Thursday, September 1, 2011

How I Learned to Be a Writer

By Sandra Novack

1) I copied.

I never aspired to be a writer until my late twenties. But during teen years when I seemed to always be tucked away in my bedroom, I developed a love affair with poetry. The words were so precise, so sublime, that it wasn't enough to simply read the poems. That was too passive. I had to write them down, obsessively. I'd pen the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay ("I knew her for a little ghost that in my garden walked"), Thomas Hardy ("We stood by a pond that winter day/And the sun was white as though chidden of God"), Walt Whitman ("I wandered lonely as a cloud"), Robert Frost ("Tree at my window, window tree"), until I had a book of poetry that I'd copied, until the lines and rhythms and worlds of other writers were part of my mind, heart, and fingers.

Now I think, What a great idea. Copy a few stories, poems, pages, word for word. Get a feel for form, language, rhythm, without all the obsessing and worrying (they aren't your stories, after all, but others). All writers agree that reading is essential in order to write, yet few think about actual copying. Still most art forms take advantage of it. Line by line, novice painters sketch the work of established ones to better understand the possibilities inherent in shape, form, and color. Composers study masters. Yet many writers cling to the idea of the "original" voice, style, and plot. This is also true in terms of finding influences and inspiration. For example, the stories of Richard Bausch owe influence to Carver. If we look at Carver, we can find Hemingway and Anderson. Eudora Welty's "No Place for You, My Love" clearly borrows techniques from Virginia Woolf. Cormac McCarthy's sentences and plots owe at least an influence to Faulkner. All writing aspires to, or pushes against, other works of literature. Nothing takes place in isolation.

2) For a long while I wrote in the direction opposite my bad habits.

I still have bad habits. All writers do. But during my MFA, I had no concept of what made a story. Despite this, I'd inflict upon my adviser thirty page 'short' stories that fell apart by page four. My adviser was not happy about this. He gave me this little two-page story by Grace Paley called "Wants." Surprise, he wanted me to COPY it, word for word, to get a feel for what she was doing. For how clean her sentences were, how direct, how very unlike my circuitous ones. Then he told me to write a two-page story in the same style as Grace's. Focus on a couple, an interaction. Stick to the present moment, dialogue, without relying on another bad habit, lapsing into back story and hoping that would carry the plot. Keep it simple. It's harder than it looks, he assured me. When I got that down, then he said I could start adding the three-to-six other narrative threads I wanted to. "By the way," he told me. "I predict you'll be a novelist."

So I wrote a hell of a lot of short, short stories--two to five pages. I wrote in the style of a whole lot of writers, most notably Carver. My first real short stories scream of his influence, so much so that my adviser eventually ended up telling me to cool it on Carver already. (Is there any way to make teachers happy? Geesh.) The practice, however, was useful. Writing in a style not natural to my own taught me cleaner lines, more direct thoughts, tighter plots. It gave me a solid base, from which I could eventually extend. And Carver is a master of repetition, rhythm--a thing I still cling to. Sometimes when I can't get my crap together on the page, I cut threads. I remind myself: Go back to basics. Present moment, conflict interaction, clean lines, dramatic action. I hear my adviser say, "Keep it simple." Simple is decidedly ambitious many times.

3) I developed a healthy balance between saying, "Great point! I'll revise for that" and "Fuck you. It's my story."

To be a writer, and more importantly to keep writing, a writer has to find a way to cut out a lot of noise. Despite how much you have studied and learned and written, readers, critics, and friends will always weigh in with their take on your work. Opinions are, as they say, plentiful. But at the end of the day, you have to trust yourself, your writing, and your vision. This doesn't mean you tune everything out. In one regard, a writer has to be open to criticisms and advice, or she'd never grow. But, on the other hand, if a writer revises and doubts her vision and craft every time someone says something remotely negative, she’d stop writing, or go nuts. Not everyone will love everything. And that's OK. And really, not everyone knows what's best. The Zen of a 'fuck you attitude' keeps writers alive in the game. It keeps them writing beyond the first book.

4) I never stopped being a person learning to write.

Obvious but true. Every single time I pick up a book, I am reading as a writer and learning new tricks. Time compression, narrative flow, point of view, image patterns, everything. My best mentors today are still other writers, and their books.

Credit image:
Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson


  1. This is a wonderful post, Sandra, I've often been tempted to copy word for word some of my favorite
    authors. Now you've inspired me to do just that. Thanks!

  2. I especially love item three, just because I've learned this recently. Sometimes you should make the changes and sometimes you should follow your heart.

    Great post!


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  4. (Sorry, deleted above comment. Didn't realize I was still signed in on that account and not my own!)

    Kelsey: Three was always hard for me to learn, too. Even now I'm always surprised how rocked my world can become if someone HATES my work. I try and stay off Goodreads, try not to read nasty reviews. And when an aunt or someone tells me that my book was too 'open-ended' at the end, or had too much sex, or was too much of a 'downer', I just sit back and say, "Well, when you write your own book you can write it the way YOU want." Smile, smile. (It is hard to smile sometimes!) Oddly enough I can't handle compliments and praise, either, so I am doubly screwed. :)

  5. Karin:

    I am always mimicking writers I love, even now. I haven't copied word for word in a while, but it's always instructive!

  6. Thanks for a great post, Sandra, and a reminder of what can be a very useful exercise in a writer's arsenal! And I love how a "fuck you" can be considered Zen. :-)

  7. I'm going to use #3 in my life as well as my writing. Great philosophy.

    Carver's stories...forgot about those until you mentioned his name. Those stories are like passing a train wreck, disturbing-but I just couldn't tear myself away from them.

    And, in my other life as an English teacher (on a good day), I have my AP students copy sentences as a way to tug them away from what I call "machine gun" prose: See Spot. See Spot run.

    Have you read Francine Prose's (she had to be a writer with that name): Reading Like a Writer?
    The intro worth the price of the book.

  8. Sandy, I'm laughing as I read #3 because I really, really need to find my FU Zen attitude right now with LBD out (after some of the more, er, interesting reviews). Wonderful post!


  9. Wendy: It's more of an 'edgy Zen' I guess, but it works for me! :)

  10. Christa,

    Yes, I've read Francine Prose's book (plus she's also on my agent's list, so I'm a general fan of her and her work). LOVED IT. And that's a great way to get students away from the "See Spot run" mentality with rhythm and sentence structure. I used to use another exercise in my creative writing class, which was to create a 1-3 page story using ONLY one syllable words, yet have the sentences vary enough so that the work didn't sound monotonous. I think that exercise is in Pamela Painter's book WHAT IF (another great read). As for Carver: I am such a fan of his, but agree with you about the train wreck aspect of his stories. I believe I've read all of his works, despite this. There was a time I just couldn't get enough of him. One of the saddest days ever, when I finished his last book and realized I'd never read a new story by him. :(

  11. Oh, Susan. I am so there with you! I just got a great review for the collection but had one stinker one, too--my first bad review ever. And I was just so in that Zen place. So very VERY in that F-ing Zen place! Ha! :) Oh well. It's always at least interesting hearing what other people think, because as I always say, I don't have enough anxiety in my life. No, really.

  12. "It's always at least interesting hearing what other people think, because as I always say, I don't have enough anxiety in my life. No, really."

    Ha ha ha! Oh, Sandy, you just made my day! ;-)

  13. I love this!!!!! Especially the "fuck you attitude". It reminded me of how hard two MFA professors were on me. Every word was circled. Comments abounded. It took me a while to realize that they were doing this because they had faith in me. They pushed me so hard. Sometimes I cried, but then I said, "Fuck you," in my head and kept on writing. When the rejections poured forth for my first novel, hundreds upon hundreds of agent rejections, A to Z in the 2004 Writer's Market, I thought, "Fuck YOU!" but then I revised and kept at it. Not to mention, an early teacher of English, wrote the word FUCK on the board the first day of class and asked us, "Why is this word so powerful?" The hard consonant sounds say everything. I love all you fellow writers. Thanks again for a great post.

  14. Michele,
    I totally get that. Sometimes I know I come off as edgy and irritated, but that F-you attitude is really the least we can do to give us a little bit of a shell and protection. And we need it. And I totally agree with you: You need that attitude through a bunch of stages in writing, not just after a book is out.

    As for advisers: You made me laugh! Yeah. Mine was a real whip cracker. And I *still* remember some of his more severe criticisms of my work (From DG: "This is the worst sex scene I've ever read in my life, Sandy. I mean, 'cupping her breasts'? C'MON!" and "Maybe you could send out to a journal, sure, if you wrote a good story, or even a good sentence," and "When YOU can write a story that gets in The New Yorker, then you can criticize the stories in The New Yorker. Until then, just be quiet and learn.") Ha, ha! He was really usually right.

  15. Sandra, I *loved* this post! I literally laughed aloud when I read your #3, but all four of them are points I appreciated seeing today. We're in a crazy-hard industry. Sigh. And you're so right -- there's this fine line we walk all the time between being open and willing to learning/growing as far as writing craft vs. just believing in what we're doing and not listening to any of the negative talk out there. Thanks so much for this reminder ;).

  16. Marilyn,

    Agreed. We are on that line every single day. Balance, I guess. Acrobatics. I'm glad the post served as a reminder. It's really *great* to be here, on the blog, with such great ladies. :) Niceness can be hard to come by, but it abounds here. So thank you.

  17. What's so wrong with "cupping breasts?" What if he actually cupped them? And they just fit in, you know. Oh well.
    Enjoyed reading this, and I admire the initiative of copying stories. xo

  18. Avital! I don't know what's wrong with it. I guess he thought it was cliche. It came from my first story attempt with him, a piece called "Love in the Time of Neanderthals" (ha). I'd like to say that there's so much sex in my forthcoming collection not because I am sexually deviant and illegal in 13 states down south, but because I was trying to write better sex scenes after being so embarrassed over this remark on 'cupping'.

    That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

  19. Oh Sandra, I really loved this post. My MFA head had a great exercise re: copying other writers. We had to record a real life convo, word for word. Transcribe it. Have it read by actors. Then we had to rewrite it in the style of Tennessee Williams. Have it read by actors. Then we had to rewrite it in the style of two other playwrights who I'm blanking on. Have it read by actors. THEN we finally got to rewrite it in our own style. I still get compliments on the way I write dialogue. All him.

    Also, I take at least 2-3 writing classes a year and I'm shocked by how I always come away with something new.

    But my greatest ability by far is to take most notes, but make hard, strong, fast decisions about the ones I won't take. Working in radio taught me that. You don't fight with the talent or your producer unless it's really, really worth it.

  20. Ernessa, we did that, too! I confess that even now sometimes at dinner my head will tilt and my husband just knows I'm listening to conversations. Have gotten some good lines that way! Never threw Tennessee Williams into the mix. That must have been wild. Like you, I try and bone up through workshops or classes, but that usually depends on how much extra cash we have floating around.:) My friend did his MFA *after* he'd published 4 novels and wrote out in Hollywood for years, on various television series. He always said, "Never too old to learn new tricks." I agree.

  21. Surely pretty important for the students to try every possible fact as have been mentioned here with sufficient details.