Writer heads back to class

I don’t know about you, but I always enjoyed school. Reading, writing, even arithmetic to a certain point. (College calculus, I’m giving you the side-eye.) It feels good to learn, but it’s been awhile since I learned in a formal environment. So, this spring when I enrolled in an online writing course even my excitement was giddy. There would be an instructor (yay!), formal course instruction (yay!), a time for questions (yay!), and deadlines (also yay!).

How weird do you have to be to enjoy deadlines? Good question. I suppose it has to do with personality and profession. All I know is that as a writer, I get more done when I have people depending on me to meet deadlines – otherwise I can find all sorts of other things to do besides what I have in mind. Sure, I can always throw my work into the endless void called my blog, but that doesn’t motivate me. Besides, blogging seems all but dead. And no matter how much I tell myself that even one reader matters (and this is true), when said reader is often faceless and nameless, it really doesn’t seem to scratch the writing itch. I’ve also had a book idea for years now, but again, without a purpose, it seems wasteful to spend hours crafting something even the one might not see.

But now, May 10 through June 27, I have a course and a purpose. I have an instructor and coach. I have a small group of other writers who understand the writer’s angst. Every two weeks I have a chapter due on my book idea. So far I have completed two chapters in rough draft form. After I finish this column, I’ll turn my attention to chapter three and a June 17 deadline. See, deadlines are helpful! But so is the learning.

My instructor is Ruth Buchanan. I became acquainted with Ruth via Twitter at the recommendation of another author. Ruth’s an author, editor and writing instructor with a background in education and she has much enthusiasm for the writing craft. And wow, how I’ve needed to draw from her enthusiasm! This year I’ve wondered if I’ll ever be more than a dried-out shell with no energy to offer anyone. There have been times I’m not sure I’ll ever again find joy sharing my thoughts publicly; will I ever again feel safe? This class has been a step toward getting my feet back under me, but also with some new perspective.

One lesson I’m learning is the value of a rough draft. This concept builds nicely from last month’s column, “Wordle provides safe way to fail” – you can find it on the paper’s website if you missed it. But back to the rough draft. Before the class, even my rough drafts weren’t necessarily rough. I never let other people read my writing without at least one read-through – and in that scenario, I morph from the creator to the editor, and the editor isn’t creative. Editing is a completely different hat and I needed this fact pointed out because I frequently get stuck in the creator/editor tug of war. This makes progress difficult. Ruth had this tip: “Resist re-reading unfinished sections – get through the rough draft!” When I re-read unfinished sections, I prematurely start shaping (and shaping and shaping) and never move forward. With my book, I’ve gotten stuck playing this game. So when I asked Ruth if I should read through chapter one before submitting and she suggested just sending the draft, it was nerve-wracking and freeing all at the same time. To be honest, I still haven’t re-read chapter one or chapter two, and I probably won’t until I finish the entire rough draft of the manuscript. I need to keep moving forward, and this is my way to do it.

As I move forward rough draft by rough draft, I’m focusing on small goals each day. I’m using a class tip to make a plan for writing the next day before logging off at quitting time. After I finish my column rough draft, for instance, I hope to write the preface to chapter three, and then afterward I will pen “write one hour” in my agenda for tomorrow. Some people put word count goals, but I like the time element better. To me there’s less pressure to say “I will write for 60 minutes versus, I will write 1,000 words no matter how long it takes.” Writing while parenting doesn’t always allow for option two, but I can definitely find an hour in my day to work.

Another helpful strategy for lessening the pressure of writing is to see writing as “joining a conversation” rather than “being an ultimate authority.” Ruth acknowledged that this attitude is not the prevalent one in the United States, but that it has been freeing for her in the writing process. I took a lot of notes during this section of the live session because it’s a renewal of my mind that I need.

For my book project, for instance, I’m drawing on scripture and theology but I don’t have a degree or title to back me up. This insecurity has stumped me and stunted me as I try to proceed. So how do I move forward? Like so often is the case – writing or not – processing through a new lens helps.

As a writer, it’s my job to process publicly and it can be scary. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize how terrifying it is. Reality has crashed hard. I’m going to get things right, but I’m also going to get things wrong. And is there space for that? Is there room to further conversations through writing? I hope so.

It’s good to have this new perspective from my class to think through, process publicly, and have a conversation. I acknowledge I’m not the ultimate authority, but I promise “to get as accurate as I can while allowing for growth.” (Thanks again, Ruth!)

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