by Shalanna Collins
Mama thought she was helping me when she taught me her five "truths"--actually myths--about writing. Maybe that's because there's a smidgen of truth in each myth. But don't let that fool you; if you subscribe to any of these myths, you'll be unnecessarily discouraged.
Myth #1. A real writer writes from inspiration. Corollary: If you don't produce publishable work the first time out, you're wasting time and paper. This one is a real killer. Eager writers have wasted away waiting for the song from the Muse without realizing that until the seat of the pants is applied to the seat of the chair, there's no chance that inspiration will strike, let alone hang around long enough to finish a work of art As for the corollary: Did Michael Jordan make every basket the first time he held the ball? No; certainly he had talent from the start, but he spent years learning his craft and honing his skills until all was perfected.
Myth #2. A real writer can write anywhere: masterpieces are normally produced on the bus or waiting in line at the grocery checkout, and are scribbled effortlessly on the backs of envelopes, around the edges of receipts, or on yellow sticky notes. (Implying, of course, that that's where your deathless prose should stay.) Real writers don't need fancy tools like computers or typewriters. After all, Shakespeare and Milton didn't have them. (Ask Mom if she'd give up her microwave, electric or gas range, and running water.) Take advantage of any help you can get.
Myth #3. A real writer gets published early on and with little effort, because the writing is really good. If only this were true. Sometimes it doesn't matter whether the writing itself is good if the market isn't. Serendipity and coincidence sometimes mean that your potential markets have recently covered the same material as your article, or have just published the only fiction they'll publish all year, and so you don't make the sale. Or maybe you were missing that certain something that would've made your piece appeal to an editor. Something not getting published does not necessarily make that something "bad" or even unpublishable.
It takes an average of five years, according to one survey, to get published. (OMG--I am five times slower than the average!) When Mama saw me revising, she naively asked, "Why didn't you just do it right the first time?" Mama didn't realize that sending out my first draft would be like her serving company those burned cookies that stuck to the pan the first time she tried to make that recipe. If work needs a little polishing, that's all right; it doesn't mean you failed the first time, or that you weren't trying hard enough, or that you aren't good enough. Of course, don't stay stuck in the revision cycle. Know when to let it go.
Myth #4. A real writer doesn't need encouragement or validation, and can overcome or ignore all negative input; art (like virtue) is its own reward. The true writer has an inner voice that can go on in the face of discouragement, one that never sounds bitter. Those frustrating early years when a writer craves validation are the norm. Do you have what it takes? No one can tell you, of course, but you'd like to hear sometimes that you do have talent and are doing well. This doesn't mean you are a Speshul Snowflake. It means you're human.
Myth #5. A real writer is only doing it for fun, not for posterity or for publication. Wanting publication is really just a desire to show off. Why isn't the art for art's sake sufficient? Writing isn't always nothing-but-fun, any more than training for a marathon or studying for an exam is fun, except in the sense that any effort--even emptying the dishwasher-–gives a sense of accomplishment. Certainly the process is somewhat fulfilling in itself, especially when the words flow as easily across your screen as cars down the highway. But the implication here is that writing is like Web-surfing or playing cards, requiring little sweat, and that's misleading.
Writing is a lot of hard work. It takes just as much time and effort to write a bad novel as it does to write a brilliant one. And if anyone tells you he or she doesn't care if the work is ever published or read after his or her demise, check that nose; it's probably growing. Most people like to think that their work has some lasting qualities. We strive, we reach for the stars.
All of these are partial truths, but taken literally (pardon the pun) they mislead writers and cloak the deeper reality behind each saying. A real writer may not be published yet--or ever; may need encouragement, especially from professionals, even if it's only "this isn't bad" from a teacher or editor; may need a quiet workspace (and time to sit there), persistence, and self-discipline to give the muse a chance to start her song; and may need tools like a typewriter or PC to be taken seriously at submission time. And may not always find the writing, revision, and submission process unmitigated FUN.
But, as always, what Mama was getting at may have been true at the core: writing is always fulfilling. When we're caught up in our stories and feel so close to the characters we've invented that we might have gone shoe shopping with them yesterday, we're contented. To see a poem, novel, or article finished--and to be able to say that you created it yourself, starting with nothing but a ream of blank paper--is something to be proud of, all by itself.
And that may have been all Mama meant, after all.