When I first started this project my goal was to improve my writing, and I think I have in small steps and almost imperceptible increments. Reading definitely improved my writing, though, I can never quite say how. Tips and tricks, probably, you tend to pick up small things when you're around people just doing their thing. The bottom line is, though, that my primary goal was to improve my writing. I noticed something strange towards the end of my hiatus though.
Now, during my hiatus I never really stopped writing. I journaled regularly at least, which mostly consisted of me complaining for several pages at a time. Occasionally, when inspiration struck me, I would write blog posts on No One Will Recall- my general repository for creative writing. Towards the end of my hiatus I also started working on other pursuits. I started to improve my fitness and then my diet. My wife and I also changed how we structure our finances in a pretty drastic way. These two major changes involved quite a bit of research, aka. reading. We had read a book on finance and changed our finances. I had read a book (by someone I trusted) on fitness and began to devote a lot of time and energy to it. I stuck with both plans for over two months, successfully, before a thought hit me. I was working harder, and more efficiently, on fitness and finance than I was my writing.
Well, the holidays are always a horrible time to kick anything off so I let the realization sink in through the Christmas season. A week or so after New Year's day I strolled into the local library where I kicked open the door, demanded a library card, and was promptly shushed by the clerk and made to apologize. Apparently libraries don't appreciate melodrama. I did get myself a new library card, though, and immediately set about loading-up on books about writing. It was time to get serious.
The first book I started reading was On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. The book had appeared on several lists of must-read books for writers and, I figured, it was hard to go wrong with the titles populated multiple lists. Now, I feel a little guilty for admitting that the first book I've ever read by Stephen King, a nearly legendary author, is On Writing. (I will admit owning one book by him that I never got around to reading it - Cell). So, I found myself in the awkward position of saying 'Well I heard his books were great so I'm sure his guide to writing is wonderful'. Luckily for me I no longer live in Maine so I don't have to worry about bumping into him. How would he know? He just would, and I don't think I could survive his judging gaze. One potentially awkward conversation avoided: Check.
On Writing isn't so much about writing as the journey of Stephen King on his path to become a writer. To be sure, there is quite a lot of good writing advice within the pages too, but I actually found the tales of his efforts to be published more enlightening in many ways. Although, I'll say that one of the more useful bits that I gleaned from On Writing was that I should use word count as a way to track my daily writing progress. That advice was also echoed, later, in my other reading, by Anne Lamott and Terry Pratchett. So now I write with a 500 word daily goal in mind.The pages of On Writing are filled with beautiful little gems of information for any budding writer. Sometimes you have to pay close attention, however, as many are easy to breeze by.
I've found, as a writer, the most perilous aspect of the craft is simply staving off doubts and maintaining a will to write. Reading about Stephen King writing in the laundry room of his old apartment and working crap jobs, the ones hovering around minimum wage, goes a long way toward allaying fears. It's comforting to know that even the great Stephen King started out humble. Some of his most common advice throughout the book is simply to keep writing and keep submitting your work to be published (articles included).
For me, On Writing served as a source of demystification. Writing has always been shrouded in a sense of mystery. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you follow the rules, sometimes you break them. The rules, to me, always seemed to be in flux, and the path to being published was an utter enigma. I discovered that there are resources that list publishers accepting submissions, and what kinds of submissions. I was pleased to discover that there are resources advertise book agents looking for clients. I was also surprised to hear that the first step to working as a writer is, essentially, keep asking around, writing, submitting, and improving, until you have built a kind of record. Your published works become a portfolio that you can point back to. Kind of a short-hand for "look at how great I am". In other words, just the art world's version of every resume ever. Granted, I think I'm still a long way from that, but when you're a long ways away a little confidence helps a lot. Probably the greatest source of help for me was by way of a confirmation. I had always suspected that being a writer just required hard work and diligence. There was always a part of me that wondered if there was some secret, some method, I was missing though. The answer, at least according to Stephen King in On Writing, is no, there really isn't any secret. Hard work, diligence, and a little creativity are key. For me, that is some of the best news I could get. I can work hard- I only ever feared that I needed more than that. So all that's left is for me to roll up my sleeves and keep writing.
Well. *Rolls up sleeves* I'm ready.
(P.S. - If you are wearing a T-shirt it looks really weird when you roll up the sleeves. I just tested it. So leave your sleeves alone. Roll up metaphorical sleeves instead. Geez. No one tells you these things. 'Roll up your sleeves and get to work' they said...)