Apprentice writers need mentors. In Thunder and Lightening: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, after discussing the role of mentors in a writer’s life in one of her workshops, Natalie Goldberg describes how one student asked: “What if I don’t have a mentor –does that meant I’ll never be any good?”. Goldberg picked up Carson McCullers’s book Ballad of the Sad Café off the table in front of her and held it up to the class and said “These are your mentors. Authors can take you through your whole writing life. Enter their minds Don’t let any obstacle get in your way.”
“In the past few years I’ve assigned books to be read before a student attends one of my weeklong seminars. I have been astonished by how few people — people who supposedly want to write — read books, and if they read them, how little they examine them.” — Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
A beginning writer sometimes does not fully grasp the understanding that to become a writer, you must not only write but you must also read. Through books we discover our mentors. Many writers and other talented artists did not any formal education or very little formal education; instead, they were self-educated and discovered their mentors through reading.
“I’m always reading books—as many as there are. I ration myself on them so that I’ll always be in supply.” From Paris Review Interview (1958)
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you…. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” Ernest Hemingway, “Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba,” (1934)
I started thinking more about my own mentors as I was reading 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Insiders Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers by Karl Iglesias. I was seeking mentors to guide me through the process of writing my first screenplay.
If you want to be a screenwriter, this book is a must read. The chapters in Iglesias’s book are arranged by the 101 habits that writers who want to write a screenplay must practice to develop their natural writing talents, to practice the craft of screenwriting, and to produce a finished screenplay. Within each chapter, working screenwriters discuss their own habits and experiences working as screenwriters in relation to each of the 101 habits. Along the way, they offer honest advice to aspiring screenwriters about the dos and don’ts of learning and practicing the craft of screenwriting. As Iglesias says “If you have that one screenplay in a thousand, the one that moves a reader emotionally, I promise Hollywood will take notice” (101 Habits, p. 225).
The same can be said for short story or novel writing. If your story or novel moves a reader emotionally, I believe your work will be noticed. But it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point, and the habits of writers discussed in 101 Habits are habits, I believe, every writer needs to practice if he or she is going to become a writer. Our zest, our gusto for writing must be nourished..
As Ray Bradbury asserts in his book, Zen in Art of Writing:
“Zest. Gusto…How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items of a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him alone the road where he wants to go. I would only warn him to look at his zest, see to his gusto” (p. 3).
First, do you have the necessary traits to be a successful writer? The following are common characteristics of successful writers noted in 101 Habits before Iglesias and writers discuss more specifically the creative process of a screenwriter and the craft of writing a screenplay. For each trait, I discuss what I have learned about these traits from other authors who have served as my mentors:
Do you possess the passion and the urge to write?
Creative and Original
“You know, I don’t think it would be nice if Natalie Goldberg had Mark Twain’s mind. Then we’d have less originality, less creativity – and we’d have more writers doing the same thing. Don’t get me wrong – Twain is amazing – but maybe it’s better to have different minds creating different worlds.” – Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.
We must explore our own mind to learn our interests and obsessions are and write about these interests and obsessions to discover our unique voice. Natalie Goldberg, author of several books on the writing, became my mentor twenty years ago after I first read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. I have continued to use her as a mentor by reading all her books on writing.
What I learned from Goldberg was that writing practice helps you discover your obsessions and writing voice. She recommends that beginning writers spend at least two years writing in journals or notebooks to discover their subjects and find their voice. I followed this advice and wrote in spiral notebooks for two years. Because of this writing practice, I discovered my interests and my obsessions which became material for writing more original short stories.
“…the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
Flannery O’Connor said “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I took this to heart and filled several notebooks by remembering events of my childhood through my early adulthood which was marred by those experiences. This material not only sparked ideas for short stories and the first draft of a novel, but it also inspired ideas for at least two screenplays.
Our experiences, interests and obsessions can spark the fire that feeds our creativity and develops our original voice. So when my mentor said writing practice which explores my own mind is a good place to start, I listened.
“Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique.” Willa Cather
“That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best — make it all up — but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.” – Earnest Hemingway
We must have a love for stories. Reading books made me want to a writer. I loved to read when I was a kid. I always had my nose in a book. I spent Saturdays in the library checking out fiction, biographies and other nonfiction books on topics that interested me. Summer vacation was mostly spent sitting outside under a tree reading a book. During the school year, I read whenever I had a free moment– on the bus on the way to school, during lunch breaks, and on the bus on the way home from school. Although in high school I read stories by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Connor and other literary writers, there were many authors and stories I did not discover until college due to the questionable content deemed unsuitable to be included in our small town public and school libraries.
After high school, I was introduced to a world of literature in college classes that would blow my mind and inspire the urge to write even more so (I am currently working on compiling a list of books I have read). Of course, today, you can just Google and get a recommended reading list of the best novels ever written. I rely a lot on word of mouth and the Internet to find authors writing good stories today.
I just do not know how anyone can claim to want to write if they do not love stories and read a lot. Yes, I agree some people seem to have a natural ability at telling stories, and I humbly admit that I believe I do, too, but reading taught me how to recognize good storytelling.
“You have to be able to tell a good story. Most people cannot do that. They haven’t read the great literature “ Leslie Dixon (screenwriter of Limitless) From 101 Habits, p. 123
“Anything you do fully is an alone journey.” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
You have to have long periods of uninterrupted time to write and finish a good day’s work. This means be willing to spend hours alone with just yourself and your words. This habit is not problem for me. I have always enjoyed solitude and having hours of uninterrupted time to write.
A few years ago, I resigned from an on campus teaching position and took an online teaching position which enabled me to take a lighter teaching load and allow more time to write. Yet, I still had to make a commitment to wake up a little earlier, unplug the phone, turn the Internet off, and focus on my writing for several hours before turning my attention to returning phone calls, answering email, and teaching my online classes.
I still need to connect to the world outside to feed my writing, but I can do it on my own time now and not allow it to interfere with my writing schedule.
“You need create solitude so that you can hear the voices…” Tom Schulman (screenwriter) from 101 Habits, p. 6
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” Earnest Hemingway, Nobel Prize Speech 1954
“Writers have the particular makeup of a person who looks at the world, observes human behavior, and finds themselves amused, intrigued, or emotionally moved by watching people” Robin Swicord (screenwriter) from 101 Habits, p. 7
Flannery O’Connor said that the “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” If you want to be a writer, you must be willing to get out from behind your desk and observe life. I have always been guilty of staring at people in public places. I used to love to go to the airport before the days of tightened security and sit in the waiting areas of different gates of departure and arrival to people watch. Parks, restaurants, movie theatres, museums, and other public places are also good for people-watching.
Driving around to nearby small towns on a Saturday afternoon are also good opportunities for people watching. I love to drive around the small towns in my area or spend a few hours at a local farmer’s markets or art festival. You just never know what you are going to see or experience that will feed your writing.
Traveling across the U.S. or to other countries and observing people outside of your own geographical area broadens your horizons and hones your observation skills if you pay close attention. A few years ago, I spent six months traveling across Europe and filled several notebooks of people watching experiences in the UK coastal areas, Scotland, and Spain. Even though I am not particularly fond of flying anymore, I do love to take road trips across the U..S. whenever I can. I always carry a notebook and a camera, and pay close attention to the changing sights, sounds, and overheard conversations. As Henry James in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” asserts: “”Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”
“If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen…” Earnest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview (1958)
Desire to Write
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” Ray Bradbury
Yes, there are some writers who love to have written but do not like the actual process of writing. Dorothy Parker was one of those writers, and is known for her famous quip: “I hate writing, I love having written.” I happen to be one of those writers who loves the entire process – discovering ideas, playing around with those ideas, writing in different forms, writing messy first drafts, rewriting, and editing.
My desire to write is driven by need. I need to write. I don’t ever want to stop writing. All I ever wanted to be is a writer. I would love to give up my day job someday and do nothing but write. I would write for free, and I do. No one pays me to write this blog. I write it because it gives me another outlet for expressing myself through writing while I finish work on those projects which may actually earn some income. But I would continue to write if I never got paid a single dime for my writing. It is just what I do. I am a writer.
Belief in Yourself
“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 you know.” Earnest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
I believe I have a talent writing stories. Whether I have the talent to write a good novel (that is, turn the novel draft I wrote into a good novel) or to write a screenplay, I do not know. But I’m willing to learn, to work hard, and to write the best work that I can, and then rewrite until its perfected, or throw it out if it doesn’t work and move on to the next writing project.
I’m willing to seek out mentors and listen to what they have to say. I’m willing to seek out good readers for completed drafts of a project and trust their judgment and insights. I am willing to do the hard work of rewriting and editing. The bottom line is that I do believe in myself.
I hope those who are just beginning their journey as writers will believe in themselves, and not give up so quickly. In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg writes “Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go”. Do not be afraid of failure or rejection because if you are, you are in the wrong line of work. Seek out mentors. Read more. Observe more. Live more. Write more. Be more stubborn and persist in despite of the obstacles. Give it time – as long it takes.
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” Annie Lamott
“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it” Richard Bach
I always remind myself when I start a new project what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” If I am not enthusiastic about a project, I know will not give it my all. Instead, I will lose steam before the fire gets blazing. I can write a short story in a day, let it rest a day or two, and then come back to it and decide whether I want to start the rewriting process or just shelve the draft and move on to writing a new short story.
However, for long projects like the novel draft I recently completed, I have to consider how much enthusiasm I have about the idea, so I always let it incubate for a while, and if I am still interested in pursuing it, I start working on the process of brainstorming, researching, and taking notes to prepare for the drafting process.
I came up with an idea for a screenplay months ago, but it wasn’t until recently that I revisited the idea and decided that yes, I was enthusiastic about the idea and ready to begin the writing and research process to prepare to write the first draft.
It was time to turn to mentors. Even though I have read books on how to write a screenplay, watched a lot of movies, and studied actual screenplays, the whole creative process of writing a screenplay and turning out a good visual story was still a mystery to me. I wanted to hear actual screenwriters talk about their creative process and approach to writing a screenplay.
This brings us back to the beginning – seeking mentors – and being willing to not only practice writing, but to practice good reading habits. Rather than going back to how-to-books, I knew it was time to study the habits of successful screenwriters.
“Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.” James A. Baldwin
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.” Ray Bradbury
You need to be committed to writing if you are going to succeed at being good at it and write stories that people want to read and to see (if you want to write screenplays). Let’s say you write a short story and its sucks. Let’s say you write a novel and it sucks. Let’s say you write a screenplay and it sucks. Does that mean you quit? No! Write another one and another one and another one. If you love writing, write until your fingers bleed.
If you don’t love writing, don’t do it. Do yourself a favor and do something you do love doing.
“Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.” Denis Diderot (French philosopher)
If you do love it, then get to work. Set some goals. I decided to write from 6:30 AM to 9:30 AM every morning. Now whether I get two pages or ten pages, I write during that time because I committed to that time. I do have day job, but I don’t have to leave the house. I teach online. This means I can go from working on a writing project to working on my classes without ever leaving my desk. As long as I meet my deadlines each week, I am free to set my own hours. I wish every writer could be so lucky.
But the point is, that if you want to be a writer, you have to make time for writing. You cannot say I don’t have time to write. There is always time to write. Figure out how much time you can commit to your writing and make a commitment. Even ten to twenty minutes of writing every day is better than not writing at all. If you love writing, you’ll show up.
And finally, commit to reading. Find your mentors and study their minds.
”All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.” Henry David Thoreau
Plum Point Discussion: Are you practicing habits to drive your passion and urge to write? Which of these habits do you need to give more attention to?