Last month I got a call from my friend Garth asking me if I’d like to participate in his workshop “Dare to Write”. I’ve known him for over 3 decades (he was one of my instructors in the broadcasting program at SAIT), and he’s been encouraging me to do more writing for every one of those years. I decided to enroll in the course.
Writing is a solitary pursuit. I need to interact with only my own brain. Hearing ideas or suggestions can be poison to the process and you’re always going to be asked to read your first draft aloud in creative writing classes. That’s one reason I’m hesitant to take them. There are too many people and too many opinions. Nobody is ever mean spirited with their feedback, but they’ll have no problem giving you their “constructive criticism” right when the idea is at its the most fragile, and that’s just as bad. What I need in the early stages is space and seclusion so I can be intimate with the idea. I’ve found that I need to get a complete first and maybe a second draft completed before it will benefit from anyone else’s input. I’m trying to get MY idea formed, not anyone else’s.
Garth’s workshop is different. There are only 9 of us in a small room. Everyone is respectful and appreciative, and most importantly they are quiet. The comments have all been positive but neutral, if that makes any sense. In other words, nobody offers up any “you should do this instead…” type of feedback. Instead, it’s all “that’s great, keep going with it.” Garth has a great ability to encourage, no matter what kind of words he’s hearing, because he’s focusing on a process rather than a result. He understands that the result is borne of the process.
We have fiction writers, family historians, poets, and technical writers in our group. Garth is more concerned with developing the habit of writing than subject matter. He wants us all to get in the habit of just WRITING. No listening to our own critical voices. No editing. On the very first night, he gave us the great idea of turning off our computer monitors and just spilling our brains onto the page. That’s how the first draft of this post began. The spelling and grammar was awful, but I got the components written without stunting the process by editing as I wrote. It was a bowl of alphabet soup that I could pull letters out of and make words with later.
“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” – Christopher Hitchens
I believe, as Garth also seems to, that everyone can be a decent writer with a bit of guidance. Maybe not great, but better than average. It actually doesn’t take much effort because most people are awful writers. I’ll never be Kurt Vonnegut and I’ll never be Stevie Ray Vaughan, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write stories or play guitar. I’ve seen what passes for “professional writing” and have no doubt that I’m already better than at least half of those people claiming that title.
My opinion is that people are shitty writers because they’re trying to be someone that they aren’t. They’re trying to follow rules that were jammed into their brains when they were little kids, and the result is derivative and dry junk. In a way, they’re a shitty cover band when what they should be doing is trying to write original songs. Even if the originals aren’t any good at first, they’ll get better and eventually they’ll be good. It’s the “American Idol problem”; people trying to copy successful people in order to become successful themselves. The irony is that the successful people never tried to copy anyone and ended up being unique and successful artists. Would Bob Dylan make the cut at American Idol? Mick Jagger? Ozzy Osbourne? David Lee Roth? Lemmy? Probably not, but everybody knows who those singers are, and they know it because those singers are unique. They all took a raw talent and built something interesting with it.
Here’s what I’ve taken away from the class so far; somebody will always be better than me, but I’ll always be better than average, and so will all the people who are taking Garth’s workshop with me. If you’d like to be a better than average writer, you should consider taking the course. It’s different and better than every other writing course I’ve taken. I feel energized and positive when I’m there, and that feeling lingers for a few days. You don’t have to be aiming to be a professional. You don’t have to be a fiction writer. You just have to want to make your written communication more natural and enjoyable to read, even if it’s just Facebook posts or business correspondence.
If you don’t want to be a better writer, then you should hire me to do your writing for you.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass