Or, things I would tell my younger writer self (if only she would have listened)
When I look back on my young writer self as a child or teenager, and later as a young adult in my 20s and 30s, I see a lot of wasted energy and time. To put it bluntly I lacked confidence. I analyzed and thought about what I was planning to write so much that I ended up not writing at all. I’d get an idea walking home from university, start and finish the piece in my head and convince myself no one would ever read it by the time I got to my student apartment. On paper it was worse: everything looked like garbage. My thoughts jotted in journals were either mediocre or the journal was too beautiful to be sullied with my words. Even when I was living in Paris and I wrote down my emotions or experiences they seemed bland and tedious.
I wonder where this lack of confidence in my writing came from? I did not seem to lack confidence in other areas like moving countries, changing jobs, or meeting people but maybe these things didn’t rely on confidence as much as survival, eating, paying the bills.
Is judgement the word I’m looking for? Was I judging my inexperienced self too harshly and at the same time pushing myself so I wouldn’t be judged in the same way by others? I didn’t move to Paris after university for anyone else. Nor did I have any financial help or connections that made it easy, as a few people in my past have implied. Living in other countries was like writing for me: I could not NOT do it. Borders made me claustrophobic: I craved new experiences, new people, new histories. It was a primal appetite that I had to satiate. Like writing.
So with hindsight at the half-century mark, here’s what I wish I could have told my younger writer self:
- Keep a journal but don’t read it until much later. And never show it to anyone. Everyone’s writing is crap, here most of all. It’s supposed to be crap because you are being honest and just pouring head to page. If you are honest, there will be unique pictures and memories that can later be polished and presented coherently. Do not think about what you’re writing. Allow and encourage the voices in your head to jumble on the page. Do not be neat. Do not be organized. Do not reread. Do not judge. Actually anything you think you ‘shouldn’t’ write down, definitely needs to be put in your journal.
- Follow your instincts. And write them down now. Around 2000, when I was working in London as a Bloomberg reporter I joked around with other journalist friends about the people we were ‘dating’ and came up with the idea of the Non-Date Date. Mobile phones were still new then and men would text me with messages like: “going 2 the pub with friends 4 a drink after work”. Huh? About a decade later, one of my former colleagues sent me a link to a newspaper article all about the Non-Date Date. I had several years to pull together something funny and I never did.
- Find out what’s new in writing. And see if you can turn it into something that works for you. I wish I’d known about creative nonfiction when I was in high school but it didn’t really exist. I love the personal essay that expounds on something other than simply the personal. Think about the material I’d have now if I’d written in or even kept any of my prized notebooks from age 10. In all fairness to myself, when I left for Paris in 1989 there was no widespread internet and information from other countries wasn’t easily accessible. It would have been very difficult for me to find out about Lee Gutkind’s Creative NonFiction which started in the 1990s, but few outside of developing countries have any excuses now.
- Read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. And do all the exercises. I first read Cameron’s book in the late 1990s. I read it in bed late at night or sprawled on the floor — I didn’t have a lot of furniture — on Sunday afternoon after rock climbing. I thought reading the exercises was enough. I never actually did them. Duh. Around 2006 I picked the book up again and read it and did each one of the exercises in order, especially Morning Pages. That’s when I started writing every day and I’ve been writing regularly since. I still reread parts of The Artist’s Way and other favourites when I need a refresher. (Actually I was looking for it the other day but after moving countries we still have furniture in storage and many unpacked boxes.)
- Go to writing and reading events more often. And talk to people. Instead of going to the pub after work, Kirsten, go to writing and reading events with the specific aim of talking to people and making new supportive writing friends. Most writers are a mix of intro- and extrovert and may tend on the introverted side. For years, I was insecure and lacked confidence and had to force myself to talk to people at events (which is why going rock climbing or to the pub was easier). Even now, it’s not easy when I walk into a room full of people who have been working for years in the same industry within a similar geography. Because I’ve lived in other places, I don’t know their relationships or understand their history. But I put on my mental armour and force myself to do it. I consider it work. Journalism was good training for this.
- Read everything you want to write. And always have a pencil in your hand. Read to heal and to understand how others have tackled difficult subjects and how they’ve structured fascinating books or humorous pieces. If you’re a writer than reading is part of your work. Pull your favourite pieces apart, type out your favourite sentences or paragraphs. Figure out what you love about a piece and why. If you speak other languages, read in that language, even if it’s difficult. It will change the way you write, subtly. When I write, I often read novels in French and the flow of my written English takes on a flavour unique to me.
- Say fuck it more often. And fuck them. The older I get, the more I say this. Even in front of my children. Write what is important to you and what matters to you and not only will your writing have depth but it will help you to find your people. If people don’t get you or your writing, fuck ’em. You and your words deserve much better. (Sorry I swore Mum and Dad.)
I’m sure there are many more things I’d tell my younger writer self but let’s not overwhelm her. If you’re in or around Toronto and looking to meet new creative nonfiction writers in a supportive environment, come hang out with me at the Creative NonFiction Collective’s annual conference in May!