This was a little something I shared on a site some time ago.
When I was fifteen, I wrote a poem that earned me a spot in a writer’s workshop. I didn’t submit it, a teacher did. I was the youngest person in the workshop. I did not know it at the time but a special arrangement had been made for me after some degree of protest. I didn’t even have to pay. There was a girl, she was seventeen and apparently gifted from the way her poetry read. She paid. The rest of them were pretty much adults, in college or working writers. It was an honor and even at that age I realized it.
When the instructor walked in and announced that he was the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, and also the Writer-in-Residence at the college we were being housed in (blah, blah, blah), I immediately realized that I really didn’t belong there. He didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know. Even at that age, I knew the importance of research. It’s just the way he said it. He was no longer on paper, but standing in front of me in the flesh—bigger, and more wrinkled, than life itself. Everything about that experience was new to me. For one, he didn’t give grades. For an over achiever of my age at a “college”, that seemed blasphemous. There was no pass or fail. You either wanted to improve as a writer, or this was some way for you to stroke yourself. He made it clear that if you were expecting him to do any stroking, then your ass was parked in the wrong seat. Yes, he said it just like that.
I was shocked, but for some strange reason also suddenly in love. He was my first “L”. Or, I should say that he gave me my first L.
I know what you are thinking. L is for Lust, because that’s the Summer I discovered mine. NO. L is for Love, because that’s the summer I fell in love with some man three times my age and lost my virginity. Or better yet, I lost my virginity to a woman three times my age. No. Okay, L is for the Summer I fell in love with poetry. Wrong. L is for Loser, because that’s the summer I discovered that I was already very adept at stroking myself. Wrong again. It was L for Lazy, because that’s the summer when all that other stuff happened and I discovered how to not be a lazy writer.
Uhm…I didn’t lose my virginity though. But, it did catch your attention.
I may never be a “good” writer. I hate using relative words, but for the sake of brevity I’ll use the term good. Nevertheless, I’m a hell of a good reader. That’s the first thing I learned. If you say that you love poetry or fiction, who are you reading? I mean really reading, not just entertaining yourself. Do you ask yourself, why you read them? Is it worth repeating out loud? Do you examine what makes their writing unique, special, and “good”? Do you reach beyond your comfort zone? We all have what we like to read, just like we have what we like to write. Don’t limit yourself. There are writers that write beyond our grasp or ability, in the present and specifically in the past. Read them, examine them. Let them intimidate you and examine why. Let the fine writings of quality writers that have proven themselves provoke you into sharpening your skills. I advise to even let the crappy stuff that may cross your path provoke you as well. Sometimes asking yourself why something sucks can cause you to reexamine what you are doing. Reading is what will help writer’s block. Reading is what will keep you from writing about the same thing over and over again. The list goes on. The most important thing is that all really good writers are avid readers. Lazy writers are not.
Lazy writers read something and get lost in the world of “I think”. I think this and I think that, I would have done this and I would have done that. Mind you, I said lost. I’m all for personalization. You remember what you personalize. It wouldn’t hurt though, I mean if you are serious about writing, to read a work of professional criticism. Learn what successful writers have to say about writing. I’m not suggesting starting with Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading”, but Anita Shreve, Toni Morrison, Stephen King and even that line of books “For Dummies” write about writing. Find who you like and read what they have to say about writing. It may piss you off, it may enlighten you, but it will inspire you. You will improve, not because you want to mimic them but because you realize you are not a writing God, yet.
Me. As much as I love me and am so completely loved by those who love me, I learned to not subject my readers to me every time I put my pencil to the paper (or fingers to the keyboard). Lazy writers love to talk about themselves and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that if you are interesting. Even then, there are only so many ways you can retell the same story, the same opinion, and the same view on life. Every dream you have does not a good writing make. Every experience you have does not qualify as interesting to anyone else but you. That is what journals are for. When you get older you buy the ones without locks because at some point you realized that no one cares. That hurts. It hurts to have someone look at your heart’s blood or brain’s drain written out and forced into language, formatted and in an excellent rhyming pattern, only to hear them say “so what”.
I remember looking at that professor and saying, “But it hurt me to share this.” He looked at me and said, with one eye brow raised, “Really? How much time and energy do you have invested in what you wrote on that piece of paper?” The truth is that I wrote about a sure thing. I took a pain (and at fifteen I did believe that my pain was the end all be all) that could be universally related to, put in a little personal significance and ranted with the gift of tongue and excellent rhyme. I felt that I could turn a phrase, after all that’s how I got there. And well, all good poems rhyme. Lazy writers depend on that kind of stuff to make the poem. Then I called it “A Black Girl Sings”. If all else failed, I could look all indignant and say, “You don’t really read black authors do you.” It would not be intended as a question but more of a social statement devised to shut someone down.
And of course, he said, “Actually I do. Who do you have in mind?”
You see, lazy writers underestimate the reader too.
The obvious pain present was good, it was relatable. The words and rhymes were good, but it was not a poem. It was a rant. It was a situation. None of those things were as important as why my pain, your pain, that situation was special. Why was it worthy of subjecting everyone in the room to it? How much had I really put into it? How long did I think about its significance. How much thought had I given to word choice? If it was simple, why was it simple? If it was complex, why was it complex? Was each word specific in its meaning and intonation? One comment had said that it was easy to get lost in the complexity and the beauty of the language, but to what point. I didn’t get one stroke. My English teacher in school would have been in tears telling me how great that poem was. It did only take me about forty minutes to write thanks to my handy dandy electronic thesaurus. But, that’s how it works when you are one of the gifted few. Right? I was lazy. I wanted glory, but I didn’t want to work for it. The only people it impressed were the ones who didn’t really want to think. They are called lazy readers.
If you are satisfied with the accolades that come from lazy readers, then you need to stop reading right now. Please, stop.
Some one story wonders or one poem wonders don’t realize that is what they are. They keep giving us that same story or poem over and over again. It was interesting the first time. I repeat, the first time. This is me in love, this is me in pain, and this is me in recovery. They write story after story, poem after poem, musing after musing. They become a cliché. And, for the lazy reader, clichés are familiar and comforting. That’s okay if that is the level at which you wish to write. Believe me, it is an easy trap to be caught in. I catch myself all the time. Laziness has a way of sneaking up on you.
The absolute best quality a writer should have is empathy. The ability to write from yourself is good, but combine it with the ability to step outside of yourself and dive into an experience fully beyond just you. To pull out the universality of it and yet the personal interpretation, to risk your “self” (not for sympathy or just out of pain or even for attention-and I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with these things) for the sake of something that needs to be said or seen or felt, that’s the art of it. Unless you are shooting for the art of it, you are not really loving the art form. You are self-indulging. Lazy writers self-indulge.
There are going to be things associated with certain writers, their voice or style. You want your own voice and your own style. That’s the ultimate goal. It is good to pull from within yourself and stretch, let it be raw and even a little painful. Or, let it be deep in its appreciation of joy, happiness and even the mundane. Keep in mind, I said stretch because there is no emotion or experience that you will have that has not ever been had by someone somewhere else and written down. Don’t forget that. If you are going to subject us to it, at least be honest about it and give it some advanced, profound thought. Remember, only lazy readers don’t want to think. Lazy writers just jot down their first thought and leave it at that.
Writing is art. Very few are given that natural gift, that unexplainable and unteachable thing that makes the reader catch his breath and know that he is in the presence of greatness. You may or may not be one of the few and the proud. Odds are you are not. Thank your God that writing is also something that can be learned and well-tuned. It requires training. To what degree depends on the person. Yes, writing well depends on how hard you are willing to work. How lazy are you not going to be?
Well, as far as my poem was concerned, sometimes rejection is the best thing that can happen to a submission. I worked on the same poem for the entire time. Some people put out four or five. I put out one. It evolved and I transformed it into something that I was quite proud of. It was simple and unpretentious. Needless to say, I changed the title. I earned an honorable mention for that poem from my forum peers, which meant a lot. That poem won me a sizeable scholarship in college. I also used that same poem as part of my manuscript when I applied for graduate school. I learned not to be a lazy writer and it turned out to be a great thing that has spilled over into every other area of my life. I’m no “Pulitzer Prize” winner, so take it with a grain of salt. Admittedly, I’m much too lazy for that.