Learning to Live the Writer's Life
February 1, 2016
By Tori Link, Writing Tutor
Writing has always come naturally to me. What can I say? I'm good with words. I like rummaging through my brain, picking out the best words and connecting them in the most effective ways in order to clearly and succinctly communicate my ideas. I'm that one student you all know, who is visibly excited when the professor says the class will have a paper instead of a final exam. I'm also the one, however, who waits until the night before a paper is due to start writing, simply because the increased pressure makes the experience more thrilling. It's a sickness, really, but it has served me well, as a student, a writing center tutor, and a communicator.
I mostly attribute my success in writing to a process I have applied to nearly every writing assignment. In the few days before my paper is due, I read over my prompt very carefully, spending an entire day thinking about my topic, and usually end up in my professor's office hour. In that process, I find a tentative thesis. Then I create an outline, revise the thesis, gather sources, etc. And then I just write until I'm finished, and begin a ruthless editing process that lasts until the second the paper is due. It's a good system for me; its principles are solid and there's enough flexibility that I can adapt it to each assignment.
However, these abilities don't mean that I am indestructible or that my process can be applied universally because when I first walked into my Creative Writing class at the beginning of last semester, I was certain the class would be my Kryptonite.
Everything about Creative Writing was intimidating to me. Unlike the academic writing that I am constantly exposed to, I had never been taught the craft of creative writing. My fellow students, many of them English majors like myself, had already spent years following a passion for writing fiction, whereas I had merely dabbled. The foolproof system that I have so painstakingly created over my years at Xavier would do me little good in this class.
The scariest thing about it, though, was the love that I hold for other people's creative writing. Literature is my deepest passion, and my favorite authors are some of my greatest heroes. I knew going into the class that I wouldn't match up to the greatness of Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling, but I felt like I would be letting them down if I didn't do well. I imagined myself writing a piece, with a little voice in my head saying things like, "This isn't a strong female character. Jane Austen is very disappointed in you," or "Wow, this symbolism is really forced. George R.R. Martin is already plotting to kill off your favorite character." I worried that if I wasn't good at creative writing, a piece of my identity as a lover of words and stories would be taken away from me. And seeing as I'm barely responsible enough to feed myself three times a day, I'm really not equipped to handle that kind of existential crisis.
However, Dr. Trudelle Thomas, one of Xavier's finest, immediately put me at ease. She helped my classmates and I gently ease into our creative mind-space. We didn't start out writing full stories, as I feared we would. Instead, we free-wrote and constructed brief scenes in order to practice a specific literary technique. We were encouraged to think freely and widely about elements of character, plot, conflict, and dialogue.
Through her teaching methods, Dr. T. frequently instructed us in how to live "The Writer's Life." We explored different ways to unlock our creativity, sometimes as simple as lighting a scented candle, spending time in nature, or unplugging from technology. We discussed the importance of listening to a person's manner of speaking, keeping a journal, and being creative in other forms. A writer will be able to recognize the learning experience that one can gain from people-watching at the mall or reading in an unfamiliar genre. Yet, even though it was an intriguing idea, I'll admit I was still skeptical the writer's life could work for me.
At first, the writer's life didn't seem conducive to my writing process. The way I saw it, if I was struggling with creating enough conflict in a scene or writing authentic dialogue, there was no way the lavender and sandalwood aromas of a candle were going to help me. However, I figured that I wouldn't be giving the class my best effort if I didn't at least try to do what my instructor was suggesting, so I went all in. I faithfully kept my journal and tried to create a sense of variety in my entries. Instead of creating a plan before writing, I first wrote the scenes of which I had a clear vision, and filled in the rest later. I even bought myself a cat-themed adult coloring book, and sometimes colored for twenty minutes or so before I began writing, to unlock the ideal mood for creativity. It seemed silly at first, but I quickly found these little actions were worth more than I realized.
I had erroneously assumed that living the writer's life meant abandoning the writing process as I knew it for a superior method, one that was necessary to produce exemplary pieces of creative writing. However, I found that the writer's life isn't actually a method but a state of mind. Living the writer's life is, essentially, about understanding how the habits of our daily lives make us more observant, conscientious, and diligent writers. Therefore, it isn't about changing our writing process, but making it more inclusive of our whole lives by integrating our identities as writers into the other aspects of our lives. It's applicable in creative and academic writing. The first step to improving both our creative and academic work is to develop habits that will always keep us in a writer's frame of mind. This process is how our two personae, the writer and the person, come together as one entity. Only after we stop our focus on the mass production of better papers can we become better writers. Moving forward in this semester, maybe we can all try to take a step towards living the writer's life, even if that means taking a break to pause, reflect, and smell the scented candle.