by Joshua "Stressed but Well Dressed" Wayman, Fiction team member
Well, the title to this piece is a bit of a misnomer. Contrary to what plenty of people might tell you, there is no way to teach somebody how to write – at least not in the way that anything else is conventionally taught.
There are, of course, classes you can take, and these are classes I have been apart of on more than one occasion. They are immensely helpful, but they do not teach you how to write in the core sense of the idea, nor do they teach you the habits and disciplines you should employ while writing. This is not to disparage these classes – they were invaluable in my growth as a writer and I am immensely grateful to the professors who taught these classes. What they will do is provide you with an environment where you’re able to experiment, offer you criticism and teach you how to take it gracefully, and they will open you up to new perspectives. That being said, if you enter one of these classes without any capacity to write whatsoever, it is nigh impossible that you will leave suddenly able to write well.
There are also plenty of “How To Write” lists and tips that have been generated by prolific writers throughout the years. There’s Jack Kerouac’s famous “30 Tips on Writing” that hung on Allen Ginsberg’s wall as he wrote “Howl” (my favorite one from that is “Accept loss forever.”) There’s Vonnegut’s list, there’s Hemingway’s, Faulkner offers advice in interviews, and there’s even one from the notorious ad-man David Ogilvy that was circulated as a memo to all employees (“Wooly people write wooly memos.”) All of these, and more, are hanging on my bedroom wall, but they aren’t there to provide instruction. They’re there to provide perspective.
Some, even most of these lists have conflicting suggestions. Hemingway wrote “write drunk; edit sober” and Faulkner said that all he needs to write is some tobacco and scotch, but Fitzgerald said that only a short story could be written on a bottle, and that a novel requires absolute sober focus. Some of these writers encouraged us to use real life experiences as our inspiration, whereas others found it best to invent our stories and characters out of thin air, products of pure imagination.
Trying to follow these instructions verbatim is a recipe for disaster, and so is taking anybody at their literal world for how to write. Much in the way I might stand up and take a break from writing to stare out my window, I’ll walk across my room to these typed-up lists and excerpts from interviews for a similar reason – to get out of my own head.
What I’m trying to say here is that you cannot learn how to write, how to truly encapsulate that spark – the one that it takes to make any writing worthwhile – from the mouth or pen of anybody else. However you write is however you write. Whether you prefer to work early in the morning or late at night, all at once or spaced out over years (one of Gore Vidal’s novels took decades to finish, and he took multi-year breaks in between), or whether you want to use people you’ve met (or even yourself) as inspiration is entirely up to you. You will save yourself a lot of anguish the sooner you stop looking for somebody to tell you the correct way to do what only you can do. There is no right way to write and there is no wrong way to write, that is, except to never write at all.
Grub Street is Towson University's award-winning literary journal, run by undergraduates enrolled in "Editing the Literary Magazine."