East of Dixie

A blog about creativity

Month: May 2017

There is nothing mysterious about good writing

As a teenager I played guitar the way I played pretty much everything else: badly, and with pangs of guilt for not doing better.

Apart from a few lessons when I was very young, I was self-taught.

A friend showed me power chords in Grade 9, which was all I needed to learn “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of my generation’s defining tunes.

Over time I learned how to play real chords, which used all six strings instead of two. I learned scales and riffs—parts I worked through at high volumes with pals who struggled as much as I did.

I worshipped Jimi Hendrix, because that’s what all the good guitar players did. He was the consensus greatest of all time, and when magazines deconstructed his style they made it sound like magic.

He played rhythm and lead at the same time; he didn’t really need a bassist; he thought he was a crappy singer, but he was better than most.

I figured I would never be able to play like Jimi because conventional wisdom said nobody ever would, so I didn’t even try.

I bought one of his greatest hits collections and tried to understand it, tried to grasp his genius. But I couldn’t even do that right.

Then, a few days into the year 2000, when I was seventeen years old, I visited my friend Adam at his house in rural Ontario. He took out his Gibson Les Paul—a compact, beautiful and expensive instrument that was almost as iconic to me as Jimi—and let me hold it.

I plunked out a few riffs, embarrassed I couldn’t do anything useful with the gorgeous hunk of wood in my hands. Then I gave it back to Adam, who played it brilliantly.

We got around to talking about Jimi, and I mentioned something about how badly I wanted to learn his songs. I said it as if it were a fool’s errand, like asking one of the popular girls to dance.

Adam seemed to think it was possible. He started playing the main riff of a Hendrix song that is lost to memory—I think it was “Castles Made of Sand,” but it may have been “Little Wing.”

This was a relatively weak imitation, but most of the right notes were there. Adam casually showed me the chords, which were broken in ways I couldn’t replicate but had a similar structure to the ones I learned when I was younger.

So, there it was. Maybe nobody would ever play guitar like Jimi, but they conceivably could, if they worked hard enough. He was a god, but he worked with the same elements as the rest of us.

This, to some extent, is how it is with writing.

Most of us will never match The Bard, or any of our other heroes, for that matter. We will probably never win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or National Book Awards.

That shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Writing, as writing instructors like to point out, is a learned skill. No one comes out of the womb knowing how to spill brilliance onto a page.

Great writers become great through heaps of study and practice, and that means you can be a great writer too, if you’re willing to devote yourself to the craft.

If you don’t become great, you can at least become good. If you can’t become good, you can at least become solid.

(“Solid” is the word an instructor in my grad program often used to describe my work. It stung, especially because he was not more than a solid writer himself. But he was right. I have been practicing all my life, and I still have a long way to go before I become good.)

All of that to say: great writing has an air of mystery to it, like all great art. We sit and wonder where the brilliance comes from—the insight, the turn of phrase, the glittering sentences that give us shame.

Some of that is singular and hard-fought, the product of life experiences none of us will ever have. But competency—the ability to be good, or at least solid—is something anyone can learn.

So if you want to write, please do.

Forgive yourself for not being brilliant and focus on becoming good. If becoming good seems impossible, focus on becoming better.

Everyone can become better, and often all we need in a given moment is to be good enough.

I have made a career one assignment at a time, doing well enough to get a piece past an editor and resolving to do better with the next one.

Sometimes my writing is solid, like Adam’s imitation of Jimi Hendrix; sometimes it is good. But it is always getting better, and there is nothing mysterious about that.

I study, I practice, and then I study some more.

So trust me: If you want to do this, you can learn.

The first step is to try.

You can’t do it all (so make time for what matters)


My first job after journalism school was at a small daily newspaper in a small city that specialized in small stories.

We aspired to big things, but often we settled on little ones — the latest kerfuffle at city hall, the fundraiser for cancer research, the weather’s effect on business in a nearby beach town, and so on.

When I started, we had a four-person newsroom producing five papers a week; when I left a year and a half later, we had two people doing the same.

Working there was a valuable experience, one that taught me how to write lots and write quickly.

But it was also incredibly stressful. After a few weeks, I began to feel as if my job were crushing my soul.

I rarely had the chance to write the kind of stories I wanted to write, and when I did there was never enough time to give them the treatment they deserved.

It didn’t take long to realize I could spend the rest of my life on this path — a path that would never let me do the kind of work that mattered to me — and something needed to change.

So as often as I could, sometimes late at night but more often on weekends, I would sit on a cheap folding chair in my basement apartment, using a TV tray as my desk, and tap away on my computer.

In moments my job couldn’t swallow, I wrote what was in my heart.

I wrote about things that were deeply interesting to me, in ways that demonstrated my potential as a writer.

I got honest with myself in ways I was could not be honest at work, and those small truths pointed me to a better place.

The better place was another, better job. Five months later it was to yet another job that was 10 times better than the last one.

But it also helped me understand it was no longer acceptable to spend 99 percent of life doing things that broke my spirit.

I needed to write about things that mattered, and that meant stealing time.

It meant writing my first book on evenings that would otherwise have been spent with friends or in front of the TV.

It meant being selfish, with the understanding my selfishness was also an act generosity I owed myself.

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says: “If I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something.”

This is what happens when we defer our dreams, or give up on them altogether. We ruin parts of ourselves, and then we go around ruining parts of other people because we can’t stand seeing them happy.

So, selfishness is generosity. It’s about you, but it’s also about everyone else.

If you don’t nourish your soul — a word I use to describe the person you truly are and hope to become — it dies.

I learned many lessons from that first job out of journalism school, but the most important was that I needed better, deeper more meaningful work than it could provide.

Much of that work takes place in my current job, for which I am truly thankful.

But some of it comes in the bits of time I steal for myself — never on the job, of course, but often in quiet moments that could be spent a million other ways.

The purpose of my life is to write honestly about things that matter and pass them along to others, hoping it will help.

Whatever the purpose of your life is, I hope you’ll be as selfish, generous and courageous as it takes to live it out.

Start small, and see how far you get.

 

How to measure success

Writing a book was at the top of my bucket list for years, and as I worked on the manuscript that became my first release, I told myself it didn’t matter if nobody read it.

I told myself there was intrinsic value in the work, and the process of writing could be its own reward.

It would be an accomplishment just to finish a process I had begun so many times but always abandoned. I told myself if my message took hold with only a few people, that would be enough.

But the truth was, I wanted to be read. I wanted to make at least a little bit of money at this, and preferably a lot.

I knew the chances of becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell were slim, but I had read a lot about other self-published authors who made a good living from their work.

So when I released my book in mid-February and it sold a single copy in its opening weekend, it hurt. When six weeks passed and my marketing efforts produced only a handful more sales, I felt like dirt.

Yes, there is inherent value in the process of writing. It’s like any other form of artistic expression, from playing the piano to learning how to paint.

But every writer wants to be read. If we put nearly two years into a project and pour our souls onto the page, like I did—the truth is, we want it to amount to something.

The first six weeks of my book launch were incredibly difficult—sobering, humbling and a little embarrassing.

I had put my work into the world and the world said, “Meh.”

What I learned along the way was how to measure success, and how to not let my self worth be reduced to math.

Small victories

I would prefer to have sold a million copies by now, but I can rest in this: A bookstore in the rural county where I grew up carried my book and sold out within a few weeks.

Six people were willing to spend actual money on something I created. That’s not much, but it’s something. It’s a win.

The bookstore ordered six more copies and gave me my first royalty cheque as an author.

That went a long way to legitimizing my work, even if the cheque was barely enough to fill up my car with gas. It was enough to keep me going.

Take the compliment

Nobody has formally reviewed my book so far, but I have a colleague in the magazine industry who twice told me it was wonderful.

Another colleague told me she enjoyed it and discussed it with me at length. A fellow author said similar things and went as far as to quote her favourite passages in a thoughtful and encouraging email.

I have family members who loved the book, and so far none of my friends have disowned me.

They perceive me differently now, because I wrote about a lot of things I kept inside for years. I can handle that. I told those stories with the hope they would help other people, and maybe they have.

Giving it away

I’ve only sold a few books, but I’ve given away dozens of copies to colleagues, family and friends.

One of those copies was to a woman whose daughter is considering a career in journalism. Her mother requested a copy as a birthday gift, and there is a chance it will inspire the daughter in some way.

As small victories go, that’s pretty spectacular. And I know for certain that others who received free copies have read them cover to cover.

If the goal was to be read, for my words to be constructive, and for my message to connect in some meaningful way, I may have succeeded.

Perseverance is key

A quotation from Ray Bradbury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is popular in writing circles.

“Quantity produces quality,” he said. “If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”

I knew that was true as I worked on my first book, and I know it’s true now, as I begin working on my next one.

I’ve decided there will be a next one, and hopefully a few others after that. I’m going to take my lumps, learn from my mistakes and get better as I go.

It took a lot of small victories to bring me to this point, as well as some genuine and encouraging words.

A few of them came from an extraordinarily kind woman who told me I should keep writing, regardless of how many books I sell.

“Follow your dreams,” she said.

That was exactly what I needed to hear, and I continue to write with the hope my words have the same effect on whoever reads them.

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