Thursday, September 29, 2005

Writers and Writing

I have this article I got from the net which I had printed and posted near my computer. Mary Schmich gave great advice! The following write-up contains a lot of things I personally practice when I’m doing my articles. It also has some things that made me think and wonder if such are applicable to me. To you fellow writers, let me share with you this article and some of my thoughts and experiences on each suggestion given. And maybe you too could learn a thing or two from them, as I did.

Writers need to know how not to write
By Mary Schmich
The Chicago Tribune

Before the folks at the Off-Campus Writers' Workshop in Winnetka invited me to come talk about writing, I would have advised them, or anybody else, "Don't give your work a title before you've written."

Writing the title before the text is like building a box before you know what's going in it. Do you really want the box to determine the size and shape of the contents?

But they demanded a title. So I gave them a title: "How Not to Write." What did that mean? I didn't know -- until I started to cobble together what follows, a short list of notions that help me write. Whether you write for a class, simply for your own pleasure or in the hopes of getting published, maybe they can help you too.

1. Do not try to write like Ernest Hemingway. Or Nick Hornsby. Or Molly Ivins. And absolutely never try to write like Dave Barry. What works for them is apt to make you look foolish. On the other hand, feel free to do what one famous writer did early in her career, which is to type out pages of her favorite writer's writing to feel how he structured sentences. Or keep good writing handy -- I particularly like poems for this purpose -- and when your brain is locked, read for a while. Feeling other writers' words and rhythms can loosen up your own.

- I can’t recall if I ever tried to copy another writer’s style. I have my own and I would like to think that I only owe other writers for the wonderful glimpse of smoothly structured sentences that inspired me to find my own voice. Also, I have always wondered, are all writers, poets too? I write poems. In fact, I think I started with poems even before I discovered how to write essays well. Or did girlish diaries count?

2. Do not wait for inspiration. You don't need inspiration to write. You need a deadline. If you write only when you're inspired, you'll have dust-free floors, a gleaming toilet, mounds of clean underwear -- and a blank computer screen.

- That is so true! Especially when you have a deadline to beat. Although I find myself more “inspired” to write when I’m feeling the pressures of the looming due date. What I sometimes hate about myself is that, I am such a crammer (vestiges from my college days). But that works for me, believe it or not. And I have to confess, I can live with a dusty floor but not with a heap of dirty clothes. Good thing we have a maid to do the laundry. But I clean my workspace myself, that is, whenever I’m inspired to pick up the broom and dust pan, which is not often. Hey, we all have our quirks right?

3. Do not wait for "perfect" writing conditions. By the time you've perfected your writing environment, it'll be happy hour. On the other hand, if you need a short voodoo dance before you write -- making another cup of coffee, mating your socks, clipping your toenails -- indulge in your warm-up jig. Getting ready to write is part of writing. But remember, as some famous writer once said, that the secret of writing is staying in the chair.

- When I instinctively feel that I need to write something “right now” for my assignment, I sit in front of the computer and wouldn’t get up until I finished a rough draft. But amusingly, I also have those “rituals” that I’d do to get me in the mood. Sometimes I’d watch a movie on DVD first to relax me or I’d make myself a midnight snack (during the early morning hours are my best writing moments). After which, I’m ready to tackle the muses.

4. Topics to avoid: Antics of your adorable children. Your revelations about life while on a luxury vacation. Your dead dog. They've been done, and only rarely well.

- I disagree. I have had articles published in national magazines about my kids, and even accounts of two summer vacations. So does that mean I qualify in the rarely well category? :P

5. More topics to avoid: Your love affairs and your mood disorders, unless you can be painfully honest or really funny.

- I have written painfully honest thoughts on my wonderful relationship with my husband and guess what, it’s on a women’s website somewhere here in the net.

6. One more topic to avoid: Anything that makes you think, "Hey, this is cute." Cute is for kids.

- Ok, I have to say yea to this. But when it comes to blogging, why not? I believe posting cute anecdotes about kids (mine in particular) is permissible. It’s my blog anyway and it’s a way of updating the children’s aunts and uncles, godfathers and godmothers on the newest ‘tricks’ of their nephews/godsons.

7. Avoid cliches like the plague.

- Yup, time is gold you know hehehe. Kidding!

8. Sugar. It's a lousy muse. That Snickers bar won't give you more than three good sentences.

- Who says? I can eat several bars of chocolates and continue tapping on the keyboard.

9. Coffee. Ditto. Two good sentences, and that's only for the first cup. More than one just makes you even more nervous about your worth as a writer.

- I don’t drink coffee much but are we talking about caffeine here? Because if yes, then that’s baloney! Iced tea has caffeine and I usually drink several glasses of it while in front of the computer. The only downside I can think of is the bother of getting up every several minutes to go to the bathroom and pee.

10. Alcohol. One good sentence. And even that won't look very good when you wake up from your nap. Take a walk instead.

- Darn right. All the alcohol that comes near me are the rubbing kind which I use to cleanse my fingers when the dust from the computer table turns them gray :D (see my comment on # 2 for reference)

11. Don't think you have to know what you're going to write before you write. Writing is an investigation. Writing teaches you how to think and what you think. What you think may surprise you.

- I love this advice because it’s very, very true. If we only write about what we know, how can we acquire new knowledge then? I have accepted assignments to write about things, some of which I’ve only heard of for the first time, and made it with flying colors. The key is to never stop looking for answers. And in the process, you’ll be learning more. Being a writer helped me grow intellectually and understand more about the people around me. I have had the privilege to write about kids afflicted with different medical conditions such as diabetes and Kawasaki syndrome. I featured twins and triplets, child laborers etc. in articles. And I came out of those experiences with deeper appreciation, perception and more compassion for those who are less fortunate than I am. And hey, when I got the assignments on writing about earthquakes, water conservation and other seemingly mundane topics, I learned tons of information! Even my husband is impressed when I rattle off new facts I’ve discovered.

12. Don't write as a way to make people love you. Some people may love your writing, but that's not the same as loving you. And remember that someone will always hate your writing.

- Definitely agree. I write because I love to and not to please anybody else. But it’s a different story when you have editors to submit to. What’s important is that the editors love how you write because that would simply mean more assignments to come.

13. Don't be afraid of offending people with what you write. But be aware that if your writing is in public view, you'll eventually offend somebody. Is it worth losing a friend just to tell that funny little story or make that flip remark?

- Sometimes, I can’t help but write about how irritated I am at a politician in my country, or how I got so upset with what somebody I knew did. When I post it in my blogs, I try to defuse the offense factor a little, or I omit the name of the person I’m referring to. But I don’t believe in using a friend’s embarrassing story just so one would have something to write about. Better to keep that to oneself.

14. Do not think your first draft is good enough. But don't hide from criticism with interminable "polishing." If you wait for it to be perfect, it will never be done. As we say in the news biz, "Push the send key."

- True, true. I make it a point to at least write an article one week before its deadline. Then reread it everyday to make corrections and get the general feel of the tone. By the time the due date comes around, I am satisfied with what I’ll be submitting. There are moments though that I had to close my eyes and utter a prayer as I hit the send key.

15. Don't quit your job to write just because your friends who receive your holiday newsletters have said, "You should be a writer." But if you burn to write, then write. And write. And write, then write. Until you get published or can't stand the heat of rejection anymore.

- Lucky for me my very first job after graduation included writing articles for magazines, albeit agricultural ones (I can still remember my quick lessons on brining vegetables and planting alternate crops). I found my true calling when I submitted an article in a baby magazine about my son who has cerebral palsy. They called and published the story. I was already a housewife that time. Two years later, I started to be a regular contributor to a national magazine. And now, I’m still enjoying writing from home and having time to spend with my kids as well.

16. Don't invent your title first just because you're desperate to see words on the page. But when you don't have a clue what to write about, try it. Sometimes it's fun to build the contents to fit the box.

- I like this tip. I also usually write the whole article first before putting in the title. Doing that makes room for a lot of things.
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