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Advice in Hindsight

July 20, 2009
looking back

Port City Java

What advice would you gift your 18 year old self about writing?

It is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – the wisdom or advice which may have prepared me for the harsh reality of writing beyond the safe confines of high school.

I’ve came up with four pearls of wisdom I wish I could teleport back through time and share with myself.

1. Know how to deconstruct criticism.

All criticism is not equal but I did not realise that at 18. Believing this about criticism will eventually be detrimental to your writing, your self work and confidence.

I wish we had have been taught at school about how to deconstruct criticism levelled at us rather than teaching us how to deconstruct and criticise the books and writing on our set lists in English.

Bad criticism:

  • Is generally broad sweeping
  • It is vague – there are no specifics from which you can dispute the criticism or work from to improve your work.
  • It is generally pointed at you, personal and often vicious.
  • It leaves you feeling rotten and committed to never writing again.
  • It is damaging because in the words of Julia Cameron “It disparages, dismisses, ridicules.”
  • It is often short and bitter sweet.

Good Criticism:

  • Works with specifics – the ending doesn’t work, this particular character doesn’t seem to ring true, there are too many adverbs, dialogue attribution etc.
  • Gives you options for what you may want to do next – you might like to consider chopping out all the “he said, she saids” to make the dialogue move faster etc
  • Regardless of how harsh it appears on the surface, good criticism has the potential to provide an ‘a ha’ moment which can compel a piece of writing into a new and positive direction.
  • Leaves you inspired in time (but not necessarily straight up!)

Good teachers, those who want you to grow and flourish under their tutelage provide you with a road map – this is what a proper critique of writing is meant to do.

For example they don’t scribble across the top of your work “Crap Effort.” They take the time (and my soul sister has been both and English and History teacher so I know the time which goes into marking an essay or a paper by a committed teacher) to show you what is “crap”, where you have been “crap” and suggestions for corrections which will turn the crap “good”.

2. Don’t trust someone you don’t know and always get a second opinnion.

The biggest mistake I have made to date with my writing was walking into a workshop held by the Writer In Resident at my university in 1992 and trusting his word. He looked through the piece of writing I had brought along with me and told me point blank my writing was naïve and I needed to go and live in the real world if I really wanted to write.

Still – almost 18 years on from that moment I can feel the crushing disappointment, the hot flush of humiliation on my cheeks, the collapse of my self belief and the sure but quick drying up of my creative potential.

Given I had no skills to deconstruct his criticism or to know how to recover from what he said, I should have sought a second opinion –both of the piece in question and my writing in general. That person needed to be someone I trusted who could have given me feed back and reassure me about my writing in general.

Then I would have seen the Writer in Residence’s comments for what they were – a childish jab at me as a writer, by someone who was possibly insecure themselves, which had nothing to do with my actual writing.

It would have felt silly at the time, but I should have gone back and approached one of my English or History teachers from high school and shared with them what had happened. Got a second opinion. I was only months out of high school and I am sure one of them would have listened and shored up my confidence in writing. I’m not even sure I told my Dad what happened – such was the shame I felt.

Having people around you who you can trust and rely on to support and encourage you is more important that you realise. Certainly more important than I thought at 18.

3. Connect and hang out with like minded people.

When I was writing as a young woman I was the only other person I knew who wrote.  Seeking out a connection with other writers was probably part of the reason I sought out the Writer in Residence programme at uni. After that I never bothered to seek out another writing programme or group until I was 27.

I wish I had have known then the support, inspiration, friendship, guidance and insights which come from being involved in a writers’ group. Of course this was years before the internet. It is much easier to seek out writers now.  Something I have been truly grateful for.

4. Invest time and effort in writing short stories.

I was obsessed with writing long pieces of work. These required huge amounts of time and investment. After submitting a novel length piece of work to Random House in Melbourne as part of an English communications project in Year 12, I received an insightful letter from editor David Kelly. In the letter he encouraged me to focus on short stories and hone my writing skills. He also suggested a book on writing to assist me with those skills

I took it offensively and ignored it. I only wanted to write a book and I already knew how to write. How arrogant I was. Arrogant and impressionable – given how readily and totally I believed the blanket comments of the Writer in Residence at Uni just a few months later.

Had I taken the time to write short stories I would have created a sense of accomplishment rather than the sense of being lost labouring over first chapters which went no where or rewriting the same first chapter over and over again. I might have done something about getting them published which may have got me connected in with other writers. Who knows?

It was 1996 before I wrote a short story and another four years before I had the guts to show it to anyone. But that story was a turning point for me.

 

Hindsight is always 20/20. The beauty of it, sorting through and sharing what would have been important, wisdom which may or may not gel with those venturing out of the comfort zones of their high schools now, is reading this might change the trajectory of someone else’s path. I hope someone reads this and benefits from the mistakes I made as an eighteen year old. Mistakes which would sadly stunt my development and growth as a writer for many years.

How old were you when you knew the only thing you really wanted to do was write? What advice and wisdom would you give to yourself as an 18 year old writer – or a beginner writer?

Jodi Cleghorn‘s partner was once told by a a professional science journal reviewer that the research in the submitted paper “was not rocket science”. It is a standard joke in their home only because the journal editor offered an apology. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
5 Comments
  1. July 20, 2009 9:24 am

    I think #1 is brilliant. So many people struggle with criticism. They react poorly. They overreact. They make changes when they aren’t really warranted. Etc., etc. You’ve providing some quality insight to help in avoiding those problems. Thanks.

  2. July 20, 2009 2:33 pm

    Good advice, although I’m not sure about #4. Short fiction and long fiction are two different genres, and learning to write one well doesn’t necessarily mean that you can write the other. Each has its own objectives and requires its own skills. It’s like comparing lyric poetry and epic poetry — they’re both forms of poetry, but that’s about all they have in common.

    Maybe your point was that one can do both and not exclude the other. I’d agree with that.

  3. July 21, 2009 8:10 am

    I agree with all of your points, though I haven’t found a way to do #3 on a regular basis “in person” — I’ve always done it virtually over email or IM, taunting or encouraging others to write as they did the same to me. With #4, I always look at it as a point where you have to write things you can complete with the same quality with which you started. So, if your novel-length things kind of taper off with a whimper, perhaps it is best to stick to novellas instead. Knowing when to end can be quite difficult. In fact, this is why I started out writing poetry and songs — the feeling of completion was what made it possible to keep me going on the longer works.

    In addition, if I could go back and give 18 year old self some advice, it would be: “Whatever you do, don’t stop writing!” When I turned 18 and subsequently went off to college, life got the better of my desire to write and I basically just stopped. Everything else took priority: school, work, family, work, house/yard maintenance… did I mention work? I wrote a handful of poems or song lyrics and two short stories in the first 18 years after high school and I was reasonably miserable about it. A few years ago I decided to stop letting everything get in the way of my need to write and in the past 3 years, I’ve written dozens of stories and poems, a few novellas, a stageplay and many other things and am in a much better place for it.

  4. July 21, 2009 11:31 am

    I wasn’t writing at 18. Indeed, I’ve only started over the last six or seven years. I started with a journal and then joined a writing group. That was about the best thing I ever did. I joined because I was interested in writing and wanted to make new friends after a move to a new town. I also thought it wouldn’t do my French much harm either. Well, six years later that investment has paid off on all fronts. So I shout and scream a whole-hearted yes to number three. Of course, the others sound like pretty good advice too. As for writing short stories as against longer pieces, I feel the short story gives the beginner a chance to finish things quickly, thus enabling him to fine tune his abilities. I agree there are differences between short story and novel writing, but surely there are a lot of similarities too.

  5. July 22, 2009 5:39 am

    I agree with all of the points with equal merit and really only came to them in the last couple of years.

    I wanted to be a writer, write a novel and be published, since I was in high school.

    The thing I’d add is actually learning to edit at all. Editing, rewriting, revising, refining are all things I took too long to realise I seriously need to work on.

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