When someone tells me that they are a writer, I am never sure what that means without more context. Is it storytelling? Journalism? Blogging? Food and travel reviews? Screenwriting? Stage plays? Ghost writing? Poetry? Experimental? Literary criticism? The style, the voice, the expectations, and the ways one can achieve “success” are different across these professional possibilities. While each of these different forms of writing needs a different mindset, there are growing pains I believe all writers should go through.
Being a skilled writer means garnering a strong command of your language. I do not believe anyone can have a strong command of this thing called English without knowing what English can communicate and how English must be used to communicate. The best way to do this is to keep an open mind. The option is available for us getting our MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University; there are few MFA programs in the United States that allow the scholar to study across genres before developing the thesis. Whatever you write, you will learn more about yourself when you write outside of yourself. I believe this is true in all aspects of life, which I then conclude that it must be true to writing—a skill that gives life a stage and a voice.
The second part in building your command of language is to read. Outside of your genre. Keep an open mind. I hate horror. I read it anyway. My mind wants to take a nap when I read epic poetry. I stay awake and read it anyway. A book from the 1800s will make me pull out a dictionary. I gather my patience and read it anyway. At times, professors assign works from writers I rant about in social gatherings. I let it go, trust in my professor, and stand in a different perspective so that I can learn when I read it anyway.
Reading matters. It matters to me that I can recognize when a line break works in a poem, that I can make sense of how language can make a scene a mystery or a thrill, or how rhythm and diction can create tension, convey love, or suggest peace. It matters that I am able to see another’s command of this profoundly malleable language, that I can grasp the voice of a story irrelevant to me and that I can see what another’s English can do when used different than mine.
A third part of keeping an open mind is to develop a thick skin. A very thick skin. There is a lot of talk about rejection being part of the writer’s life, but it’s more than that. How one develops a thick skin is dependent upon one’s personality, initial confidence, and how easily that confidence is knocked sideways or drowned in the river.
How I developed my thick skin was letting a trusted friend tear my work apart, over and over again. I have a friend with an opinion about everything and who loved playing devil’s advocate. He is the kind of guy who, when you tell him the sky is blue, will point out that it depends on weather and time of day because there is a spectrum of colors for the sunset and sunrise and, by the way, if it’s just how the human eyes see our atmosphere when we look up during the day time, then it’s more accurate to say specifically that the Earth’s sky is blue because everyone knows it’s not blue on Mars.
My writing took a beating. My confidence was knocked down over and over again. Sometimes, I wondered why I did this to myself, but I never let his opinions get in the way ouf our friendship, and what I got out of this exchange was priceless. Give me any response or critique on my writing now, and I will be able to decide if I think I should keep it in mind when I go back to edit and voice my thoughts on exactly why it is relevant or irrelevant to my voice or to the idea I am trying to communicate. Give me the worst criticism you can give my work, and I do my best to strip the negative language away from the point that is being made without being offended. When I receive a rejection, I update my submissions log and continue with my day.
This is the most difficult of the growing pains. Your friends can be nice. Your professors will generally be nice. Your agent or editor may be nice. At their worst, they will be constructively blunt to get the job done. Readers, however, are honest and unfiltered. Hateful. Finicky. Missing the point. Learn to pull away from that. Appreciate that they took the time to respond to your work, and decide to grow as a writer, still. Keep an open mind.