Craft essays are those pieces in which writers talk about writing—their process, how they started writing, or how they keep writing. I read such pieces in the hope of gleaning something that will help me the next time I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or desperately discouraged about my own writing.
Recently, I read “This is How a Writer Writes a Story” by Margaret Malone. She thoughtfully explores the messy business of writing fiction, and her first experience of having to write a story for a creative writing class.
But there are as many opinions on writing as there are writers. If you are someone who wants to write, or someone who wants to write more effectively, where do you begin?
Two years ago, I decided I had to quit screwing around with my writing. I had to get stuff finished and sent out. Many literary journals use Submittable as their online, submission portal, and I decided I would use Submittable to send out as many pieces as I could. I wrote and wrote. Those pieces I finished went into a folder on my computer; those I couldn’t finish, for one reason or another, went into another folder.
Since the late fall of 2015, including several older pieces I pulled out to revise, I’ve completed thirty-five. I’ve made over one hundred submissions, through Submittable and by email, and I’ve published seven, including essays and short stories.
My goal over the past eighteen months has been consistency—both in terms of what I’m writing and how much I submit. My draft folder has more than a hundred pieces, most of which won’t turn in to anything. But that’s fine; I hang on to everything I write.
In order for me to understand myself as a writer, I needed to complete as much as I could, and I needed to get used to editors rejecting my work—never an easy thing to do. However, it’s even possible to turn rejection into a motivator.
Kim Liao offered some of the best advice I’ve heard recently on writing: aim for one hundred rejections a year. This seemed like masochistic advice, but then I thought about it again. Rejection isn’t a measure of a writer’s ability; it’s a measure of a writer’s output—the consistent, day-to-day grind of writing and revision that makes you better at what you do.
I’ve sent out a story, had it rejected, then gone back to look at the story and been horrified that I let it get out there. Then I revise it and send it out again. This is always a lesson in humility. I usually learn that I was more anxious to send out something I thought was a great story than I was interested in making it the best story it could be.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourite short story writers, would call this day-to-day work of getting stuff out there the external habit of writing. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says the external habits of a writer will be driven by his or her common sense—or lack of it—as well as his or her own circumstances. Writing, for O’Connor, is more about getting the habit of art, and the habit of art is about getting at the truth in an imaginative way, which is both messy and laborious. O’Connor writes: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
Several years ago, my daughter bought me pottery lessons for father’s day. We went to a series of classes that summer. I quickly discovered that pottery was much harder than I thought. First, you have to centre the clay on the wheel, then you have to decide what you will do with the clay—a mug, a bowl, or something else. Clay can be unforgiving. There’s a point at which you have to stop forcing the clay to be something you want; you have to let the clay take the shape it’s going to take. If you force it, the clay will slump, and you end up with a collapsed mess on your wheel. Each time you throw a pot, you learn more about how to work the clay.
Writing is like that, but it’s also more forgiving—thank god. You can revise, restructure, flip the point of view, or simply start over. But that story or essay or novel is going to have limits; you need to understand what you are building in order to not force the thing into a shape that’s going to make it implode. Hence, the folder with more than a hundred partially finished pieces.
However you go about it, writing is about writing. Thinking about writing won’t get words on the page or the screen. Thinking about food won’t put your dinner on the table. Write stuff down. Get feedback on what you write, but don’t let anyone tell you what your story should or shouldn’t do. Feedback is invaluable. Listen carefully, express your gratitude, and then go back to writing and revising.
Once you’ve established a discipline of writing, and once you’ve had a few lessons in humility, you will discover what my friend Tom Wharton calls the fifth element of story. The fifth element, according to Wharton, is that space between the story, the listener, and the teller, “a magical space, a pocket dimension, a field of invisible forces. You know this space when you’re in one that’s really working. It casts an enchantment over you.”
I mostly know the fifth element as a reader. It’s the experience of a book or a story that transports me beyond what I am, that helps me to see the world according to a new pattern of understanding—even if it’s just for a brief space of time. If you can write a story that transports your reader, you can know that you’ve had a hand in something truly humbling—the function of art and the operation of story.