WHAT I BEEN LEARNIN ABOUT WRITING (and life)

Sunday, August 6, 2017


This summer was significant in its emptiness.


During past summers, I’ve had to attend SAT camp, complete summer homework, do tennis camp, and a litany of other activities to boost my college applications. That stuff has all passed, thank God. I’m done with it.
But this summer, besides my trip to the Czech Republic and our family vacation to Zion National Park, I really haven’t done anything to tell specifically noteworthy. I’m not doing an internship; I’m not doing a summer program; I’m not going out a lot with my friends. Besides the occasional tutoring session, I rarely leave my house. Just going to Chick-fil-a and the library today was an outing.


And in a sense, I think it was a test. What am I going to do to fill up this time? Where do my desires really lie? Am I just going to waste it watching Netflix all day? Or am I going to be purposeful with it? Am I going to do what I need to do when I have the time to do it?


I love to write. I think my syntax is choppy sometimes, I make typos, omit words, forget that everyone is a singular noun, try to fancy things up a little too much, and sometimes completely disregard parallelism and the concept of a simple sentence (hahaha). But that kind of thing is what keeps me going: the desire to make myself better, because God gave me the passion for writing and the drive to do it.


So this summer, I was determined to grow. During high school, I kind of put writing on the back burner and tried to lock myself in my own fantasies of publication without genuinely working for it. Eventually, I matured enough to realize this, and asked my parents to let me sign up for an online writing course. Essay-writing at school wasn’t enough--something I’d always known, but never actually realized.


I signed up for an online writing course through Writer’s Digest University called Plot and Structure. It was self-led, had eight lessons, and used a textbook--Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. Although the lessons were great, it was the textbook that changed my life.


From Plot and Structure, I learned a lot of things I'd always wondered about but never understood. For example, a lot of writer-people say to show and not tell--but sometimes, when I read published books, I’d notice a particular example of telling and wonder, how exactly, that book got to be published if the author told.


Bell explains, very clearly, when you’re supposed to show and when you’re supposed to tell. And after reading that bit, I saw that writing wasn’t so black-and-white: it wasn’t one or the other, it’s one thing in a certain situation and the other in another, and sometimes the “wrong things” work well, and sometimes the “right” things don’t. It’s subjective and objective--and I love that ambiguity.


What I particularly enjoy about Bell’s book is that he explains the mechanics of storytelling in a way that I understood and knew, instinctively, but couldn’t explain myself. And reading his book also made me realize that there was so much more to writing than simply what’s in writing blogs, or the random advice I find. I think that in shorter, Internet-based blog posts, people tend to generalize writing rules: show, don’t tell. Third person vs. first person. Sympathetic characters. And that’s great. But I’d avoided reading writing books for a long time, instead reading a lot of blogs, but after reaching a certain point, I didn’t grow as a writer--and didn’t realize I hadn’t grown--until I read Plot and Structure. Because Plot and Structure turned the basic rules into living entities, full of logical contradictions.


After I finished Plot and Structure, I got hungry. So I got Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress, and discovered more. Did you know that there’s close third, distant third, and middle-distance third person? Did you know that in order to create a change in a character’s personality, you have to preclude the change with clues to make the transformation believable? Makes sense, right? But have you ever thought about that until I mentioned it? The things I learned in those books I had instinctively known after years of reading but never fully realized until they popped out of the books and slapped me full in the face.


I moved from that to Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass (excellent), The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, by Nancy Lamb, and, finally, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which I’m reading right now to improve my prose.


And besides reading the books, I took notes. I started taking notes every day on my computer for hours. Then I decided to print all the notes out and, ironically, put it all inside the binder my SAT summer school gave me. (It was big and therefore suitable. It also has ELITE emblazoned across it in giant white letters, but maybe when I’m famous they’ll pay me to be their spokesperson.)


Then, while simultaneously reading Maass’ book, I began plotting a new book, one that I tried writing when I was fourteen. Currently, my head is a simmering stew of logistical issues involving artificial intelligence and funky inventions, but it smells wonderful to me. And, for the first time in my writing life, I feel like I’m getting things right. Sure, my prose is first-draft disgusting, the plotlines are huge and complicated, my characters are melded together, and a lot of my writing probably wouldn’t make sense to an outside observer, but I think I’m finally getting somewhere. That “somewhere” might be Nowhere, but Nowhere is a place too, and I can learn to write my way out of it.


And I’m still hungry. I realized that I didn’t know anything, so I got books, and then, from reading the books, I realized that I still don’t know that much. Which is very dangerous, because I’ve just recently realized that the only things I can buy without having any spender’s guilt are writing books. I would probably buy all of them if I could. (Sorry, Dad.)


I've got a long way to go, but I am unbelievably thankful for this summer: for the time to rest and recuperate from four years of purgatory's close cousin, for the ability to learn, for books and writing and WORDS. After years of feeling stuck, I think I’m finally moving forward again. One foot in front of the other, one word after the other--that’s all that matters.

(P.S. The aforementioned back-to-school giveaway is coming later this week.)

19 comments

  1. I'm so glad you're moving forward, Rachel. Getting caught in the writing doldrums honestly sucks, but when the muse finally arrives back and it's here to stay for good, it all turns out well.

    xoxo Abigail Lennah | ups & downs

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    1. yeah, definitely! it really does turn out well :)

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  2. "That “somewhere” might be Nowhere, but Nowhere is a place too, and I can learn to write my way out of it. "

    This is one of the best blog posts I've read in a long time. You have such an insight, I will forever be impressed by you. This is why I know you're going to go places. You have more drive and dedication and TALENT than 99% of people I know. You rock, Rachel.

    Also, purgatory's close cousin is the best description of high school I've ever read.

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  3. this is rad!!!!! I've been looking for some writing books, so thanks for mentioning them!!

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  4. Sounds like you are learning a lot, and getting the most out of your summer.

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    1. aye, that i am! thanks for commenting, skye :)

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  5. I loved this post but I almost don't know what to comment. It was amazingly well written and it is so cool how you are just learning so much about what you are interested in.

    Nabila | Hot Town Cool Girl

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    1. thanks so much, nabila!! that means a lot!

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  6. It's nice to read about your writing journey. I get your point about online posts and articles versus more complete information in books - I've read very few books on writing, but perhaps my time would be better spent there than online.

    I'm glad summer was productive was productive for you, and all the best with your writing. So inspired by your attitude to learning and growth too!

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  7. I 100% agree with Grace's comment. Thought-provoking and lucid, as always Rachel. I have no doubt you will go places--never ever give up!

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    1. OMG MRS. ST. AMANT!! thank you so much!

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  8. College classes are miracle workers. I took a basic writing class. (WR 121) and learned more than I ever did from high school and I think because of that class I will be taking a non fiction writing course this term in fall. Super excited about that because I realized through reading your post about the help you got that I want to be inspired to be a better writer. Thank you so much for talking about this writing course. You helped me!

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  9. I feel like we're kind of in the same position! I, too, have just finished high school. I was a day student at a boarding school, so most of my friends aren't here, and my friends who are still in high school are at school all day. I have ~6 months before I start college (because I had the Indian/US school year finish and the New Zealand school year starts in Feb) and I kind of have this empty time. Although I've got various things planned for later in the year, right now I've had to be productive and not just read all day. So I've been writing stories, working on blog design, going running, and trying to plan a trip to Europe.
    Anyway, I really liked this post! It's wonderful that the SAT binder was good for something after all...
    Shar @ Daylight Differentials

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  10. I guess it's time for me to pick up a writing book!

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  11. GOOD FOR YOU, GIRL!! That's so awesome that you've been exploring writing more and seeking out new ways to tell stories. *high fives* YOU REALLY ARE ONE OF THE MOST DRIVEN PEOPLE I KNOW JUST BTW. <3

    I've always been leery of writing advice, too...just because sometimes too much advice and too many rules can make me feel cramped instead of creative; sometimes following writing advice feels like putting myself in a box when I really just want to roam free. BUT!! Some writing advice is really good! And by the looks of this post, it sounds like you've found some gems out there. <3 So proud of you, dude!! CHASE THOSE DREAMS. :")

    rock on!
    abbiee

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  12. I loved this post! I kind of feel like I'm in the same boat you were -- dreaming of publication but not really doing anything to work toward accomplishing it. I love that you're working on getting better. It's inspiring. :)

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