Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2015

Finding a Safe Place for Your Writing

Fear is the greatest barrier to becoming a writer. I am sometimes frustrated by the way that we teach writing in elementary school and high school, which is largely about correcting grammar mistakes and drilling rules about comma use, splices, and punctuation. Yet mastering these sorts of editing rules will do almost nothing to help you on the way to becoming a professional writer. And focusing on them drives away a lot of the people who might be our most creative visionaries. Sure, learning some grammar can help you to avoid certain pitfalls of miscommunicating your intent. But other than that, it seems mostly a way to shut voices down. It's like trying to teach professional painting with a paint-by-number canvas. What? Why?

Most of the time I spend teaching about writing is spent trying to defuse the defenses that my students have installed in order to protect themselves from criticisms on the sentence level. "I'm not good at writing," I hear over and over again. "I'm trying to learn to how to write," I read and then am blown away by a student's perfect expression of the loss of a parent, or the impact their favorite book had on them. These are not people who don't know how to write. They are people who have been told they don't know how to write and then had this judgment enforced by red pen all over their paper and a bad grade fixed to the bottom because they didn't follow someone's rather anal rules about sentence construction.

I am one of those people who enjoys sticky rules about grammar in the same way that I enjoy lists of all kinds and counting steps while I am running. It doesn't particularly help me run a marathon at a Boston Qualifying time, but it helps me pretend that I have control over something I don't. Knowing what a comma splice is is not a great bonus as a writer, except that it got me through school with teachers urging me on because they thought I was a "great writer." (Trust me, I wasn't. If you read anything I wrote when I was in school, it's pretty much as bad as anyone else's writing at that age.)

So when I go into elementary schools to get kids excited about writing, the first thing I do is promise them that when they give me a story, I won't correct their grammar. That's not my job. My job is to inspire creativity and the first part of being creative is feeling safe. Most teachers don't understand this and think that people who are creative are just born that way, that you identify creativity by seeing who is wild and impulsive. It's really not true in my experience. What you need to do to write is to find a safe space both metaphorically and literally in order to take the enormous risks that the best writing demands. You are going to spill out your deepest secrets, your most intimate details, your soul itself, onto paper. You need to feel safe in order to do that.

How to create a safe space? Well, a literal safe space for me was often a separate room. This was not as much because I needed quiet to create, although I do like quiet. I can create a quiet space by putting in ear plugs or wearing headphones or simply by tuning out the other noise because I am concentrated on my story so intensely that nothing else happening around me matters or even penetrates my consciousness. (Ask my kids how often it happens that I'm writing when the timer goes off in the kitchen and I can't hear it. Yeah.)

Mostly, having a separate room helped me to create because it protected me from other eyes looking at my work before I was ready for them. I truly cannot write if someone is looking over my shoulder. I have ended up choosing a program to write in that requires me to go through some hoops in order to change it into a format that I could potentially send to anyone, especially my agent or editor. And this makes me feel safe as I write, that this is just for me, that no one will see this, that I don't have to worry about judgment of it "not being good enough." For some people, Anne Lamott's dictum that you must write a "shitty first draft" works on its own. I find it actually raises my heart rate as if I were running to imagine that I have to write something to show people right now, this instant. It is paralyzing.

Another way I create a safe space for my writing is to keep people around me who are constructive. Every writer needs improvement. But constructive criticism means including the good things with the bad things and showing how to get from bad to better, not just pulling apart the inner workings of a piece and saying it's all wrong. Whenever I talk to other writers about critique groups that have gone bad, it's always with a kind of shudder. There are few things that are as toxic as a bad writing group, in particular one where it becomes about competition between who is better. Maybe there are some writers who find it inspiring to make a competition out of writing because it spurs them to work harder, but if so, I don't think I've met any of them. (Word sprints on twitter are not what I am talking about, by the way.)

When parents ask me sometimes what they can do to help kids become better writers, I almost always tell them to do nothing. And by that I mean, don't read your kids' work and give them criticism. That's not what they need. Give them paper and pens. Give them a computer with a word processing program. But don't send their work to professionals for critique. Don't send them to writers conferences as kids. That's not a safe space for them. And the reality is that as much as we imagine that writers need criticism, we forget how self-correcting a tool the brain is. The more you write, the better you get at it. I've found this to be universally true, but especially with teens as they grow and devour more and more writing. They figure out themselves how they need to improve and they figure it out without shutting down their creativity with the fear of not being good enough.

Writing is in its essence subjective. Which is one of the reasons it's probably really difficult to deal with in a school system where everyone wants to use a grading scale. That's why schools often default to grammar, because it's easier to judge as "right" or "wrong." But it's also precisely why grammar is such a terrible way to introduce people to writing. Writing is about figuring out who you are. It's about plumbing the depths. It's about taking risks, offending people on occasion because they don't agree with you. It's about writing something that is unique, that no one else has ever experienced in precisely that way. Which is why writing is so difficult to judge. As art, as self-expression, it is simply not about a grading scale.

So stop making it into something that is trying to be that. I say this both to writers and teachers of writing. I want to shake everyone who talks about plot as something that is "right" done one way and "wrong" done another way. What you mean is that it pleases you because it is familiar or it pleases you because it isn't familiar. Pleasing you is not the same as being right or wrong. And the more you train yourself to think about writing as about taste and less about judgment, the safer you will feel as a creative person yourself.

And that's really the last element of finding a safe space to write. You have to become that safe space. You have to teach yourself to stop looking at your work and using school teacher language about it. It isn't good or bad. It may be not quite what you wanted it to be yet. It may be completely wrong for the book you are currently working on. It may not be what your publisher wanted or what your readers expect. But in order to keep writing, you need to turn off the judgment in your own head. And you have to do it over and over again. Writing one book does not mean you magically know how to write the next one.

If there's any advantage to being a published writer of 15 years now for me, it's that I remember how anxious a new book makes me, and how to tune out other voices in my head, especially critical ones. It's certainly not that I know how to do this, because writers are constantly doing new things, challenging ourselves all over again, reinventing the wheel. Which is ultimately the contradiction in trying to find safety in a creative endeavor like writing. You are never safe. You can't possibly be safe unless you aren't really doing your job, which is to push boundaries and try new things and remake yourself as much as you are remaking your book. That's why you need so much safety around you, because art is by definition the least safe career you can possibly choose. Good luck!

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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