Writing as Muscle Memory:
35 Things You Can Begin Doing Today To Tone
Your Writing Muscles And Hone Your Craft
Here's the introduction (at least for now) to a book I hope to finish writing this year. If anyone's interested, perhaps I'll also post the table of contents sometime soon:
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was no more than a modestly promising fledgling writer myself, I somehow got the notion that I should begin teaching the craft to others. It wasn’t so much an exercise of writerly ego—though there was no doubt some of that involved—as it was a sense of desperation to quicken my own learning curve. I had attended a writing class in which the instructor airily prattled on for hours without providing much in the way of real substance, and I came away deeply unimpressed, even cheated out of the modest fee. “I could do better than that myself,” I thought.
Before long, I arranged to do just that, or at least to try. Something told me that by preparing the material to share with others, I would begin to better grasp the whole writing process myself. They say nothing prepares you for a subject like having to teach it to others. Still, I was like the proverbial rookie teacher, reading one chapter ahead of the class, painfully aware of my own limitations.
During my lunch hours at work, I began making notes to myself about the mechanics of writing, photocopying examples of what I considered great work, taking special care to point to the most vivid writing I could find in various genres. To emphasize great descriptive writing, I pored through the dictionary—yes, a common desk dictionary—and highlighted words that I thought were especially well-defined. I loaded all the material into a backpack, climbed aboard my bicycle, and pedaled off to meet the class of adult lifelong learners at a local middle school.
A half dozen middle aged people—all older than I--were there waiting for me when I arrived. As I entered, I felt them eyeing me hungrily, as I had earlier eyed my own instructor, hunting for clues on whether this young guy could possibly help them learn what they came here to absorb.
I decided—again through little more than intuition--that the best way to begin would be to briefly go around the room and get everyone’s story—who were they, why were they there, and what did they hope to learn from this class? I figured the benefits would be two-fold: it would help me more closely tailor the material for each them, and it might also break the ice and get everyone more comfortable with each other. If we all undressed a little together, I figured, maybe we could all lighten up and relax. Maybe we could drop the inevitable, unspoken but nevertheless palpable comparisons about our various skill levels and just help each other learn.
The first person I called on was a woman named Jeanne, who was sitting in the front row. “Tell us about yourself, Jeanne.” What came next couldn’t have possibly been any more unexpected. She began speaking as if in a trance, her voice low and well-modulated, her eyes never blinking (or so it seems in my memory). She wasn’t looking at me or at anyone else in the room, so much as she was looking off into the middle distance, recalling her painful story. While riding her bike along the side of the road, she had been in a serious accident with a car. She sustained injuries to the brain, from which she spent the next several years trying to recover through various rounds of therapy. While in recovery, she had searched in vain for a book that would help her to recover from her injuries. “Why am I here?” she asked, echoing my initial question. “Because I want to learn how to write the book that I was trying to find myself in order to save my life.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more stunned by someone’s words, before or since. I spent the next hour in a mental fog, trying to process what she’d just said—as well as its implications on my responsibilities as a teacher--while at least pretending to give my full attention to the class. But what I really wanted was to excuse myself and head home, or at least hide out in the bathroom. Anything but try to answer that woman’s naked cry of pain. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how I might help her. Wasn’t this just a writing class, after all? What was I, a shrink? No, I was just a skinny, 28-year-old writer of painfully modest accomplishment, a newlywed without children yet, and certainly without enough life experience to be able to begin to understand her pain. Sadly, it seemed she had come to the wrong place for answers.
And yet, in the years since, with added perspective, I’ve come to understand that she did me an enormous favor. She taught me a lifelong lesson I can never forget: that writing, reading and language is serious stuff. It really matters to millions of people, even if they will never be writers, never be published, even if they never intend to try to get published. Sometimes, people just need to use written language to figure out what they think, to make sense of their otherwise scattered experiences, to find a cohesive narrative to their life. The percussive shock of Jeanne’s earnest request woke me up to the real stakes of my life’s work that day. No one would ever have to impress that upon me again.
Over the years, I’ve coached, taught, mentored or encouraged several hundred writers. Many were of course beginners. But more than a few were also far more accomplished stylists than I’ll ever be—though most simply didn’t know or believe that. My task, I always thought, was to find that elusive switch in their brains, the switch that, when turned on, makes a person believe they’re a writer. Which is when they really begin to write.
I’ve had a few proud, glorious moments as a writing coach and teacher who remains a writer first. Students have gone on to do some remarkable things–one recently published his fifth novel, and he’s been steadily building international acclaim as a talented weaver of tightly crafted thrillers. In Great Britain, his books even outsell the runaway hit The Davinci Code. But I’m every bit as proud of and interested in the progress of Alicia, who will sometimes avoid me when I see her in the library or at the store, no doubt sure that I’ll be asking about her progress with the pen, a subject she’d evidently rather not go into. At least not yet.
I’ve enjoyed my own, far more modest, success. I’ve had the good fortune to write well over a thousand published articles. They’ve appeared in places such as the New York Times op-ed page, some of the most revered real estate in my profession, and in scores of other publications small and large, well-known and obscure. I've had a chance to cover the U.S. Congress as a 24-year-old rookie reporter, and later briefly administered a half-million-dollar editorial budget at an Internet start-up, before it crashed and burned during the first feverish dot-com era. I've had the good fortune to interview railroad company presidents on overnight journeys to New Orleans aboard well-appointed Pullman cars and shadow basketball superstar Lebron James for a magazine cover profile. I've gone to Texas to interview independent oil "wildcatters" and London to glean news from an international conference about the airline industry. I've had a chance to leverage the incredible power of the Internet by publishing a blog full of ideas for and about writing and writers. Three years into that daily discipline, I received an email from Indonesia, written in partially broken English, that sent a shudder through me: 'Hi. I'm rini from jakarta, Indonesia. I read ur weblog and i was impresed that even though you already writting much but u still considering to share what u tough trough the weblog...I m editor staff for kid and teen comic and magazine, espesially in product with Disney lisence. Keep posting nice articles, people would like it. Warm regards, Rini.'
In short, I've had a life filled with intellectual adventures and emotional gratification of the sort I had no right to expect. Best of all, I have the sense that those adventures are only going to get better in coming years. Mostly, I feel so deeply blessed to have been given the chance to do something that I know millions of my fellow humans would give almost anything for: the chance to earn a living exclusively from my writing.
This, then, is a book about what I’ve learned from several hundred people. Some, like Jeanne, were students or those whom I prodded and encouraged. Others were subjects of my writing, real, complicated three-dimensional people who felt pain and suffered stings from ill-chosen words (which taught me to be extra careful in my choice of words). Still others were mentors, those priceless Sherpa guides on the path of life who tend to appear when we need them most.
This is, in the end, a book about good habits--the habits of both mind and practice that will stand you in good stead as a writer. Because I didn’t major in journalism or even English in college, I used to imagine I was largely self-taught. But I soon came to realize otherwise. Luck and happenstance have managed to put so many people in my path who taught me how to do it better, how to dig deeper, last longer and work harder. By the towering example of their life and their work, they taught me to defer gratification, stick to what I wanted and needed to say regardless of publishing trends or the whims of editors. They allowed me to soak in their deep sense of craftsmanship and reverence for the truth, a combination I've since come to think of as more combustible than pure oxygen. I owe these friends, mentors and great word craftsmen everything. They’ve opened up an entire life to me and gave me the courage to pursue my life’s work, even when that wasn’t very practical. It’s to all of them that I dedicate this book.
As I hope I’ve told every class I’ve ever taught, and any writer I’ve ever coached, neither I nor anyone else can really teach anyone to write. All anyone can hope to accomplish is to lead you to some good habits that, if practiced over time, will help you become better yourself. This is a book about one writer’s take on the habits that will make it more likely that you will continue to do this work, and perhaps one day even do it well. I’m hoping the same for myself.
But here’s the bad news (you knew that was coming eventually): nothing comes quickly with writing, as it doesn’t with anything really worth doing. A couple of years ago, when it dawned on me that I had just passed the 20-year mark as a professional writer, the idea began to settle on me that I had just then come out of my apprentice phase, and that I was now perhaps embarking on the intermediate stage of my craft. I was just beginning to get comfortable with the tools, just getting to where I had internalized the habits and the ways of thinking that yield some success, some at least modest mastery over an ever-elusive craft. After 20 years, I had begun to acquire a critical mass of muscle memory for writing and telling stories, for using language to move minds and hearts. And now I could really begin to have some fun, really begin to take this baby out on the racetrack and see what it might do when I opened it up a bit.
Here’s hoping you’ll experience that same feeling, as well. Perhaps you already have.