A Writer? You?

Yesterday I met a young woman who told me her dream is to write a book.  She said she has never taken any writing courses, and she has no writing experience.  She said she has no idea how to start writing. She feels her dream is unattainable.

Later in the evening, my mind returned to our conversation.  I thought back to the time when I first turned to writing.  I was 24, newly-married and living far away from my family. I wanted everyone to feel part of my adventures, and so I wrote letters. Lots and lots of them. I tried to write as expressively as I could, and in the process, I built up my vocabulary and I learned to trim my sentences for clarity.

A few years later, a friend showed one of my letters to Joe Nash, a legendary editor at “The Mexico City News”. Before the internet, the paper was the largest English language daily in Latin America. Joe invited me to be the correspondent for Yucatan – a unique learning experience that lasted 12 years. People read my column and some of them asked me to write for their publications – travel articles mostly. I did make sporadic attempts at structuring a longer piece but I never got far.

Then one January night in 2007, I woke up with an idea that would not leave me alone – I wanted to write something “long”.  Literary terms like: “genre”, “point of view”, “the story arch” or “the hero’s journey” meant nothing to me. But I sat down at the computer and began. I typed my first paragraph:

I’ve often wondered what would happen if we could recognize pivotal times in our personal journeys – the “forks in the road” that present themselves. Do we ever see them coming? Does a vague premonition warn us that certain decisions are destined to truly change our path? If we could anticipate these critical junctions, would we have the nerve to follow through? Thirty-plus years ago, I surely did not sense that my life was about to veer radically off course. I had no idea what was in store for me for the rest of my days. I was caught completely unawares… and I went headlong through the door that opened to me…”

And that was it – I followed my own advice – I went headlong through the door that opened to me. Since that night, four books, many short stories and umpteen blog posts have been composed, letter by letter, on my trusty HP.

I can’t fully explain why I need to write, but I can describe how I write.

No mincing of words here – determination is essential. When I want to write, I sit in the chair with my fingers on the keyboard – this is the only way I can get going. I get up to drink water or to stretch a bit – but I stay in place until I finish – or am forced to leave.

Even when not writing, my thoughts are always wandering through the years and my life experiences – to such an extent that it sometimes feels as though I’m reliving them. When I write, I draw on those experiences and feelings.

I watch people – how they move and how emotions show on their faces. This helps me portray my characters.

My head is always full of ideas, memories, and plans. This helps me to spin plots, to create characters and find the words to develop them.

After pondering my afternoon’s encounter – this is what I wish l had said to that young woman:

NEVER give up on your dream. The time to start your book might not be here yet, but you will absolutely know when it has arrived. Meanwhile, you need to practice. Start a journal and write something every day, even if it is just a few lines. Read as much as you can, and try to figure out how authors craft their sentences. You could benefit from some creative writing workshops and learn a lot at book presentations. Watch Ted Talks by authors (Anne Lamott has an amazing one)

Be an observer – watch how an old man trudges up a hill, and how a little girl scampers down the front steps. You need to remember how a kiss tastes, and how it sounds when your mother calls your name. Fill your word bank so that you have a healthy balance – just in case you need to withdraw some – to describe the smell of the rain, or the sound of your boots crunching in the snow. Little by little, you will learn to put your thoughts and emotions into words, and then write those words down for others.

That’s what a writer does – and you can do it too.

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23 thoughts on “A Writer? You?

  1. Thanks for sharing your writing process, Joanna! I’m always interested in how a writer got to where they are. Lots of good advice for the new writer. And DON’T GIVE UP! Write, read, study the writing process. Storytelling is a healing process for the writer and for the reader. Thanks again so much for this post of encouragement! xoxo P.S. I absolutely LOVE the photo!

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    1. Thanks Alex. You give such a fine example of how one artistic pursuit leads to, and is nurtured by others. You were trained first as a visual artist, but now you are also a fine writer. Your site http://sylviasaltwater.com/ shows that… And speaking of writing being theraputic… reading your ongoing tale of Silvia Saltwater and her friends makes me feel like I am reading a fairytale (for adults)… Love it!

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  2. There’s a story in your photo – Title: An Umbrella in the Snow. You are an inspiration for any writer who has hope, and as you say determination. Writing is like growing up. We start small and grow to maturity. I found that One Word prompts help to stimulate my thought process and add to being creative – 500 words or less on a single word. Looks like the word Snow comes to mind almost immediately. Thanks teacher!

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  3. Whoa. You so rock.

    Continually grateful that you share the adventure. And leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

    I enjoy reading your writing so much. So personal, so universal.

    Thank you, Professor.

    And Joanna, lately I have found that reading plays/watching theatre productions is helping my writing to be more concise. (Hopefully, more of service to the reader.) Plus–it is so enjoyable! (And so many can be viewed online now. Just saw an outstanding proshot of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” that I’m guessing PBS made years ago. Watching it on youtube was like I had just gone to Broadway to see it! And how had I missed such a great play?!)

    Recently I read Lin-Manuel Miranda say when asked if he had a process, a formula, for his writing: “One: You can have good ideas when you take a break from what you’re normally doing and don’t just go 100 miles an hour. Two: Really trusting my gut. I won a Tony with “In the Heights”. I got offered movie adaptations of musicals. I got offered a lot of Latin-themed stuff. But I had faith that the idea I was chasing with “Hamilton” would be worthwhile.
    It takes years to make a musical. So I’ve got to choose projects knowing that even if they open and close in a day, I will not regret the time I spent on them. And so you can’t choose on what you think is going to be a financial success. You’ve got to pick the idea that excites you and inspires you to write.”

    Also, Joanna, GREAT photo! (Cool composition. And you look like you are achieving your previously expressed goals and are happy. Acknowledging and affirming you. 🙂
    Also—thank you for sharing that “Even when not writing, my thoughts are always wandering through the years and my life experiences – to such an extent that it sometimes feels as though I’m reliving them. When I write, I draw on those experiences and feelings.” This sometimes annoys (monkey mind, be quiet!) me, but, like you say, if we put it toward the greater good/writing, it can be a gift!

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    1. Hello Harold, thank you for your long comment. I am glad your writing is going well. You say that you are gaining insight and energy from watching theater productions… I agree that immersion in another of the arts improves our writing. Interesting that you quote Lin Manuel Miranda… he is still so young but already recognized as a uniquely gifted musician and composer. He speaks of making careful choices, and that is vital. No one has unlimited time (in fact we can’t even be sure we will make it through this very day) so we had better identify our priorities and put most of our energy into those projects. Thank you for your feedback on my musings re. the writing process. By no means is my way the only way, but it works for me…

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      1. Thank you for those thoughts, very much. I got it. Identify, and FOCUS. (“Jack of all trades, master of all” and “refuse to choose” HAD their place…)
        Grateful that you shared that perfectly timed insight.

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  4. My writing is likely boring unless you are a student in a travel and tourism school. I was requested by the owner of a private travel and tourism school to write a book on the theory of being a travel agent which I did. Instead of throwing a ton of dry theory at the students my goal was to focus the work on not only the theory of working in a travel agency but what to expect, what can go wrong and how to deal with it. The boss liked it so he asked me to write another book on destinations which has been a big project as it requires a great deal of research. So that is how I spent my summer writing for four hours every day and in the evening and have to admit I do enjoy it and will miss the project when it is completed.

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      1. OK Sharron… we can talk about that once I am back in Merida… You could begin by making a list of events or episodes in your life that you feel you would like to write about. Don’t worry if they are not in chronological order… you should try o gather at least 30 memories. If you can write a short paragraph about each one.

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