Monday, May 14, 2012

Children's Letters to the Loser #17

Dear Complete and Total Loser,
I want to be a writer but I go to a public school where no one has time to read anything I've written and none of the classes I take offer any chances to write anyway. What can I do?

Dear Jacob,
Raymond Carver, writing.
The Loser is a failed writer so he knows something about this but will try not to go on and on the way he does sometimes. 
The best art teacher the Loser ever had (he majored in art) was in high school. Mr. Finch said said simply this: "If you want to learn to draw, draw." Simple enough. The same applies to writing. The problem with both is, as you indicated in your question, feedback. If you're in study hall and you're  drawing something good in a sketchbook, someone will see it and say, "Wow, that's good!" Not so if you're writing something good. And publishing it somehow doesn't necessarily help because other things get in the way. Reading takes a greater commitment than viewing a picture so people are more judgmental and less likely to read something that doesn't grab them right away or is by a known author they like. 
So writing's an uphill battle even if you're good. But some do make a living at it, unlike the Loser, who is a middle aged cashier. Here are some words of advice:
  • Read a lot and good things. If a really good sentence or passage strikes you, read it again. Maybe even copy it down someplace.
  • Write. Keep a journal. Consider getting a cheap notebook and writing with a pen instead of using your computer. You'll write differently that way and pay more attention to what you're writing as you're writing it. There are good books on writing. Look into getting them.
  • Learn basic rules of grammar and subtle things about punctuation for American English. Did you know that periods and commas always go inside quotation marks? That you don't capitalize the names of the seasons? That you don't say "twelve noon" or "twelve midnight" but just "noon" and "midnight"? That it's toward, not towards and backward not backwards? Many don't know these and dozens of other rules. Knowing them is the mark of a professional. 
  • Work for your school newspaper if there is one. Writing is an art, journalism is a trade. But you will be able to write for publication, which will affect your nerves more than you can imagine. You'll make mistakes and hundreds of copies of them will make it into print. People will mock what you've written or find mistakes in it. This will thicken your skin but in a good way.
  • Listen to people and talk to them. Interact with others. To make a solid building, you need sturdy materials. To write solid prose, you need to go outside your imagination. People are your quarry. 
  • Learn about things and learn how to research. The Loser just finished reading Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. Updike showed great knowledge of contemporary Toyota dealerships and what it was like to invest in gold in 1980. Why would he know that? The Loser has no idea, but it gave the book a realism it wouldn't have had otherwise.
  • Find someone who will read your work. Not a publisher; they're swamped. See if there's even one teacher at school who will read your work and offer criticism. If you live in a big enough area, there may be classes and workshops for young writers.
  • Don't rely on the web. Yes, you can post something on facebook and tell your friends to read them and they'll tell you how good it is. This is worthless. So are blogs. On average, just two people a day look at the blog you are reading now and the Loser gets one comment a year. 
  • Do this now. The Lose always had a career in writing in the back of his mind but didn't get the confidence to pursue it until it was too late. He ended up a cub reporter and was passed over for promotion by someone half his age.

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