The Writer's Life

Write Where You Are (But Don’t Stop Moving)

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.

17 thoughts on “Write Where You Are (But Don’t Stop Moving)

    1. Thanks, Nicole. Hoping “better with age” applies here because I’m not getting any younger, despite my attempts to Benjamin Button-ize my life.

  1. Oh this. I love this. This is SO what I’ve been through with my photography, and I know it is what I will encounter with my writing, if I ever choose to get serious about it. But I love it. I have to keep this one somewhere…

    1. I suggest keeping it in the freezer to preserve freshness. The words should remain edible for up to a year. That’s how much time I’m giving you to get serious about your writing.

      You’re welcome.

  2. First off, I agree that “Winesburg, Ohio” is a stunning book. When I was in high school, my grandfather convinced me to read it, and it was a defining book for me.

    Second off, I also agree that the books are more helpful if you are actually doing writing. But I also feel strongly that a certain point, you need to read more *fiction* and let the writing books go. I think you’ll learn more from reading the masters–or simply the writers in your genre whom you admire–than you will from those advice books. Hey, I loved “Bird by Bird,” and I still think about it from time to time. But passages from novels (and, to a certain degree, poetry) are what spur me on to be a better writer. Not from trying to be like them, but from learning from them. For example, I’ll never structure a book like Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” but it made me aware of how structure can work in a novel more so than any writing advice book could.

    So, yes, read the writing books. Just never instead of a good book of fiction! 🙂

    1. Absolutely. If I could only give one piece of advice to wannabe authors, I’d say “read as many good books as you can.” Or maybe “don’t even pick up a pen until you’ve saved enough money to support an unhealthy coffee and chocolate addiction.”

      One of those.

  3. Awesome, awesome, awesome. Loved the part about…well… loved it all. But the part about finally seeing the wisdom in white noise advisory books is exactly what I thought but could not say about the Bible. I want a book by you explaining the prose of John’s Gospel in layman’s terms. But, selfish me…I’m not your publishing company so I don’t get to ask with any weight. Keep writing ~ most of us have forgotten and need the reminder that words aspire to be more than the sum of their combinations.

  4. Hello, I just discovered this blog from through a series of blogrolls (originally from The Blogess), and I’m happy I found it! I’ve just started experimenting with writing, I’ve started a blog to meddle around with writing, and I love the process — even though there’s still a long way to go, of course. Thank you for this post, I think it sums up what many people are thinking and doing (aspiring for brilliance right off the bat), so the advice is more than welcome.

    If you could write a post about “overwriting” (you said beginners do this a lot?), that would be highly appreciated.

    1. Maria, glad you found your way here. Jenny (the Bloggess) is a friend and I’m always happy when people end up here, from there.

      I’ll add a post on “overwriting” to the queue. Look for it…um…eventually.

  5. This is my first time on your blog and I absolutely adored it. Especially this post. I aspire to be a fiction writer and I do the same thing whenever I need inspiration. I try to read as many books of fiction as possible, keeping the genre and style varied. It helps me find my voice.
    Thank you for posting this and reminding me that it can only be good for me to take a break and read one more good novel. 🙂

  6. Stephen, I needed to hear this. I’ve been stuck. I get wonderful, even brilliant ideas. Then I write, and what comes out falls dismally short of what I wanted. So I’m hesitant to write because I don’t want to “ruin things.” But I’m miserable not writing.

    So I read writing craft books. “Write tight!” they all say. Hmmm, I don’t write tight, not even close. The writer trapped inside this wordy little brain says, “Give up, I was clearly just a figment of your imagination.”

    When I muster the courage to tip-toe past my disgruntled detainee and write–other slivers of writing book wisdom are lined-up ready to shame me from my place at the keyboard.

    So I decide to read other blogs for encouragement. But they’re so gooood. And I’m not. Ugh. I fall into comparison-induced writer’s coma…and don’t write.

    I get this post. I totally get this post. I long for brilliance and won’t settle for less. I don’t feel free like I did when I started. I just need to listen to the stories as they come into my head and write them down in my own words–the ones I have right now.

    [Please don’t hit word count…just give me a few more years and I promise I’ll say more by writing less.]

  7. ‘Some writing advice only makes sense after you’ve written enough words to earn it.’

    And sometimes it takes writing all those words to learn what to ignore! (see the good noveldoctor’s Don’t Panic post)

    Wise words, all. So glad I’ve found you 😉

  8. “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.”

    This.

    When I first started writing, I was horrible. Disgustingly terra-bad.
    I looked for advice and the second piece of advice (after “read”) everyone gives is “avoid the letters -ly or you may open your mind to demon possession”

    Bah! As if! How will people know her whisper was quiet if I don’t add quietly? Amatures! (I wish I was jokeing)

    So any other advice was just falling on deaf ears. Though, through reading and writing I managed to progress to a level where, not only could I accept and understand advice, but also that you can, and often should, ignore it.

    This post is, I don’t know the word… Truthefying (unless that’s already a word that doesn’t mean what it looks like. I thought I made it up but auto correct didn’t yell at me) but this last bit is golden.

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