Ten ways to shed your writing skin
|Snake skin image by Andrew M. Durso|
I have been reading Stephen Harrod Buhner’s exquisite Ensouling Language and glorying in its wisdom, sensitivity and good common sense. I think it is a necessary book for all writers, and urge you to go out and buy it right now. He talks about how many unpublished writers are unwilling to change when the opportunity to move on to the next step of their writing career arises. They have been dreaming all their lives about being published, but when somebody shows some qualified interest they display all the petulant preciousness of a five-year-old and refuse to budge or change.
This is always fatal, and such an attitude is a guarantee that you will stay unpublished and unnoticed. The necessity to be flexible and change was certainly part of my own experience. I had proposed one kind of book, but my publisher came back with a request to write another, very different, kind of book. I leapt at the chance, and this went on to become my first release, Destination Saigon. I was ready to be published, and so I was ready to take the advice and direction of my publisher.
To become a writer you must shed your skin. The process itself demands it. Those who refuse to do so fail of ever writing something meaningful, perhaps fail of ever being published. It is not a failure of talent but of courage.
To become a successful writer you must move well outside your field of comfort. You must stretch, pull and occasionally tear that self-protective skin that has kept you well and truly in your place all these years. I still see it in my creative writing students, over and over again. They have huge blockages and resistance to things like technology, or new ways of distribution and publishing. Even to proper research and relationship building. “I can’t do that,” they say, or “I have no time for that. This is not what I imagined the writing life to be.”
Shed your skin! You have nothing to lose but your old, blinkered way of seeing your creative life. Here are 10 of the ways I recommend writers slough off their old resistance and emerge as glistening, talented new beings:
1. Confess something – the quickest way to move out of your comfort zone is to confess in writing something you have never told anyone. It is immensely liberating, it is risky and it is almost always interesting.
2. Stick to a deadline – there is nothing like the threat of legal action or the disappointed face of a friend or editor to make you start thinking of new ways of expression. You have spent a lifetime taking things easy. Now is the time to work to order. See just how creative you can get at 11.30pm when 2,000 words are due the next day.
3. Enter a competition – writing competitions rarely fit your own creative parameters exactly. So why not enter something wildly outside your field of usual endeavour? Try entering a poetry competition if you write family history or a sci-fi short story competition if abstract verse is your forte.
4. Allow yourself to be critiqued...and don’t say a word to defend yourself- admit it, you spend a lot of time avoiding criticism. But professional writers have their work read and commented on by critics all the time. It can be helpful, infuriating and bizarre. Subject yourself to it – ask someone you don’t really know to give you a harsh and true critique of a piece of work. And find out exactly where your weaknesses lie.
5. Do a workshop and participate fully – I am not giving anything away when I say that most people who attend a writing workshop or course don’t really follow up on the advice and methods they have learned. We rarely take advantage of the opportunities presented. What if you actually went into a workshop with eyes and ears open, determined to do all the homework and follow up on all of the advice you heard from a professional? If you did it your writing life would change radically – I can guarantee you.
6. Take yourself seriously – I don’t mean in a po-faced manner (there’s already much too much of that), but as in looking at your writing and your writing life as something important, and something worthy of your time, attention and money. Stop being a hobbyist, start producing and start calling yourself a writer. Do it long enough and the people around you will start expecting to see stuff.
7. Read the 5 classics in your genre – I am constantly surprised by how many people skip this step. Become aware of your own literary heritage. Read hard stuff, old stuff, stuff you think you won’t like. Find out where you fall in the spectrum, and what greater minds have said before you.
8. Write something and show it to your mother – ok, some of you might have ultra-sweet mums who support everything you do. This is not for you. This is for those people who have mums with a slightly more critical turn of mind. This step works very well when combined with Step 1.
9. Embrace an electronic platform – blogging, YouTube, Twitter, Google+ - I don’t care what. Just be online, try new stuff, start conversations and make yourself useful. Digital platforms almost always require writing and lots of it. See what you can find out about yourself and the possibilities for your work.
10. Make a list of the writers you love – may or may not be connected to Step 7. Better if it isn’t. Read outside of your genre and see what new ideas you can garner. And always think about ways you can break out of your self-imposed limitations. Read other writers – all the time and enthusiastically.
I learn to shed my skin by talking to other talented writers and hearing about their techniques and secrets. If you are interested in learning about travel writing from one of Australia’s most innovative practitioners, Claire Scobie is running a travel writing workshop at the NSW Writers' Centre in October. Claire is a constant inspiration, so read more about her here.