The Process of Becoming a Writer: Getting Started

Over the course of many years, potential writers have contacted me, often expressing a wish to become a writer but something has stood in the way. Often this ‘something’ is fear—a fear takes many forms. It may be a sense that the writer doesn’t have the ‘gift’ of self-expression. Sometimes it is a fear that what the writer has done in the past, in the way of writing, has no creativity. Sometimes the fear is that what he or she has to express is so painful that it is better left well enough alone. In some cases, people with a substantial education, people who have done some academic or scientific writing, find creative writing terribly hard and unrewarding.

I fell into the latter category, for a long, long time. My Dad was a highly-educated person…and a good writer. For my part, I found academic writing easy and creative writing almost impossible. I tried, for many years, from my mid- twenties until my late thirties to write creatively. It was enormously difficult. In fact, it was almost impossible.

Another category of fearful folks is those who do write creatively but their work is filled with the adult language and concepts of academic writing, so their work appeals neither to the head nor the heart of the reader. This problem is not difficult to fix (please see the early chapters of my Writing from Within Workbook) but for a person who writes this way and has no guidance, writing creatively can be extremely frustrating. This was certainly my experience as I suffered through college and through many years while I was making documentary films.

A third category of writers is those who have had bad experiences in writing groups. Either the group is far too critical, expanding and confirming the fears of the writer, or the group provides no critical framework whatsoever and so the writer continues to wonder whether his or her work is getting through to the reader. Again, the problem is not difficult to solve (please see “Creating Feedback” in my Writing from Within text), but for anyone who has experienced either of these kinds of groups, trying to write creatively is very frustrating.

My first experience in a writing class, at age 26, left me bewildered and confused when my story met with nothing but criticism. (After I had torn up the story, my classmates told me they loved the story. I stayed away from writing fiction for over ten years.)

How do we handle all these fears, which fall into so many different categories? Well, my experience over some forty years of teaching creative writing (and writing creatively) has shown me that we can confront our fears or we can ‘end run’ (a football term meaning running around the confusion of bodies in front of you) all these fears by going back to childhood and experiencing life as we knew it, when we were quite innocent, when fear was not a factor in our lives (at least, we hope this is so). Writing from the child’s point of view, devoid of adult sounding words and ideas, gives us a sense of how powerful simple language can be.

We can then build our writing muscles based on a skeleton of simple sentences, sentences built on creating strong pictures and vivid emotions, rather than a skeleton of complex sentences that appeal to the reader’s mind, not the heart and the gut. In other words, ‘I love you’ rather than ‘An intense emotion appears to form in the region of my chest, giving me an unexpected and underappreciated sense of your presence in my life’—the sort of thing we might get in a Henry James novel.

Confronting our fears has value, too—that is, doing our best to figure out where our fears come from (dad or mom’s criticizing behavior; our teachers, ministers, etc.) However, once we confront our fears, we still have to find a way around these fears, a process that leads us, once more, to ‘end-running’ them and getting back to experiencing life as the child we once were.

How did I manage to pull myself out of the fearful place I had been in for so long? At age 40, I was asked to teach a class, for senior citizens, in life story writing. As I listened to the students’ stories, for more than a year, I began to see what made some stories really good and others not so good. At the same time, I began to see a path unfolding that would lead me past and around my own difficulties.

Well, this is a start to conquering fear (or should I say getting past fear) and moving ourselves toward becoming writers.

by Bernard Selling

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Note: Bernard Selling’s books on writing are published by Turner Publishers and may be ordered from Amazon.com.

2 thoughts on “The Process of Becoming a Writer: Getting Started

  1. I was in Bernard’s class for quite a few years and have written 4 books. The first of which “Confession of a Wanker” has a few chapters on this web site.
    Thanks Bernard, it’s a great article that should help many writers.

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