I behaved myself in school for the most part. I wanted all of my teachers to like me. I learned how to write a sentence, a paragraph, a short story. I practiced diagramming sentences. My compositions were smart, clear and concise. My mind was filled with hundreds of original thoughts. Sometimes it was like a committee meeting in my head! I was eager to share all these great thoughts and ideas with the world.
In college, I was in love with philosophy and psychology. I had a rough patch from the summer of 1977 to the winter of 1979, ultimately ending up in prison at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview for three years. Too much booze, too many drugs, too much antisocial behavior. This seemed odd to me after I sobered up and got over the initial denial that I was in prison. I could not seem to explain my behavior. I was one of those students who loved to be busy. I worked on the yearbook, a local history project, did some sports photography and other photography, joined the debate team, and even participated at a state-level forensics competition in State College, PA.
I was able to enroll in college-level courses while a “guest” at Rockview. I applied every waking moment to reading course materials, assigned books, collateral reading, and to journal entries about what I was learning. My favorite courses were English, public speaking, creative writing, rhetorical writing, and psychology. I did very well. After all, I had nothing else to do but read and study. I ultimately graduated with an associates degree holding a 3.95 GPA. I was granted early release to a half-way house run by the corrections department in Scranton, PA. I was accepted as a transfer student at the University of Scranton. My studies there were mostly focused on philosophy, psychology and helping others.
I was going broke. After three semesters of classes at the University of Scranton, I quit to accept a full-time job as assistant manager of a local Pizza Hut. Nevertheless, I kept reading and writing journal entries. I got engaged twice inside of eighteen months. Needless to say, only the latter one stuck! Romance was very important to me. In fact, it defined me. I had to be with someone in order to be someone. Many years later, I have found this to not be true. In fact, I have to be somebody before I can be with somebody. I don’t need to be defined by someone else.
I have never taken an official writing workshop. This is mostly true because I don’t live in areas where they are given. I have not been motivated enough to drive a great distance to some workshop or seminar in a big city. But I did begin to read how-to books about writing. The Weekend Novelist, by Ray and Norris. The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. On Writing, by Stephen King. The Forest For The Trees, by Betsy Lerner. I highly recommend them all. Each has given me insight into the creative mind, the writer’s life, and the discipline needed to become an author. I heard it said on one occasion that writing is your “practice.” It’s a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane. This is especially true for me. I get pretty squirrely without putting my thoughts down on paper or in a computer document. (A note here: Writing by hand will actually feel different to you than typing words into your word processor. Try using both methods.)
I was born with the tendency to write. A predisposition, if you will. But I was not born with all the necessary skills and habits of a writer. In that regard, we need to learn to write. We need to take hold of that so-called innate ability and “gentle” it like we would a wild horse. There is no one definite way to become a good writer. There are many truths and disciplines that apply to the process. Natalie Goldberg said in her great book, Writing Down The Bones, “To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life.” I think to do less than that, in other words to leave parts of your life out of your writing, is to tell a lie.
Whether you were a goody two-shoes (a perfect student), or a hellion you can latch on to the creativity that is in you. You can begin to talk to the world about stuff you never realized you felt. You can communicate, instruct, advise, suggest. You can create something out of nothing. You can tell your story. Or, you can tell the story of others. Whatever you write about, however, you must write what is true. The A.A. anniversary coins have it right: To Thine Own Self Be True. This is the only way to, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, “Write down the bones.” Write clearly and with great honesty. Technique is one thing. Voice is another. I’m talking about telling the truth. Only in this manner can you truly become a good writer.
Get started. Have fun. Dig down deep. Come back to visit me from time to time, and share what you’re working on. We’re a community, we creative types. You’ll find that no one else understands you. Not really. They will be baffled by the fact that you spend hours, nay, weeks or months, alone, writing in that crazy journal or on your laptop. They wonder who is ever going to read all that stuff. Just remember: Initially, you are writing because you have to or you’ll go crazy. If you keep at it, and if you remain honest, you’ll discover your own voice. You will see that you too have things to say. And eventually people will read what you write.