WINTER, 2007

Anne Lowenkopf

Introduction to Writing ‘07
By Anne Lowenkopf Here you are, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, giving me two hours of your life. Why? My guess is because you want to write or learn how to how to write better. But perhaps you’re here because you want to be published. That’s trickier. With the merest of exceptions—those with pathological language handicaps—anyone can learn to write. Being published requires writing skills + conforming to agents’ and publishers’ requirements + luck. Conforming to agents’ and publishers’ requirements is tedious, taking up a certain amount of your time and attention but not difficult. Luck is anyone’s guess. My best advice is to plunge ahead with your writing and hope luck will be there for you when you need it. So, let’s get back to writing. Writing fiction is a matter of communicating bits, hunks, chunks, sections of human experience into written language. Basically when you write fiction, you are telling a story about a part of one or several persons’ lives, your own or others’. By the time you’re sitting in this classroom you’ve witnessed bits of hundreds of people’s lives. So why is it so difficult when you sit at your desk and try to write? The difficulty is that though you have witnessed bits of hundreds of people’s lives, though you have thought about them, felt about them, have opinions about and attitudes toward them, perhaps have stories about them running around in your head, you’ve little experience in writing about them. Witnessing and feeling, even thinking, largely are accomplished nonverbally. We accomplish these behaviors through images, through emotional response, chemical secretions, hormonal flow, muscular tensions and relaxations, all of this, all at 1

WINTER, 2007 once, with occasional words tossed into the stew.

Anne Lowenkopf

And now you want to put these thoughts and feelings and impressions onto paper, or more likely to tap it into bits into your computer. But those few words you’ve been using don’t stretch to the task. By themselves they don’t tell the story. Often they don’t even appear in your mind when you reach for them. Often the narrator in our normal consciousness isn’t even aware of their full content. It’s frightening and frustrating. You think you know how to write—they taught you in elementary school—but the mechanical scribbles and keypresses of writing are only the first step in writing fiction and memoir. For storytelling you must be able to translate all of the silent parts of your experience into words that enable your readers to approximate your own experiences and the experiences of the characters whose stories you are telling, using words alone instead of all the chemical and kinesthetic components of ordinary thinking. It’s a hard-won skill, not programmed in the genes. Doing it—writing fiction on paper-- is accomplished only through learning. And learning, though it can be facilitated by coming to the classroom and sitting in uncomfortable chairs, is largely accomplished by putting down in written language what you hope to convey. You learn by trying, by doing what you hope to do, just as you learned to dance or drive a car. To begin with, you open yourself up to what you want to write. Visualize it, feel it, and as soon as something comes strongly to mind, begin describing it as best you can. Don’t expect fine writing to emerge; demand something. For beginners, or those who have been blocked in writing for some time, I recommend writing something if only commands to yourself that you write and snarls at the difficulty until you produce a couple of pages of actual writing every day, certainly ever time you sit down to write. For those writers who have progressed enough so they actually have the beginnings of a short story o novel, remember this: Rarely do we know all of our first draft when we begin. A completed first draft is almost always a matter of 2

WINTER, 2007

Anne Lowenkopf

slow accretions, like the growing of a stalagmite. But you know something. There’s something that you want to communicate—a relationship, perhaps just the concept of a character, a location, a mood, someone’s reaction. Something. Even those of you who are hard at work on a project consuming all your writing time would do well to establish in your computer a folder called Journal or Notebook. This is for those times when you aren’t and can't work on your project. And those who don’t have a project—can’t seem to come up with one— write every day something to feed your notebook—a description of brushing your teeth, a quarrel between lovers, what your bedroom looks like or someone’s appearance. Anything will do. From time to time throw in a conversation, a train of thought. Be faithful, and your notebook will lead to a project. Begin with a specific. Write about it. Try writing fast, with as little self-editing as you can manage. If that something specific turns into something else, don’t stop or try to force it back into its beginning direction. Write as long as thought and feelings prompt words. When you’re stuck for a word or the right word for what you’re trying to describe, put in an approximate, and if you don’t have even that, put in some XXX’s to be translated later. Of course whenever you write you hope to get it right. Hope implies the possibility of failure. You might get it down on paper, on the screen satisfactorily the first shot. Or you might not. How do you know what’s satisfactory? You read what you’ve written aloud to yourself. Does it sound pleasing to the ear? Does it make sense? Does it convey the feelings and experience you wish? When it doesn’t, try again. Eventually you turn your writing in to an editor, a teacher, to one or a number of associates; you read it aloud in a classroom. Does it sound right to them? 3

WINTER, 2007

Anne Lowenkopf

It’s important to remember that there is no final authority for rightness. Friends, teachers, editors, agents, publishing houses, critics—none of them is a final authority on effective writing. At best the “experts” know if your writing moves them, and even that might change, depending on mood and other influences. What they are giving you, these friends, teachers, editors, publishers, and critics, is an opinion: will your writing please many readers, will your writing sell many copies, does your writing conform to certain standards to writing beauty that are currently in vogue? As a writer you need to weigh their opinions against your own desires. When the two sets of opinion differ, theirs and yours, you need to decide how important your version is to what you are trying to create. Unless, and this is a vital exception, unless you have truly changed your mind about the story you want to tell. It happens. When that happens, when you feel your story really should be told in first person rather than third person, that your story should be focusing on character X not character Y, that the ending should be ambiguous rather than happy, that character Z or chapter 3 is unnecessary baggage and should be dropped. When that happens, knowing that what you’d been doing was the necessary springboard to this better approach, you drop the old material and start in on your new idea, well pleased with yourself. You go to teachers and editors because they have had been working at the writing game a long time and have an educated eye and ear for what writing is likely to be successful, commercially and aesthetically. Often it’s worth while submitting to their opinions. But it’s crucial not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Be true to your vision of the story, to what you want the story to convey to your readers, to how you want your readers to feel about the story. Remember when the verb sharing was all the vogue? No one told you anything; they always shared it with you? Well, sharing is what storytelling is all about. Whether in words or not you’ve already had the experience, formed your own 4

WINTER, 2007

Anne Lowenkopf

reactions. You tell a story because you want to give your experience and your reactions to it to others. You’re hoping they will react to it as you did, but in any case, you want their reaction. So it’s important that you don’t lose the story you want to tell in the editorial process. To keep writing, to keep the passion to write strong, you need to feel you are indeed sharing your perceptions of and responses to the characters and events in your story. What makes you feel Look at this! about it. If instead you give in to writing the teacher’s story or the agent’s story, your enthusiasm begins to leak away. Then you’re writing just in hopes of money or fame. And each time you give away your vision of your story in favor of what an “expert” wants, you are saying to yourself, I’m not really a writer. I can’t trust my own judgment. Most famous writers will tell you, I became famous overnight after five years or ten years of rejection slips. Writing is a long-term commitment. The up- side is that making mistakes is okay. Falling flat on your face is okay. There’s not a writer who hasn’t. So no embarrassment when you do. Embarrassment comes in when you don’t do. Mistakes are hard evidence that you’ve been writing. Don’t give yourself a hard time when your prose is klunky, when your characters seem flat and, although you’ve written a hundred pages, you still haven’t come up with anything resembling a plot. These are all proof you’ve been doing what a writer should—working at your profession. Your first short story may be eighty pages long while your first novel numbers only a hundred. Hey! You’ve written a short story; hey, you’ve written a novel. Published writing, almost to a book, rests on many, many drafts. I recommend working on your first draft without taking the time to rewrite, without interrupting its momentum until it feels finished. My experience has shown me that working and working on a story or novel in hopes of perfection is counterproductive. There comes a point when most of your changes are miniscule and don’t really produce noticeable improvements. At that 5

WINTER, 2007

Anne Lowenkopf

point you’re wise to stop, give it yet another formatting, grammar, and spelling check. In another lecture I’ll delineate the most satisfactory format for your final draft and what you need in the way of approaching an agent or editor. Once your story is in the mail, you’ll be wise to begin a new one. That’s the best distraction from acceptance jitters. An though what you’ve just sent off has taught you as much as it can right now about writing, a new project can teach you more. There’s always more to learn in writing that doing can teach you. And fashions in writing change—that’s to keep abreast of as well. Writing is a frustrating profession and a consuming profession. With luck it’ll eat you alive, having your family and friends complaining about the time you spend at the computer. But you’ll never get bored, never outgrow it. It’s always an adventure.

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