Learning to Write

I have approximately 75 books on writing, on topics ranging from instruction to inspiration. How to write query letters, how to format a manuscript, how to do interviews, travel writing, screenwriting, romance writing, memoir writing, novel writing, science fiction writing, how to get organized, how to make time, how to make $25,000 to $50,000 or more a year as a freelance writer, how to get an agent, how to get published, how writers write, what writers think, and of course, basic how to writes–the list goes on and on. And that’s not counting my subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine and my yearly purchase of Writer’s Market.

You’d think I’d be a successful writer just from looking at my library. How could I read all these books and not be?

The truth is, I haven’t read all these books. I probably haven’t even read half of them, not all the way through anyway.

But I keep on buying them–and checking them out of the library–as if somehow, just possessing them will turn me into the writer I long to be. And I keep on getting nowhere.

I’m not saying that reading all these books would automatically make me successful. (Read: published.) But they could help to fill the void in my writing life, the one where I don’t have a writing teacher or writer’s group to give me feedback and encouragement. I haven’t taken a writing course since I was in college three years ago and then I only took two of them (both in creative nonfiction). In fact, those are the only writing courses I’ve ever taken.

It’s hard to find writing courses outside of a college setting. Sometimes the local adult education program has some kind of writing course, but I’m not really interested in taking courses taught by writers who are only slightly more successful than I have been. I want a real challenge, like I had in college.

Then again, I’m leery of taking courses at all, or of attending writer’s groups. I don’t think my ego can take it. Of the two courses I have taken, one was a positive experience and the other was negative. I left with more doubts about myself as a writer than I started with. I was sure that I didn’t measure up to many of the others in my class. I couldn’t seem to write what I wanted to write or say things the way I thought I wanted to say them. I did learn some things, but looking back, I feel like I need to unlearn some of them. There was this tendency on the part of the teacher to say that creative nonfiction had to look exactly like “this.” Maybe it wasn’t so much that she was wrong as that I don’t do well with rules. They fill my head when I start to write something and I freeze. I’ve been freezing ever since I graduated.

So I’ve decided to take a different tack: I’m going to start reading all these books on writing and try to get what I need from them. If I run across one that isn’t helpful, I’ll lay it aside. If I find one that seems to resonate with me, then I’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

I’m going to start with Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach. It’s a new book (2008) that I just checked out of the library. It’s subtitled: “How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature.” Sounds right up my alley. I’ve only read the introduction, but so far so good. The author is writing to people just like me, writers who can’t seem to write and don’t know why. He insists that it is necessary to turn back the clock and become a beginner again, a learner. Somehow I think he’s right.

I’m going to give it a try and report on my progress (or lack thereof) in this blog.


Chuck Sambuchino writes this about memoir writing in his blog, Guide to Literary Agents. After reading the advice he and some literary agents had about memoir writing, I couldn’t help but apply it to my own life. What makes my life interesting enough to make someone want to pay $25 to read about it? And what would my memoir have as an overall theme?

Good questions.

As the blog suggests, you either have to have had something really unique happen to you or you have to have a fantastic voice in order to get a publisher interested in your memoir. No one wants to read the ramblings of a writer recounting his entire life. He has to emphasize the juicy parts. I’ve had a lot happen to me in my life, some of it exciting and unusual, a good deal of it boring and pedestrian. How do I determine what’s worth writing (and reading) about?

Like most people my life could have many themes: love and hate, spirituality and religion, mental illness, motherhood, marriage, to name just a few. My memoir would be very different depending upon what theme I choose to base it on. How do you reduce a person’s life to a theme, like some kind of television show? But that’s exactly what you have to do to make your memoir commercial. That may not satisfy the chronicler in you, but if you’re serious about becoming published, you have to put your ego aside and look at your life the way a stranger would.

When you write a bio, how do you sum yourself up? When you’re getting to know someone, what tidbits do you share with him or her? We tend to cater what we say depending on our audience. So maybe the first question you ask yourself should be: who is your audience? Who do you think would be interested in the story you choose to tell? And then pick those themes or parts of your life that would be the most interesting to them. If I were writing to women of a “certain age,” I might want to emphasize my mid-life crises, my multiple marriages, the fourteen-year age difference between me and my husband (he’s younger), or what it’s like to be a grandmother to a boy after having had four daughters. If I were writing to younger adults, I’d need to pick up on the themes that are universal: self-esteem, leaving home, sexuality, education, career, political involvement, socialization, or relationships with our parents and our peers.

What are your triumphs in life? Your failures and disappointments? What have you done that you want to be remembered for? That you normally wouldn’t want anyone to know? What have you always been interested in? Struggled with? Done well? Answering these questions can be key to helping you establish the themes in your life.

But don’t be surprised if you still end up with a big, sloppy mess. That’s what life is like. The role of the writer is to sift through all the junk and end up with the core truths. If you’re writing about your own life, you have to do the same.

My Writer’s Block

I have plenty of time (I work at another job, but only part-time), a new laptop, an encouraging and supportive husband (who doesn’t expect me to do housework) and a certain amount of faith in my writing ability. So why am I having so much trouble writing?

It occurred to me recently that I’m not having as much trouble as I think I am. But I’m obsessing about how hard it is for me to finish anything, let alone submit it somewhere (which automatically means no publication). And I think the reason I’m obsessing is the same reason I don’t feel good about myself and my life in general: my clinical depression and anxiety. Not so much because I still suffer from those two bogeymen of the mind, but because I still act and think as if I do. I haven’t revised my behavior and thinking to correspond to the strides I’ve made in achieving mental health. I’m used to being down on myself, because mood disorders make you feel that way. You can’t control how you feel or think because your depression, anxiety or whatever is doing the controlling.

How do I break through the control that depression and anxiety have over me? One technique is to act “as if” I am no longer controlled by them, to step out in faith in myself as a new person. Easier said than done, I know. But imperative if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing.