What I Learned From Reading Writers’ Memoirs

jo-marchWhen I was a kid dreaming of becoming a writer (my role model was Jo March from Little Women), I didn’t have access to writing workshops or to any kind of constructive criticism. It didn’t help that I never shared my writing with anyone. But I wanted to know if my writing was any good and I wanted to learn to be better. I read a lot, but couldn’t build a bridge between the novels that I loved and my own writing. I didn’t have the tools or knowledge to make comparisons. I didn’t know how to read closely because I didn’t really know what to look for. When, as a teen, I discovered the “Writing Guides” section in bookstores, I was ecstatic.

I raced through these writing manuals, one after another. My options seemed unbounded: How to Write a Novel, How Not to Write a Novel, Teach Yourself Creative Writing, The Art of Storytelling, What Your Character Wants. I read them like they were textbooks, underlining the important bits to remember and to come back to later. I felt like I had found a hidden door to the world of writing. These books were my chance to finally become a writer. I learned the basics of character, plot, setting, and was introduced to more elusive elements like pace, voice, and style.

Over the years, I learned a lot from those how-to books. Many people (mostly non-writers) have asked, can writing be taught? Absolutely. All writers need to learn how prose works. (I had been learning about prose from reading fiction ever since I started reading, and these books taught me how to do that better.) But as I grew older and progressed as a writer, I realised there was something missing from the writing education I had accumulated. I was armed with all this knowledge about metaphors and imagery, but I still felt scared and lost when it came to writing. I was in a dark forest, armed with the necessary tools I need to survive, but with no idea how to go about fending for myself, no idea what survival even entailed. (In case you missed it, the dark forest is a metaphor for the desire to be a writer.)

None of my friends were writers, and because I am an introvert, the possibilities of making new friends (let alone new friends who are writers) has always been slim at best. But a few years ago I found a solution. There were other writers out there who had written about the experience of being writers. I started searching for and reading writers’ memoirs. As far as genres go, it was love at first sight.

Anne-Lamott-yancylael.com_1Writers’ memoirs do not teach you what to write, or even how to write; instead, they explore what Anne Lamott calls “the writing frame of mind.” Writing is hard to separate from the writing life. Unless you’re one of a handful of lucky prolific and productive people who can remain sitting for hours and write pages a day, the writing life is slow and can feel both trivial and overwhelming. And to top it all off, you must go at it on your own, often spending an entire day working alone with nothing to show for it. If writing manuals raise the level of your craft, writing memoirs raise your spirit. And writers need their spirits to be lifted from time to time.

Now, as a more mature writer and seasoned reader, I had found another door, and this felt like the real deal. I had been initiated into the world of great writers. They were talking directly to me, like friends and mentors. I was part of the conversation. And they were all feeling what I was feeling every time I sat down to get to work. (“We writers are a thin-skinned, anxious lot, and often feel like we’re getting away with something,” said Dani Shapiro. YES! I almost yelled out loud in agreement.)

All writers had struggled with the unique joy and despair of the writing life. The triviality of a day spent writing only to throw away everything you have worked on. The blankness of an entire day spread ahead of you, when you have all the time in the world but cannot get yourself to write anything. The skepticism of the non-writing community on how you have chosen to spend your days, and by extension, your life. I began to learn what it means to live the life of a writer, and to develop the right practice, patience, and to harness the power of that place deep inside you where stories lie. “Go within,” said Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. “Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.”

41yoBZDF1RL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Annie Dillard taught me that much of what I put down on paper must be discarded, and that I shouldn’t feel bad about it. When I feel overwhelmed, I remember to take it one small step at a time, “bird by bird” as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird. Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of the Creative life) agrees. Start small, she counsels, “It’s impossible to evoke an entire world at the start, but it is possible to describe a crack in the sidewalk, the scuffed heel of a shoe. And that sidewalk crack or scuffed heel can be the point of entry, like a pinhole of light, to a story, a character, a universe… Anchor yourself somewhere – anywhere – on the page. You are committing, yes – but the commitment is to this tiny corner. One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next.”

When I feel a cloud of uncertainty looming over me, which is most of the time, I hear Rilke’s voice again: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.”

hemingwayGot writer’s block? No problem; Hemingway has the answer: “Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going… I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

So on days when I feel pangs of anxiety, when I feel like my novel, like my life, is going nowhere, when the words just won’t come, I know what to do. I need to talk to a friend. So I pick up something out of the stack of books that I keep on my writing desk, close at hand. And while I read, I don’t feel alone.

From sitting down and facing a blank page, to how to strengthen the spirit during lonely days that make you question if the writing life is worth it (of course, you know that it is), these talented, wise friends have got your back. Margaret Atwood said, “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” When I am there in the darkness, muddling around, the presence of all these writers helps me see the light.

Here are some books about writing that you can start with.

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