WRITING LIFE: Books on Writing Are Only Good for One (Really Important) Thing by Alicia Googins

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Like many people who write, I have a large collection of books on writing that I’ve amassed over the years. They sit all together on a wooden bookshelf across from my desk. As I’ve struggled over the years to “become a writer,” I’ve read many of them, in part or in whole, and am generally left wishing I had any idea what the heck they’re talking about.

The problem is that never once have I been able consciously to apply the helpful tips and tricks in any of these books toward further “mastery” of my craft. The most they really did for years was to keep me writing by tricking me into thinking that if I just read the right book with the right tips, I’d finally be able to really do this thing that was so hard and felt so lonely.

But therein lies the value, for this writer anyway, of reading books on craft. They’ve kept me going. And what started to happen was something kind of odd and magical and addictive, which was that I began to solve craft problems on my own, through sheer trial and error and slogging, and when I finally got something right, when something finally sounded halfway decent, I would read it over and realize I’d done something some writer had described doing in a craft book. I began to enjoy the feeling of recognition and delight in the companionship of others before me who had struggled with and solved the same problem I had just wrestled with. True, I only get this reward in return for what feels like a steep tariff each and every time I sit down to write: blind and total faith in the process, but somehow, it feels worth it.

For example, craft books often say things like “when you are done your essay, go back and cut the entire first page.” This made no sense to me for at least a decade. I would spend hours, weeks, months on the first paragraphs of an essay, convinced it was the only place in the piece I had succeeded in being clear and articulate. I continued to ignore the advice to go back and cut the beginning of anything I had written until, in workshop after workshop, it would be suggested to me that something about the first paragraph, or maybe even the whole first page, just wasn’t working, and I would end up cutting the whole thing and starting on page 2.

Or speech tags. That’s another popular one in craft books. I used to puzzle over the advice they gave to simply use “he said,” or “she said,” or “they said” when a character says something, and to leave it at that. If my dialog and scene work is well done, the reader doesn’t need to suffer through moments like “she shrieked,” or “they gasped,” or “I sighed,” it turns out. Did I take this advice? “No, never!” I exclaimed. And it was always the wrong decision. See?

My favorite, of course, is when they tell you that you must continuously revise your work—that writing is revising. This one is particularly annoying because the last thing I want to do after I’ve finally gotten a sentence down on paper is revise it. I’d rather drink nail polish than rework an essay. But the only way I ever finally published a piece was by revising the same essay for a full two years before I finally succeeded in getting it to sound right, to “work.” And when it did, I knew it, and I realized I’d done a number of crafty little things I’d read about over the years.

So today, I picture these books as people waving to me from the other side of a vast abyss, hollering at me in a language that is completely unintelligible to me before I’ve crossed the terrifying, rickety bridge that spans the deep chasm and faced, totally alone, one of the craft challenge trolls they’ve been trying so hard to warn me about. Because what has worked, the only thing that has worked over the years—bad news here, folks—is to just keep writing: to fall on my face every time, to be infuriatingly unable to make something sound right, and to just keep writing anyway, until I figure out what works. The good news is that now, each time I get to the other side of the abyss and get something right, all my craft books are there, and what has until then been pure gibberish suddenly becomes a language I can understand.

“Welcome!” they’re saying, “We knew you could do it! Sorry you had to go it alone, love, but we’re so glad you’re here!”

Alicia Googins holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College and is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. She has taught writing at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School and Emerson College, and been a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her essays have appeared in Solstice Magazine, the Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her partner and her three sons, and works at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as the Associate Director of Development Planning and Communications.

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