Each week in my newsletter, I do “Ask Will Anything” where I answer a reader question. Aimee P. of Jacksonville, FL asks:
Other than just doing it, where did you learn the most about writing?
Thank you, Aimee, for your tough but fair question.
I decided I liked writing in the fourth grade, right around the time that E.T. came into theaters and my teacher Mr. Clark read Where the Red Fern Grows to us. I realized that people actually made stories and that I could do it, too, and Mr. Clark let me read/perform my stories to the class each week.
I didn’t take an actual class in writing fiction until my freshman year of high school, and I got a D in it because I was too afraid to submit my work and threaten my great “potential.” I took no creative writing classes as an undergrad either, mostly for the same reason. I considered an MFA program at UF back in 1994, but I was told with a sniff by the chair that “we don’t DO genre fiction.”
So almost everything I learned about writing came from books, especially these:
- Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, which is as complete and encouraging a writing book as I’ve ever encountered.
- Samuel R. Delany’s book of lectures and essays About Writing, which contains a lot of wisdom about going beyond simple competence and trying for something special in your work.
- Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction simplified the process of writing stories in a way that seemed workmanlike and do-able to me.
- Stephen King’s On Writing does a great deal to demystify the process of writing, too.
That’s what I needed most: someone or something to tell me how to lower the stakes of writing so it was easier to take risks and experiment while doing it instead of being such a fundamental part of my identity.
In that way, I’m grateful I didn’t seek formal writing education until much later on. I went to Clarion in 2006 when I was 33 and the Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction in 2010 when I was 37.
It’s hard to say which had more impact, though it’s probably Clarion. That was my dark night of the soul: after submitting some terrible stories and receiving some (perhaps excessively) harsh critiques, I realized that I had to either commit to ruthlessly judging my own writing (not being satisfied with merely doing it but with doing it well) or give up altogether and get out of the way.
My MFA from Stonecoast was also extremely useful. Clarion is a sprinter’s education, belting out a short story a week for six weeks. Stonecoast was a marathon where I wrote my first completed novel, and I’m grateful for people like Jim Kelly and Liz Hand who led me through to the end.
The upshot of my long answer: go where you are encouraged to write and told honestly what you can improve.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more sooner, and I almost wish that I’d majored in journalism or communications because I would have far rather learned to get words out on demand than how precious and wondrous they were from my literature major.