but you’re squandering it by writing the way you do. You land on a terrific line every now and then, but your work is just weird,” one teacher told me. “Too many adjectives, too many adverbs. You need to stop it with the clichés.”

The advice was like a mass I knew by heart. A low rumbling, mumbling sound that fills the church with energy, like a spell that’s being cast. The kind that’s unquestioned because it sounds so sacred.

I tried. I really did. Tried to force what I was doing into the mold of “correctness.” To approach writing with a mathematical, architectural precision.

What came out was terrible, even worse than what I’d started with. And my reaction to this was to quit writing for several years.

When I Finally Got an Instructor Who Focused on What I Do Well

It was only on a lark that I ever took another writing class. I’d switched career paths, was working for a hospital in a job that wasn’t exactly exciting but paid well. And the job carried with it a lot of benefits, including tuition reimbursement.

I quickly discovered that I could take a writing class online and that work would pay for it, provided I got a B grade or better.

The one I found was on writing creative non-fiction, a subject that I knew nothing about at the time, having been a poet, playwright, and short story writer. The closest I’d come to writing anything other than fiction was when I worked as a journalist for a small-town newspaper, but I quickly learned that creative non-fiction had little in common with working a beat and reporting the facts, getting quotes from notable people, etc.

Creative nonfiction instead involved working through old memories, diving into the realm of the personal, opening up to readers about what life looked like through my own personal lens. Personal essays, memoirs, journaling.

We had to keep a blog for the class. It was my very first one.

I was shocked when the instructor instantly loved my work. You have a gift, he said. You’re self-aware and can put that into words in a way that’s refreshing.

Really? I’d ask him. I’m kind of a weird person. I worry that I’m unlikable. That readers will think I’m a nut.

Don’t worry about that, he replied. You don’t need to be likable for people to want to read you. 

Over the months we worked together, he poured a considerable amount of energy into me. I’ll never understand why.

His approach was so different than every other writing instructor I’d worked with. Instead of trying to get me to force my writing so that it’d fit into a template of what the “ideal” looked like, he kept showing me what I was doing well. What my strengths were. He’d point to them and say, Yes, yes, do more of that. Do that harder. That’s what you’re good at.

As we worked together, it dawned on me that we talked a lot about communication and connecting with other people. That was also very new, focusing on that and how it could help me as a writer. For years, I’d been a good communicator and pretty good at making friends. It never occurred to me that the skills that were involved in those areas were ones I could draw on in order to connect with an audience.

At that moment, a light went on.

You Can’t Un-Learn Things

It would be several years yet before I’d go on to write professionally. Because I’d convinced myself that the moment for that had passed. That it was too late to throw myself full time into it (silly and wrong, but I totally believed it).

But I would never go back to thinking that only what you learn in writing workshops could apply to writing. I would certainly never go back to thinking there was only one way to write well.

And I would never forget that writing is ultimately a form of communication.

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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