If you want to learn, teach.
That “Anonymous” sure is smart.
Wrote a whole bunch of books in 140 or so languages and is an expert on literature, language, and love. But there is no truism, for me, that Anon Y. Mous uttered that is truer than the one above. If you want to learn precisely and immediately what you don’t know stand up in front of a group of people and try to teach.
It is a frightening and humbling but ultimately rewarding experience. Perhaps the most surprising experience I’ve had while attempting to teach writing is that every person in the class—male or female; young or old—is me.
There are, as far as I can see, three stages for a writer and any gathering of writers big enough to fill the backseat of a minivan will, without a doubt, encompass all the categories. And, every conscientious writer must travel through all three stages on each and every new project: whether it’s a query letter, poem, or novel.
And each stage is necessary, a natural and essential progression. They are not like FreshmanSophomoreJuniorSenior: you are not promoted, never to return; these writing stages are a continuum that needs to be repeated over-and-over. Sisyphus, rolling that rock up that hill in Hades (only to have it roll back down) is the proper metaphor for a writer’s endeavor. The same doubts will plague us with every project: “This sucks”, “I’ll never be able to finish”, and the dreaded, “The writing is really flowing: this will be published and sell millions of copies!” are stones that must repeatedly be shouldered to the top of the hill. I routinely traverse (hopscotch) through all three phases: sometimes during the composition of the same sentence. The best I can hope for is that I begin with a slightly higher level of competence each time.
STAGE ONE: RAIN
This is writing fast-and-furious and it flows and feels good but there is that inevitable nagging doubt that when you return for a rewrite it’s gonna suck ass.
And it usually does.
What “flowed” (I hate that term and use it disparagingly) so freely now smells foully. The good news is now I have 10 or 16 or 35 pages to edit and rewrite and improve.
STAGE TWO: REIGN
This is a stage where the words that you write have seemed to fall from heaven onto your page. Surely no one has ever written a funnier love scene or a more moving and masterful murder. And you are there: in at the conception of this piece of undeniable literary merit. But again, during a rewrite, it becomes obvious that you are not the reigning “King of the World”. You belong down in steerage. But again, the good news is you have a few pages and maybe a scene or two that are salvageable.
STAGE THREE: REIN
This is where the internal editor is working so assiduously it is almost impossible to write. You won’t (or can’t) allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes. This is the most deadly of the recurring phases because it shuts you down, reins you in and sows self-doubt.
And unlike the other two phases you aren’t rewarded with a gunny-sack full of pages that can be improved.
Writing consists of either juggling (or enduring or surviving) these three stages until something usable arrives on the page. No wonder we writers are such neurotic recluses.
JOKE OF THE DAY
Two women on the prowl walk into a bar. They spot a handsome but glum looking guy sitting alone. One of them walks up to him and says, “You don’t look happy.”
“I just got out of jail,” he says, “and I’m having trouble adjusting to life on the outside.”
“Why were you in jail?”
“I beat my wife to death with a nine iron, dismembered her with a chainsaw, and fed her to the neighbor’s Great Dane.”
The woman signaled for her friend to come over, “He’s single!”