Thursday, December 10, 2015

Learning to Trust Yourself: To The Not-Yet Published

Figure 1. The most beautiful man on earth is holding what looks like a book

This post is dedicated to the students in this term's class on revision at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis: Claire, Cassidy, Sherri, Mallory, Monica, Courtney, Kristin, Kayla, Jeanne and Laura. Thank you for spending the last few weeks with me. I wish you all the luck in the world.

For unagented and not-yet-published writers, much depends on feedback. What beta readers say, what the critique group says, what a spouse says, what professors say. If you haven't gotten representation from a literary agent or a book deal from a publisher, it can feel difficult to trust your own instincts about whether you are "talented" or your book is "good" or if you "know how to write."

This post doesn't aim to clarify any answers to those questions. Sorry. And worse yet: whether anyone else thinks you're good and worthy of publishing will never be anything you can actually control. Sorry, again. This game isn't always a fun one.

But I think there is a neglected place that writers don't look at when seeking validation and trying to trust their own instincts about whether their writing is valuable. And that is not in their writing, but in their reading.

Figure 2. oh my god it's happening AGAIN

This thing on taste by Ira Glass went around a few years ago. I think it makes sense. And I think it makes sense for writers to consider their own reading lives as a vast source of inspiration, aspiration and affirmation about what they hope to do with their own stories and words.

Because, unlike everything else, you can control what you read. You always have.

Think of your taste in reading as a form of talent. An asset. A critical part of your writing life.

Be thoughtful about how you assess the books that have formed you and influenced you. Consider how your own story follows those traditions and deviates from them. Trust your own taste, your own sense of "what is good" and let that be your guide as you move ahead with revising and drafting. There is a narrative in your own reading, the stories that you've been drawn to. The central themes that compel you, the style that beguiles you, the characters that seduce you: it's all down in the fossil record of your library card and your bookshelves.

Manipulate and control your reading inputs. You can input nonfiction, poetry, picture books, essays, crime novels, spy thrillers. If you're struggling with something, see how another author dealt with that same particular problem, structure or archetype; read their books as guides. Your vision of what is "good" is established, published, and has been analyzed by many smart people, in some cases. It's there for the taking. Study it, emulate it, and trust what you're doing is coming from both respect for tradition and regard for your own innovation.

Never forget that you were a reader before you were a writer. Always remember it's essential to where you're going, as a writer and a human.

1 comment:

  1. "Never forget that you were a reader before you were a writer." And perhaps more importantly, without being a reader, you essentially cannot be a writer. You learn from the people around you--what's happening in the genre(s) you love to read and write. What issues and tropes are being tackled? What is changing? What isn't? What does there need to be more of? Less of? What do you LOVE about a story? What makes you so excited you can't put the book down? What do you keep thinking about weeks/months/years after reading that book? What do you HATE? What yanks you out of a story? What keeps you from getting in to begin with?

    Yes, writing and publishing is a subjective field. It's an art, after all, not a science. There is no, "Do X,Y, and Z and you will succeed." But that is why it's so important to read and study and practice what others are doing and aren't doing and add your own voice to the mix.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Team