The key to my success as a writer is failure. Fail big, and fail often, I always say. For some reason, many students feel they need to produce perfection as soon as pen touches paper. This has never, ever happened to me unless my intention was to make a decent scribble, then, well…mission accomplished! Failure paved the way for my writing career: first as a “failed” artist, then as a “failed” musician…writing was the pastime percolating in the background: the one that was always there for me that I hadn’t truly appreciated. But its power grew and grew and provided a place that allowed me control and unfettered expression.
I was sort of a “Johnny come lately” when it comes to writing (as is evident by my use of phrases such as “Johnny come lately.”). As a kid I was really into drawing: mainly spaceships and superheroes (such as The Volt and the ill-named Human Faucet). I used to write stories, though, to supplement my drawings: mainly based on existing properties such as Star Trek. You know: having Kirk and Spock do cool things like destroy entire planets that wore white after Labor Day. I would also view the burden of writing a book report into an opportunity to use whatever subject was imposed upon me as a launch pad to write what I really wanted to write about. Like when I had to write about the Declaration of Independence. I housed my essay within a post-apocalyptic story where a man finds the document in the rubble of a destroyed building (razed by alien lasers) and, though English had changed so much he could only make out part of it, he gets the gist just as humanity is enslaved by our new alien overlords. It got an A, though that could have been because I used glitter on the cover. I became more serious about writing when I worked at The San Francisco Chronicle. Though I was mostly a messenger, I would review movies and books so that I could go to movies and get books for free. I found, along the way, that I really enjoyed being published! Oh, and the writing too. From there, I became a movie critic, then started my own newspaper in Portland (Tonic), then was an Arts Editor at Willamette Week before being sucked into the Netherworld of advertising. When I look back at my reviews, they remind me a lot of the writing that I did as a kid, where I’d approach a subject as a springboard to talk about something else.
The first step to writing is daydreaming. This can look a lot like sleeping. Sometimes so much so that it is actually sleeping, which isn’t writing so much as resting. Most school writing programs don’t allow for this necessary first step. But it’s essential. Otherwise, it’s like running without stretching first. Or driving a car without filling up the gas tank. By allowing time to, first, think about what you may write, then the process of writing is merely about keeping up with your thoughts, not staring at a painfully blank page.
Both my advertising and fiction writing start out the same way: trying to will something interesting into existence, though you can never will it so much as just create an atmosphere of intention and hope that something clever stumbles, unsuspecting, into your little trap.
Writing is rather like driving: if you think about the process too much—how dangerous and weird it really is—then you’re toast. The key is to get lost in it. Which takes space. In this way, ideas can bubble to the surface of a calm pond. Or, if not, then the hard work of diving can feel more like immersive exploration.
Sometimes all of the planets are aligned and writing can be enjoyable and perhaps even productive, akin to cracking open a piñata and feasting on the candy (unfortunately for this metaphor, the piñata is one’s head).
The second great part of writing is right after you’ve done most of the heavy lifting and can see that what you’ve put down isn’t half bad. This is where the other part of a writer’s brain clicks in—the critic—and you work with the raw resources spilled out across the page and refine it into something truly remarkable: fuel for someone else’s imagination!
Writing is, essentially, a game. A board game where the goal is to never be bored with your game. You need to create an atmosphere that allows for play, but one that is ultimately governed by rules. Without rules, the options for play can become almost paralyzing. Too many choices is about as fun as no choices. And with too many rules—or a game where the rules are read with every turn—leaves no space for risk (unless, of course, that game is Risk).
A great first step for budding writers is reading as reading is a lot like writing, only in reverse. The rules and wonder of it all become ingrained in a young writer’s mind so that the process, ultimately, guides and motivates rather than intimidates!
By Dale Basye