All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Old Writing and Old Writers

While going through the process of cleaning out the junk drawer in my office (admit it – somewhere in your house there is a junk drawer. I have one in my office and one in the kitchen), I found an old flash drive. How old? This was from way back in the days when you would go out and buy your own little drive, as opposed to now when you get them as complimentary gifts for getting a magazine subscription or a full tank of gas. This was from the days when capacity was measures in megabytes, not gigabytes (and now terabytes). What I’m saying is that it was old. More to the point, it held a trove of old stories and essays.

This can be a terrifying experience – uncovering old writing and reading through the copy, knowing every mistake of your youth is there to remind you of how horrible you could be. However, I have mentioned in the past that sometimes this can be a very beneficial experience. Looking at your old work and recognizing all the mistakes is a great reminder of how much you have grown as a writer (and perhaps as a person depending on the subject). As personally embarrassing as it might be to see such simple mistakes repeated over and over and over, knowing now that these are mistakes means you’ve bettered yourself in some fashion. And this is where the big point of today’s post comes in.

Wherever we are on our journey of writing, we all have something in common: We seek to be better than we were. We look to improve ourselves in some way, shape, or form. Everyone progresses in a different manner and at a different rate, but we all can improve on our craft, and that’s a noble mission. There is never any shame in the steps we take to be better than we once were – it is the foundation of human development. As long as we don’t somehow harm people along the way, such progress is always a virtue.

So, back to the little flash drive. The most interesting thing that I found on this drive was that it carried a bunch of works from an old writing workshop I attended, mostly the writing of other people. While I did lose touch with a couple of the writers and two have since passed away, I still knew most of them and almost all of them still wrote on a regular basis. This old writing was, at times, embarrassing, but it gave me a personal joy to see how far along these writers had grown. A few of them have had short stories and essays published in anthologies, several went on to write novels, and a couple of them were even published. And, in all fairness, there were other writers who should’ve been published but they didn’t take that big step… not yet, anyway.

The workshop all this writing came from is no longer active; it was a victim of library cutbacks and the eventual passing of its founder. However, members did move on and try to start up their own writing groups, spreading the art of writing to other areas. Some libraries gladly sponsored such activities, others were (for reasons unknown) hesitant to host such a group. And wherever these groups caught hold, I know at least one person that grew into a full and complete writer.

So, in short, this little flash drive reminded me about the value both of workshops and of the importance of regular writing. And, needless to say, in combination, they help perpetuate a virtuous cycle of creating writers that maybe, someday, start their own groups and bring the art of the written word to the next few generations.

BTW – the rest of the drawer never got cleaned out. After my discovery, I realized it serves its purpose just fine.


Friday, August 26, 2022

Back to School!

I am sure that my perspective has changed now that I am an adult many years displaced from my days as a student, but some of the most emotionally turbulent days of my youth were those last few days before school started. Obviously, a part of me was an angst-ridden child, full of woe, lamenting how I wasted my summer on things like sports and fun and friends rather than some intangible joy that would be forever lost. However, there was also a secret inner joy that I would go back to school and get to learn things. I was that child who read books during the summer, so school reinforced that part of me. 

The one difficult part every year, however, was that brief period where I had to dust off the learning part of my brain and prepare for new concepts, new ideas, and new subjects that I didn't necessarily know or care about. That part seemed to fall dormant during the summer, as my entertainment was doing things I already knew provided me with joy. I had fun, but I didn't necessarily grow. School was about growth, and frankly, that was a little intimidating.

Now that I am an adult, I have to ask myself, "What have I done that has allowed me to grow as a person?" Too often we get into our comfort zones and we cruise from there. An endless summer of doing what we love and never worrying about the end of summer and the return to growth. It sounds like it's fun, but think about it. How long can one live with only the same interests and hobbies they had when they left school? I know several people who I went to school with who still talk fondly of those days because high school was "the best time ever." That makes me sad, because it means the past 30-odd years have basically been downhill from there. Maybe not a tragic fall from some grand heights, but I would feel horrible if my life peaked in my teens or even twenties. Even at this age, I like to think there's still more to come.

To the writers out there, most of whom are wondering where this drawn-out discussion of my youth is going, I offer this: Pick up a book totally out of your familiarity/comfort zone, and read it in September. If you are a fiction devotee, grab an autobiography. Do you like high fantasy? Grab a book about unlocking the structure of DNA (The Double Helix by Watson and What Mad Pursuit by Crick make for a nice complementary pair of good reads on the subject). Go outside your zone like a child walking into their new classroom and getting handed a new textbook. Explore something new and intriguing. Swim in new waters. Reclaim that one part of school that made it interesting.

And, like all school experiences, there will be homework as well. I call upon you to write something new and outside your realm. Normally I would suggest a poem to all those non-poets out there, but it can be anything. Write down a childhood memory as seen through your adult eyes. Write an opinion piece about one side or the other of this whole student-loan debate. Write an extended thank-you note to literally any teacher who changed your life (living or dead). Reclaim whatever shred of joy you found from school, and bring it back to life if only for one day.

And no chewing gum in class!

Monday, August 22, 2022

Those Are the Breaks

Equipment malfunction - it happens in every profession. Maybe that one tool needed for the job breaks, the bulldozer to clear the site is unavailable, or there simply isn't enough manpower available to get things started. A writer will understand this from the moment their pencil breaks or their laptop crashes to the Blue Screen of Death. Sometimes we are all fired up and ready to do our thing, but powers beyond our control have said, "Not today, buddy."

I think we can all agree that this sucks. I went through this very experience today when I got up early and prepared myself for a very entertaining day, only to discover that the one thing I needed to do the job was not working. The manufacturer said they would scout down a replacement, so there was a chance they could have a new one by Wednesday. Maybe. Until then, well, I just had to improvise, which in this case was not an option. This genuinely sucks.

However, at least in the case of writers and other creatives, this presents an opportunity. Since we have all this creative fuel ready to be put to use, let's find a way to use it. For the writer in me, whenever I have come up with the idea for a story but I am unable to write it (this often happens when I go bicycling out along the rural roads), I dictate the story. Not to my iPhone or any recorder, but I start creating the story aloud. I work on the voices, the inflections. I talk myself through the dialogue, I process everything that the story will say, and create an oral version of the story. This may or may not be entertaining to the cows in the pastures I ride past, but hey, everyone's a critic.

Now, if the same thing happens but I am instead on the 5:02 train, maybe it's not the place for my formal recitation of this new story. That doesn't mean that I have to stop. I just need to go through the story in my head. While I sit there, motionless and staring out into nowhere, I let my mind put together all the pieces in their many different forms. I try out phrases that I like, I repeat things in my head and commit them to memory. In that little train car seat in a shroud of silence, my mind churns away on the next great story.

What does this all mean to the average writer of creative type? In its simplest terms, never let creative energy go to waste. Always be willing to flex a different muscle or take something a new direction simply for the sake of progress. Writing may be a very straight-forward process, but committing words to paper is just the endgame. The real energy is burned up between the ears, and there are plenty of ways to do that. It you can't write, then say the words. Recite them. Sing them if it helps. Find their order and place, and crystallize the ideas as much as you can so that when your hands finally touch a keyboard, it will all just fall into place.

And the next time you are driving through the country and you pass a singing cyclist, feel free to say hello.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Winning versus Completing

I recently completed a pretty grueling personal challenge - a 100-mile cycling trip. Anyone who knows me knows I am an avid cyclist, but going that far into the Illinois heartland presents several obstacles. Furthermore, I do not have the advantage of reckless youth to fall back on anymore. In short, this was a considerable challenge for me personally, and completing it was more than just an accomplishment - it checked off a very important box on my long mental list of things I want to do before I am too old to do them.

In all fairness, I have several friends who have completed this task on several occasions, with better ride times than me and with less physical exhaustion. They casually call it, "doing a century" and accomplish it periodically over the years. For some people, this would diminish the personal goal of completing such a long ride. However, I have learned that people around me are not the bar I need to measure myself against, for I will always fall short in one way or another. The important part is that I completed it. Period. If they do a century every year, I wish them well and applaud their effort. For me, I am just proud to have made it across the line.

In writing groups, I often think this is the problem beginning writers face: They want to write something great, but how will they ever match up to the Faulkners, Grishams, or Hemingways of writing? It's pretty intimidating to go to a writing group in the back of a library and learn about the rules of writing and literature while literally being surrounded by the words and works of some of the best writers ever. This is where beginning writers let themselves get tripped up by those who are better than them, and they have trouble progressing. They focus on being the best (a fairly high goal) versus being a writer.

I know several people who have run marathons (my knees will not allow me to achieve such a goal). Of all the people I know who ran the Chicago or the Boston marathon, I do not know one who went in expecting to win it. They fastened on their number, lined up, and put all that training to work trying to finish the 26.2-mile run without dying. Their goal was merely to complete the race, perhaps with some mental time they wished to beat, but with no fantasies about winning the race. 

When new writers come into a workshop completely intimidated by the mere thought of writing the Great American Novel, I try to ground them to something more immediate and achievable. I start with the little push - write a poem or a short story. Complete it to where they are satisfied, then read it to the group. This gives them the victory of completing a task versus trying to win the game of writing, and completion is so very satisfying. I make sure they attach their name to it and own it as the accomplishment it is. Plenty of people have written poems or stories, and now that person is one of them. It's a victory, and it helps push them forward.

Will they ever write a whole novel? That's up to them. The lesson they learn is that by setting their own goals and targets for advancement, they learn the joy of growing and embrace the sense of accomplishment. They finish their own marathon, they do their century, and nobody can ever take that from them.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Spoiler: Godot Never Shows Up

I know a lot of people who have great stories within them, just waiting to be put to paper. Fascinating, complex adventures, some of which are even true, and all of which are worthy of their own novel. Some of these stories even exist in the minds of people who have written plenty of other things, and these special tales wait for the right opportunity to bring a particularly grand story to life. All it takes is that little something and they know they will write it up.

And so they wait. And nothing gets created.

Everyone has a good reason for not writing that one big story. Maybe it's waiting for inspiration. Sometimes there's one little blank that needs to be filled in. Perhaps it will all come out once the writer figures out that one magical opening line. Whatever the case may be, these become the Waiting for Godot reasons we make up that allow us to commit to writing the ultimate story while never actually writing the story. We can talk our big game about how we will be the one to create the Great American Novel and never be called out. But where's the fun in that?

If we really want to write that one great story, we need to find some way to push ourselves past that one great excuse, because that excuse will, by its very creation, never go away. That inspiration will never kick in, that blank will never be filled, and that perfect opening line will forever elude us. We have to cast all of that stuff aside and find a way to write our story without those things, and trust that when we have reached the right point, the things we need will finally show up.

The method I prefer for getting the story onto the page is having an accountability guide. This isn't anything elaborate or intricate, but it allows you to talk all you want about your story while actually making headway with it. This is easier to do if you regularly attend a writing workshop or some form of writing group, but it can just as easily be done with a spouse, a relative, or your drinking buddies - anyone who have have a certain amount of respect for.

The task is simple: Assign someone as your accountability guide, and make them a simple weekly promise. You don't have to tell this person your whole story, but you have to promise them that in one week, you will have the first chapter done. Or the first 1,000 words, the first page, whatever. Their job is equally simple: Your guide will ask to see your work at that time, and they will shame you if you don't have at least something to offer. This forces you to do something every week under fear of breaking a promise to your guide and feeling the shame of doing so. You would be amazed at how well this works.

Think of back in school when you didn't do your homework one day, and had to face up to the teacher giving you that look and asking what happened. The guilt, personal tension, and energy preparing for that dreaded moment probably took more effort than it would to have just lived up to your promise. Once you realize this, writing becomes easier, in part because there's a consequence for not doing what you said you would.

Now go out there and write something.

Monday, August 1, 2022

What's In A Name?

One of the proudest moments in my early adult life was when I saw my name in the newspaper. Some people get this by less-than-honorable means, like being mentioned in the story, "Intoxicated man fights raccoon for sandwich," but my mention was more dignified. The company I worked for had opened a new laboratory, and I, as a company spokesman, offered some important information about this venture, which was in conjunction with a college. There it was, printed in that sooty newspaper ink - my name, my role as spokesman, and my words about the company. And I was just 21 years old.

Now, bragging aside, there is something kind of magical about seeing our name in print, especially when someone else prints it. In a certain way, it's an out-of-body experience. We suddenly exist beyond our own self, and the world is now forced to recognize us. We are no longer just a construct of our own ego, but a part of us has now crept into the life of everyone who read those words. Even the man who fought the raccoon is a little more real once his name is in the paper - whether he finally got the sandwich back or not. And there's power in this, especially as we become writers.

When we become writers, we earn the honor of our byline and this should never be taken lightly. To see, in print, the words, "by James Pressler" gives immediate ownership to the story, essay, opinion piece or whatever. There is now a direct connection to whatever words come next, because they rest of the world now knows that those words are ours. They make up a part of us, and we publicly acknowledge this. That's a pretty strong statement.

Have I not convinced you yet? Consider this: Social media is full of people who make bold statements, defiant proclamations, and in many cases outright lies, all hiding behind anonymous titles or pseudonyms such as GanjaMaster420. These people know the power that exists when it comes to assigning a thought to a person, and they look to dodge this responsibility. Furthermore, it becomes so much easier for them to flex about whatever they want if they do not have to take the burden of ownership. GanjaMaster420 sure says a lot of things, but never has to worry about everything that comes with it.

Why do I go on about something as simple as a byline? Well, mostly this is my justification for using it as a reminder. With every document I work on, every story I create or poem I write, I have my name attached to it for everyone to see - including myself. It is the ever-present reminder that these thoughts, opinions, characters, events, or whatever are mine, and that they are worthy to be associated with me, and I am good enough to create things for public consumption. It is both a gift to myself and a reminder of what I owe the reader, and they are amazing things to behold.

Of course, sometimes things go a little sideways. In my first news article, they spelled my name wrong. Oh well.