Kate Flora: It’s January, the time of resolutions, resolves, soul-searching, and some impatience to start forming new habits, like writing that novel or story that’s been lingering in the imagination, and to break those bad habits that keep us from the writing desk. Right? So for years, before full-time writing swallowed me up, I used to teach a class called “I’ve Always Wanted to Write, But . . .” The idea for the class came from my own experience with college writing classes, plus the stories of many people who told me about their own horrible and discouraging experiences writing in graded classes with unkind, unsupportive, or downright cruel instructors. (I encountered another one of these in my MFA program. Sadly, they are everywhere.)
My goal, in teaching the class, was to stick bandages on aspiring writers’ wounds and encourage them again to follow their writing dreams and to begin to develop a writing practice. I’ve had several students who have taken so many writing classes filling their heads with do’s and don’ts that they can’t sit down and write at all. They’ve never been encouraged to first spend some time discovering themselves as writers—what works, what doesn’t, what their own ideas are, what their writing practice might be.
Part of the class is simply getting writers to focus on their process. If there is a weekly writing assignment, how do they approach it? Are they cookers, who carry the work around in their heads, working it until they’re ready to write it down? Are they revisers who like to write a draft and then tinker with it over the course of several days? Have they carried the habit from their school years of putting things off until the last minute?
Another thing we focus on is encouraging writers to believe that they have the right to write, that if they want to be writers, they have to take that passion for writing seriously and give it, wherever possible, dedicated time. For an unpublished writer, learning to honor the desire to write can be hard. Hard to defend that time against family, against daily chores, against friends who want them to come out and play. One important question here is where they write. Do they have a designated space for writing, preferably one that has a door that can be closed? One of my handouts during the class is a sign which reads: Not Now, I’m Writing. I tell them that only they will know whether the sign goes on the outside of the door to keep people away or on the inside of the door to keep them at their desks.
Another thing I work on with my students is tuning up their sense of observation. I ask them to carry a small notebook or index cards and write down things they see to share with the class. If a student comes into class and says the notebook is empty because nothing happened, I ask if they use earbuds or headphones as they travel through the world. This is important, because as writers, we should be constantly collecting material. Sometimes that material may be shadows or the weather, or a fragment of conversation, or someone wearing something unusual that can be used in a story.
Those found bits can be stored in a file and may only become useful a long time from now, but they have been seen, and that seeing encourages more seeing. Another thing I tell my students in that while their mothers may have told them to mind their own business, being a writer is a license to be nosy. We have to observe our world and wonder about it. “What’s that about?” is a fundamental writerly question.
Years ago, I was teaching at a writer’s seminar down on Cape Cod, and during a nightly stroll, in an otherwise dark area, I passed a lighted phone booth. The door was open and the person on the phone was saying, “You don’t have to cry about it.”
I’m still waiting for the right moment to use it in a story, but it is stored away, along with “the church where nobody prays anymore.”
The world is out there, full of stories, waiting for us to notice them and use them. And if we want to be writers, if we want to realize that dream, we have to believe in our right to write, make space for our writing, and tune up our awareness.