The Secret to Great Writing Revealed!
Photo by Ethan Hoover on Unsplash
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” ~Ernest Hemingway.
For awhile in my young life I wanted to be a ballerina. I watched, transfixed, the ballet performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. I didn’t know any other girls who took ballet. My brothers did their sports but no “lessons” were involved. And our large family didn’t have much money. It was understood that we were not to ask for things. But I really wanted to be a ballerina! The library was only a few blocks away and I was a regular visitor. So I checked out a book on ballet. It showed illustrations of the positions and black footprints and arrows to indicate foot placement and movement. I swooned over the French terms, so elegant and enchanting: plier, etendre, relever, glissade, arabesque.
I studied that book. And practiced the positions religiously, the book lying open on the floor in front of me. In my shorts and tee shirt and socks, I pictured myself in a sparkling, sequined tutu and toe shoes like Natalya Makarova.
Much later, when I was in college, I managed to find a studio and I signed up for a class and became a passably good enough dancer to win the part of the ballerina in a production of Harrison Bergeron. As with everything else I’ve tried in my life, I thought there must be a secret, a magic bullet, just the right teacher, that would elevate me to greatness. Alas, I was a mediocre ballerina and eventually gave it up.
It’s the same with writing. I always wrote for my own enjoyment, but didn’t take it seriously until I was 40. Again, I yearned for greatness and the quicker the better. I found my heroes and tried to imitate them. I read craft books and took a handful of classes. But what I’ve come to understand is: There is no secret to great writing.
There is no Way and there are no gurus.
Nor any proven method or consistently successful approach.
Those of us who’ve been at it awhile know: Whatever worked before will most certainly—at some point—stop working.
After that first string of publications and successes you feel like you’ve figured it out. You’ve found your voice! The future surely holds a direct, unbroken line of even more successes. By jove, you’ve got this!
Until you don’t.
The truth is there’s no surefire road to “success” as a writer. (And we can talk about the nebulous and ever-changing notion of success another time.)
Okay, no secret, no template, no money back guarantees. Got it. What’s a writer to do?
You can learn things. You can (and should) access and sharpen the basic tools of writing. You can read a lot. Devour craft books (some are better than others). You can take workshops and seminars with writers who, despite not knowing everything or the One Thing, still know a few things and those things might prove useful. You can connect with your fellow writers. You can seek out your smart, generous, encouraging tribe. Or as they say about learning to play tennis: Play with those who are better than you (I did this for years and years on Zoetrope.) The only antidote to despair is committing yourself to lifelong learning. Stay open and receptive to new ideas. Learn from your peers. Retain the humble spirit of the beginner. If there’s any magic at all, it’s in trying things you’re prepared to fail at.
It’s also okay if workshops aren’t your thing and you simply learn by working in solitude or with a group of trusted first readers. Anything goes as you aspire to learn and improve your art. Don’t ever let yourself be bullied into someone else’s idea of how to be a writer in this world.
Make your art. Love your life. Laugh. Cry. Grow. Feel. Fail. Then “fail better,” as Samuel Beckett said.
Today I want you to take one rule or hallowed piece of writing advice and blow it to smithereens.
Switch POVs within a single paragraph or scene, a la “One Purple Finch” published in Smokelong Quarterly).
Write a flash or short story in mostly one-sentence paragraphs. This will look a bit like my story, “Unfettered & Alive,” in Waxwing Literary Journal. (For a further challenge, try shifting to several sentences in your final paragraph, going from lots of white space to density and breathlessness. Think of narrative velocity. What experience does this give your reader?)
Write a flash that consists of a series of fragments, perhaps only a listing of various objects. I was hugely moved by a story using this rule-breaker as a submission in a contest I judged. There wasn’t a single complete sentence in the whole piece. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. (Try: objects in an abandoned jail cell or new words a baby is learning or a list of images running through the mind of a person with dementia…can you tell us a story in this manner? I think you can!)
Brazenly throw in a deus ex machina (“an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel”). I’d LOVE to see one of you successfully pull off this thing we’re told never to do.
No theme here, just recent stories that blew me away:
“Halloween” by Venita Blackburn in the New Yorker
“Walther Fingers” by Amy Barnes in Flyover Country
“Sand Trap” by Meg Pokrass in New World Writing
“Guess What’s Different” by Susan Triemert in Red Fez
“Guava” by Etgar Keret in Electric Literature
“Barbara, Detroit, 1966” by Peter Orner in the New Yorker
Thanks for reading and subscribing! I’m enjoying this journey, writing these monthly newsletters and drafting “The Art of Flash Fiction.” It’s encouraging to know that now more than 2,400 of you are out there, reading my craft articles, trying my prompts, and supporting what I do. See you next month!
Before you go…
I’ll be sending out information about my Fall / Winter Fast Flash workshops soon, but only to my workshop mailing list. If you’re interested, sign up HERE. I’d love to work with you!
Oh my goodness, I thought I was the only child who did that, learning ballet from books (those were the days before YouTube, obviously). My mother refused to spend money on ballet lessons, plus she had been in the same hospital ward as a ballerina whose partner had dropped her and she ended up paralyzed, so she never allowed me to attend lessons, even though the doctor said it might help with my scoliosis. I was so determined to learn, that I borrowed books and religiously practised several times a week, choreographing my own dances, doing all the barre exercises and so on.
Now... if only I could apply this consistency to my writing!
Oh, Kathy, thank you for this article -- it's been a long year of feeling like I'm all thumbs when I'm trying to put a story together, and sometimes it's hard to imagine anyone else going through it, too. So this meant a lot -- thank you. :)