Category Archives: Writing improvement

How to Follow the Way of the Writer

In my book Fighting to Win I describe in detail Budo, the Way of the samurai warrior that proved to be of interest to many people internationally. Just as the Way of the samurai has fascinated me for decades, there is a Way of the Writer which I have long been actively involved in that I would like to describe here as I conceive of it.

A Way is more than a discipline. It is a style of practicing a skill or art that embraces the heart, spirit, and mind of the practitioners of the Way–the beginners who devote themselves to the Way and become masters.

Developing into a Writer Following a Way

Hands of a woman writing in a notebook in a grassy fieldA writer begins with a talent. Talent is the raw material from which a writer’s career is shaped. Doing well what others find difficult is talent. It is not possible to describe the complete, complex structure of knowledge and skills the talented writer has acquired. The best predictor of future success isn’t just time spent writing, but the amount of time devoted to improving not just this skill or that skill, but the  specific skills which are the most essential if a person is to become excellent--those ten or so necessary abilities they must possess if they hope to excel. Developing those skills is the first focus of a person on the Writer’s Way.  Skills are taught–by a teacher, or a mentor, or they are self-taught. Many of the most successful and distinguished writers taught themselves.

You read about writing and famous writers and may take classes and may belong to writers’ groups. You may go to writers’ retreats and find Table with book, eyeglasses, coffe cup and white and lavender flowers in a vasecontentment. “There is a blessed peace in a retreat that happens to suit my fraught nature…I arrive in a heaven…and I sink immediately in a sort of peace from life that I don’t seem to be able to find anywhere else” (Lynn Freed).

Someone mentors you or singles you out and offers help. You apply yourself and develop a solid foundation in the mechanics of writing, and branch out into in your specialty and learn its mechanics and then range far beyond the mechanics, becoming a proficient writer, then excellent, then superb, masterful.

You may be a natural-born novelist, or essayist, playwright, poet, or screen writer, or you may begin writing no more promising than anyone else. But at some point—it could be at the age of seven or forty or sixty five or at a bleak crisis or turning point or epiphany in your life–if you are on the first steps of the Writer’s Way, you  begin to write more purposefully, mindfully, self-consciously, and ambitiously. Your goals grow higher, your future path a little less faint.

Tip of a fancy fountain penThen, possibly without being aware of how it happened, out of the act of writing more frequently, acquiring knowledge of effective writing, involving yourself in the writing world, enduring at times frustration, suffering, and pain you wouldn’t have had were you not a writer, and growing in confidence, your writer’s style and voice growing clearer, you are “taken” by the craft of writing fully and completely–unequivocally.

You find yourself a practitioner of the Way of the Writer. As a writer involved in a Way you are willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of writing because for you writing is satisfying in a way few if any other things are. It is not so much the content of the writing you do that accounts for your pleasure, but the process of writing that brings joy in and of itself. The biographies of great artists make it clear that the creative urge often “yokes everything to the service of the work” (Carl Gustave Jung). For most serious writers, to write itself is more rewarding than the acclaim they receive.

What It Feels Like If You Are On the Way of the Writer

Path with pink tulips on either sideWriting as a Way opens up new facets of your being that you might not be aware of. You write regularly over an extended period of time–one year, five, ten, thirty, or fifty. It’s writing that you think most about and talk with other writers about and possibly bore your loved ones speaking about. Writing as a Way becomes an indispensable part of your daily and weekly life.

At times writers on a Way write night and day, revision upon revision, embellishing, reworking, cutting, shaping and reshaping, and finally deciding if the work is done and ready “to go out.” Although writing is often grueling, tedious, and not easy but difficult to master, few other things matter as much to practitioners of any of the arts as sweat and work. When you’re away from writing, you crave it. If you’re away too long, you become edgy, nervous, and irritable. The only relief is to get back to the writer’s work you adore. You try to write at least one hour every twenty-four. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.

Something you find essential in the act of writing keeps you going and makes you return to it again and again in spite of the setbacks and deep disappointments every writer knows well. There is “just something about” putting words together, of experimenting with ideas, of holding them in your mind as you would analogously hold a ball in your hand, and of the emotional release of “losing” yourself in the work, of having a penchant for detail because writing is an art of detail.

Hand clasp with the words Learning, Knowledge, Experience, Competence, Skills, Ability, Training & GrowthwWhen you’re writing, you’re focused. Your mind is sharp, crisp. Your thoughts don’t wander. You’re not thinking of anything else. A headache disappears. Worry about the rent dissolves. You forget about yourself, almost as though you’ve stopped existing except in the words you’re putting so carefully on the screen before you. You may be working on four, five, or six projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, each project requiring different talents. When people don’t recognize the value and quality of your writing, your faith in yourself helps you persist. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”

The joy and exhilaration you receive on the Writer’s Way even from the physical act of sitting at the computer, taking a first breath of your work day, getting ready to write, and touching the keyboard with your fingertips, or the thrill at the design of the text on the computer screen is beyond the experience and comprehension of non-writers. Those aspects of the writer’s life add up to an experience which is often as necessary to the writer’s wellbeing as loving and being loved.

Container of pens, pencils, and highlighters in front of a computer keyboardThe most distinguishing quality of creative people is a persistent and enthusiastic absorption in their work, in spite of any frustration and suffering they may endure. Creative talent is indistinguishable from passion and intensity. You can hardly call yourself creative without them. One reason writers who are experts are more accomplished than writers who are very good but not great is that experts are more passionate about writing and spend more hours at it, working six hours while less capable writers work two hours.  The only way you could keep some people from writing would be to break their fingers.

When you are a writer on a Way, when you’re writing you are in your element and are maximally effective. You have high aspirations. You’re willing to sacrifice other pleasures and have a need to do your work without being interfered with, to be free of conflicts that impede your writing goals.

At times you live with uncertainties, doubts, and tension. But over the months or years you develop strength, confidence, and faith in your abilities and judgment. If asked, you’d define yourself as creative, inventive, determined, and enthusiastic. You’ve found that you have good insights into your capabilities and are aware of those you lack. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter—if they don’t drive you away from a Writer’s Way–play a necessary part in making you stronger. There are many things you can’t do well that other people are far better at. But one thing you can do is write better than most other people.

Lone tree on a pink field with a white and blue skyWhatever your mood, even if grim, writing make you feel beater. Pleasure increases the more you write, partially because you work independently, isolated and self-sufficient. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, you’re no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse).

The more you write, the more automatic your writing becomes. Then it is done without the interference of thought, like a bead of dew dropping simply and directly from a leaf: “My work is done at a subterranean level and as fragments come to the surface, I record them as they come up” (Katherine Anne Porter.)

Writing Is Blissful, but Painful

Virginia Woolf referred to a writer’s “rapture.” She said, “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what, making a scene coming right, making a character come together.” That rapture is what writers often experience while writing, engaged in the Way of the Writer.

Man sitting in front of a computer laptop with hands clasped behind his head in evident frustrationIt is not unusual for writers and other artists fully absorbed in their work to be for that time in a state of ecstasy while they think, “What I am working on is essential to my fulfillment. I will be tenacious; I will persist for long periods without being diverted and try to make my work exceptional and appealing to an audience, applying all the skills of the craft I’ve labored so diligently to develop.”

But a person on a Writer’s Way is not spared emotional and physical suffering.  George Orwell thought that writing a book was “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness” that writers are driven to by a demon they don’t understand but can’t resist. French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote a friend, “You have no notion what it is to sit out an entire day with your head between your hands beating your unfortunate brains for a word.”  Julian Green wrote, “if only people knew what lies at the heart of my novels. What a tumult of desires these carefully written pages conceal! I sometimes have a loathing for the furious cravings that give me no peace except when I am writing.”

Following a Writers Way, You’re a Seeker and Teller of Truth.

Path winding through autum trees of gold and orangeIn the arts, Anton Chekhov said, one must not lie, but must always be truthful. You’re trying to find what your truth really is and how best to express it and not deviate from it so that readers will understand it and find value in it and trust you. It is only through your writing that the truths you’ve discovered, and now believe in and strongly feel, will be expressed. How hard and how long you’ll have to work to express your truth is unimportant because every time you write it’s a coming into your own, a renewal of the best you have to offer the world.

 

The logical end of the Writer’s Way is to become a capital W writer, a Real Writer–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, and readers, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about writing.”  Juvenal expressed the truth that “The incurable itch of writing possesses many.” Why across the world in every hemisphere and country is that true?

Long road extending between rows of treesThrough writing you’re drawing out of yourself all that is in you–all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, what your emotions are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. You gain meaning in life and a better understanding of who you are through performing writing. You have the sense that you are a person who is able to reveal important things. Delving deeply, expressing to the world what treasures you have found, you are now an artist, a remarkable status you have achieved by following the Way of the Writer.

 

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Creativity Self-Improvement, Creators' Work Life, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Persistence, The Writer's Path, Way of a Writer, Writing improvement

Writing Vivid Descriptions

Good writers should have an “eye” and an excellent memory of people, places, and events that they have experienced in their lives themselves or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions full of images–word pictures–that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses, particularly the sense of sight, but the other senses as well. Descriptions are not window dressing or “filler” that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions detract from the quality of the written piece. On the other hand, exceptional descriptions can compensate for weaknesses in other areas. If there is one quality descriptions should possess it is vividness. Vividness gives writing impact and is memorable.

Woman thinking in sunsetWriting vivid descriptions is a skill writers should strive to refine. Yet it is a weakness of many writers. If your ability to write effective descriptions is lacking it should be worked on vigorously and made a strength. Like painters, writers benefit from maintaining some form of “sketch books,” notebooks to which the writer adds descriptions that could be incorporated into a final text later. Anton Chekhov, master of masters of the short story, referred to “images and scenes which are precious to me and which for some reason I carefully saved and put aside.” Whenever a particularly potent and useful description comes to mind, don’t waste it. Write it down in the notebook before you forget it.

Descriptions are an integral part of the written piece, serving a major role of evoking an atmosphere, a mood, a spirit of a person or places, and establishing a tone and a setting. American writer Stephen Crane was influenced by French Impressionism painting and made it a point to include colors in his descriptions whereas Ernest Hemingway often mentioned the weather in his. Chekhov wrote 588 pieces. He was all business when he wrote them, wasting no words. He did not consider descriptions less important than plots, and his descriptions stand out.

Good writers with a talent for language often find pleasure in writing effective descriptions in an appealing style that readers sometimes find the feature of the piece they remember most. Anyone seriously interested in literary description will probably find their way to the writings of Joseph Conrad and be spellbound.

The following are examples of vivid descriptions from my own writing:

 

Sudden Storm

It was summer, and in summer the lake, so much a part of our childhood, was always inviting. That day the two of us –my sister Sharon, eight, and I, ten– inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy. She was on the shore holding my hand. I was standing in the water. Suddenly a wind Big wavepicked up. Into the air fluttered two hundred gulls with noisy wings. Above us clouds raced each other headlong across the coal black sky. Onto the shore crashed a procession of liquid walls–white-crested, angled slightly off to the south where blocks of limestone twenty feet high lay as if dropped from the heavens by gods. The magnificent waves rose–hills of water that seemed to pause, suspended for a moment at their peak as though they could rise no higher, and then crumbled and broke on the shore like a multitude of shattered stars. The spume spread and undertows slid back like shears below the breakers. Wave upon wave upon wave upon wave rose, lunged, and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind. But now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth. It was a lion of a wind unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a sparkle, bite, and sting–many winds in fact, one gust coming, ending, another coming, another waiting–bringing pouring in to us the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself. The hoarse roar of the foaming waves filled all the air with the sounds of artillery.  Trees on the shore bent as though made of rubber and our drenched bodies glistened.

Everything in our field of vision was in motion–beach umbrellas pulled out of the sand and hurled west, end over end into the high grass where frightened field mice must have cowered in terror. Unattended blankets were lifted up like magic carpets and whipped skyward. Trees shook. Grass was flattened as though pressed by an iron. The canopies of the concession stands snapped. Bathers to our left and right and further up the beach gathered their blankets and loose clothes, and children sprinted with their parents for the shelter of the beach house. Sharon and I lay flat on the ground clutching the earth with our hands and raised our heads and watched men dragging row boats higher up onto the beach away from the waves, leaving behind ruts in the sand: such things making this one day permanent in our minds. Thirty years later when Sharon was dying, that was the childhood day she remembered best.

 

Where I Live

It is a very nice little Midwestern American town, clean and peaceful. To the east, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the houses are very grand, elegant, and old, and the streets are lined with magnificent trees.  The library is in the middle of town next to the town sculpture and City Hall and a rose garden and a facsimile of the log cabin of the first resident.

When you ride the commuter trains up from downtown Chicago, thirty miles south, the uniformed conductors, assembled like partridges in little talkative groups beside their waiting trains, tell each other one last lie, sometimes involving women who come alive only at midnight on Saturdays. Then the train leaps from the dark, oil-reeking station and you, a passenger,  look out the window and see the lines of office and factory workers on the streets and an urban panorama of gray back porches cluttered with terracotta flower-pots and bicycles and broken washing machines. Leaning over the railings of the porches are people–not all of them poor–with the great mournful eyes of cats. The light of day falls dramatically on them, particularly at the moment the sunlight fades and becomes evening, and you find yourself wondering if it is possible these people you can see with your own eyes but will never meet are happy. Disappearing behind you, the wilderness of massive structures towers into the sky as if put there to hold up the clouds.

 

Youth’s Nights of Happiness: Night Of The College Dance

(Reprinted from my short story “The Kiss,” DuPage Valley Review.)

college town“Young couples sitting on benches held each other, kissed, and heard the melancholy saxophone through the open windows of the gymnasium. Past a grove of gray trees, out on the lagoon, among mallards drifting on the water like leaves and bull frogs hidden in the shadows like thieves, students in row boats whose oars dangled free and made little splashing sounds, lay back, their bodies warm and glowing under light blankets. Contented, they were looked down upon by a pageantry of stars that seemed so close together that a finger wouldn’t fit between them. And while laughter floated like smoke through the night, they spoke of the incredible deeds they would one day perform.”

 

The College Town Where I Lived

The night of the dance, I remember, was perfect too–that crispness of Midwest autumn, a small drowsy college set in a little town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets crowded with lovely old gnarled oaks, maples, and sycamores and wild, untrimmed hedges. Pinnacles, domes, and spires of church towers, like the great cathedrals of Europe, rose gradually and wonderfully and were visible everywhere. In the yards, along crumbling stone fences sprouting moss, lichens, and ferns, were an abundance of rose gardens that were sadly withered at that time of year. The town was surrounded on all sides by tractors and threshers left overnight in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.

 

Riding Freight Trains

(The day after we graduated from high school my friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–talked it over in a corner drug store and decided to ride freight trains for a while: college could wait. We took a bus to the Chicago city limit and walked behind a billboard and across an empty lot to a little train yard. A freight train came by and we hopped it, heading due west where we hoped adventures we couldn’t tell our parents about waited.)

 

At The Welcome Inn, Wyoming

Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train, the alluring green neon sign of the Welcome Inn burned brightly. It was a small, squat, one-story square log building that night and day hummed and trembled with pulsing music and in which who knew what went on. But we were curious to find out. This was our second visit. The first time through we had entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar light and clouds of floating smoke, and stood at the bar next to a tattooed woman snapping a bull whip and wearing a black satin cape with shining red lining and had seen a man with a chin scar and an eye-patch get angry and pull a pistol on another man. The second man took the gun away from the first and slugged him over the head with it. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Old cars with dented fenders and gaudy garters dangling on their rear-view mirrors and pick-up trucks with rifle racks cradling ominous shotguns and carbines were parked four deep in the lot. When the door of the Inn swung open, muscular men, their shirt sleeves rolled up above the bicep, sauntered out arrogantly, their arms tight around the waists of conspicuously made-up women, their heads thrown back in exaltation and abandon, and the chime of laughter spilled into the night like water.

 

 

My Childhood: Rag Man

(Adapted from “Edgewater” that appeared in East on Central magazine)

Keeping to no particular schedule other than it be daylight nearing early evening, the old gray nameless Rag Man came down our alley. He appeared to be a rag himself–sitting high atop a large, heavy-laden, horse-drawn, creaking wagon stacked with old lamps, washboards,  card tables, vacuum cleaners, newspapers,  pots and pans, and such. His loud gruff voice preceded him by half a block as he bellowed “Rags, old iron” as though we were all asleep in bed and needed to be woken. As the wagon approached, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse. Its head hung low and swayed to the rhythm of its plodding gait. Passive, not straining or wrenching at the reins, it would lift its head with majesty and shake its harness chains vigorously and musically. But uncomfortably. Then you heard its snorts as it struggled futilely with its bit. You noticed its huge bulbous brown eyes, glazed with an expression of weariness and pitiful sorrow. You noticed too the sunlight shimmering off the sweat coating its flanks and the twitching muscles of its legs and rump shaking flies away. How can I forget–how could you forget were you there too–that elegant parade of a rattling wagon, Rag Man, and Rag Man’s horse?

 

My Dear Father and Me

Man and boy walking along water's edgeThere was a tenderness and manly sweetness in my father’s manner, and too, the restraint of a gentlemanly politeness and natural shyness about speaking of things that moved him most profoundly, and which I knew indisputably he felt toward me, as I did toward him.

 

The Silent Coal-Shoveler

(Appeared in Muses Gallery)

Sometime before the cruel, cold Chicago winter days came each year, the coal-shoveler would appear in the alley. I would walk past him and his pile of coal on the way to school. When I returned home, the coal was gone and the coal-shoveler–his work done–was gone too,

Behind the apartment buildings, beside a pile of coal a story high, toils the always silent, always alone, never-speaking, never-grunting, never-complaining, muscular black coal-shoveler. From chilly dawn, all day long while I am at school or at the playground, in the alley behind my house, that cadenced scrape of his shovel between coal and pavement can be heard, and the coal thumping, tumbling, like pieces of thunder down the wooden chute into a dark, cool cellar.

 

These are some of the descriptions that I first wrote in a notebook and later incorporated in longer pieces. Among other pleasures, descriptions give the writer a chance to play–to play with similes and metaphors and other expressive words.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Descriptive Writing, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Imagery in the Arts, Memory, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing improvement