Bonnie Friedman, in her fine book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, writes, “Writing teaches writing.” Perhaps she’s not the first to pen this — but how often do we pen something entirely original, anyway? — and that’s fine because it’s something we know, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Many writers abhor simple maxims. We wouldn’t argue with, “Bicycling teaches bicycling,” but “Writing teaches writing” deserves careful consideration. We’re a complicated lot.
(An aside: David Jauss, faculty chair of writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, told me many moons ago that Confucius proclaimed, “Simplicity is the last thing learned.” Ever one to complicate things, I asked Dave how I could bump it up to the next thing learned.)
In graduate school, I learned how valuable close reading is to improving my work. Doug Glover encouraged me to read novels twice: once for the “aboutness” of the text, next for ‘about how the author produced the text.’ Great advice.
Yet reading and writing are different acts.
I’m working on a long work now. That’s code for I’m writing “the genre that shall not be named lest naming it produces bad juju and halts the process.” Like a hockey goalie, I’m superstitious. Bad juju is serious business.
While writing, I won’t read a “how to write” or an “X-number of steps to better dialogue” book. More bad juju. There’s a time and place for such books. I have colleagues and friends — the two are not mutually exclusive — who’ve written excellent books on craft. But because I’m writing now, I avoid books telling me how to write. Instead, I write: on my work in “the genre that shall not be named lest naming it produces bad juju and halts the process” AND in a daybook.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll meet nearly 100 new writers. One of the first things I’ll tell them is that writing teaches writing. And then, I give the assignment: “You are to keep a daybook throughout the semester, recording at least four entries a week.” They can put just about anything they wish in their daybooks, including photographs, song lyrics, nasty letters to former friends.
Some will take to it and find it helpful. Others will write and claim not to find it helpful. And some won’t give it an honest effort until the night before self-selected excerpts are due. So it goes. As Notorious B.I.G. wrote, “It’s all good.”
Research abounds supporting that writing — fast, reflective, impulsive, messy, or refined writing — improves our critical thinking skills and much more. I believe this to be true. Yet my main motivation for writing is to learn how to write. Because that’s what I want to be when I grow up: a better writer.