I blame Winesburg, Ohio.
Not the city; the short story cycle by Sherwood Anderson. Of course, that blame would be misplaced. It was my fault – my ignorance – not someone else’s brilliance that sent me down a wrong path.
I had been writing (and editing) for years. Non-fiction, mostly, since fate and opportunity had conspired to offer me relative success there. But one day I decided to pursue the dream I’d harbored since grade school – to become a published author of fiction.
First, I would have to overcome a few obstacles, most notably, my complete lack of fiction writing ability.
Perhaps that’s overstating it. I was reasonably skilled at telling stories. But like so many eager beginners, I had a tendency to overwrite. I used a hundred words to say what could better have been said in five. Recognizing this tendency wasn’t enough to solve it, though, and this is when I figured out that to get better, I would have to be more intentional in my study of the craft.
After the third book on writing, I began to experience advice fatigue. Do this. Don’t do that. And don’t you ever even think of doing the other thing. I’m sure it was all good and wise advice, but most of it sounded like white noise.
However, there was one piece of advice that rose above the noise: the admonition to read, read, read.
I didn’t want to waste time reading bad books, so I looked up lists with “best” in the title and prayed they weren’t compiled by illiterate gnomes. There were a lot of lists. Too many. So I had the brilliant idea of asking a literary-minded friend (he smoked a pipe and once had a goatee) to recommend his favorites. He offered just one.
“Winesburg, Ohio,” he said.
Before I’d even finished it, I had come to two very important conclusions: 1) I wanted to write short stories; and 2) I wanted to write them as brilliantly as Sherwood Anderson.
The book was still warm when I sat at my computer desk and started writing the first of what would someday be a collection of short stories mentioned in the same breath as Winesburg, Ohio. A few hours later, I realized the only way this would happen is if that breath were expelled in answer to the question, “What are the best and worst collections of short stories ever written?”
My short story wasn’t brilliant. It wasn’t even half as good as the stories I’d written before. What happened? Why did my writing suffer so greatly in my attempt to write beautiful prose?
I was writing ahead of myself.
I was an average writer trying to manufacture brilliance. I simply didn’t have the raw materials to create anything but a cheap imitation.
There was a moment (maybe two) when, in my frustration, I considered giving up entirely on my writing dream. It would be months before I’d pick up the virtual pen again. But one thing I didn’t give up: reading. I read classics. Popular novels. Literary triumphs (some of which I admittedly couldn’t finish). Women’s fiction. Fantasy. Young adult. I read everything I could get my hands on.
And then, when I finally sat down to write again (because apparently it’s impossible to quit writing if you’re a writer), I didn’t try to write a literary masterpiece. I just wrote where I was. I filled the page as best as I could with words I already knew (more, thanks to all that reading) and in ways that felt natural. Some of my stories were quite good, others were merely good. But the more I wrote, the more I started to like the sound of my voice. And the more I read, the more my voice matured.
Somewhere in the midst of that season of discovery, I went back to those abandoned white-noise writing books and gave them a second chance. And behold, there was wisdom. Why hadn’t I seen it before?
Some writing advice only makes sense after you’ve written enough words to earn it.
I used to want to be as brilliant as Sherwood Anderson. Now I just want to be as brilliant as Stephen Parolini.
I’m getting there, word by word.