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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 6. The “Be a Writer” Practice

If you want to be a writer, you need to be a writer.

That sounds like a Zen saying, doesn’t it? Let me explain.

So many people say they want to be writers; few of them actually do it. There are many reasons why a desire to write doesn’t translate into producing finished pieces of writing. One of the main reasons is that most people don’t know what writers actually do.

That’s because most writers work in private. We don’t see them at work; all we see is their finished products, those books shining on the shelves of bookstores or libraries. It’s much easier to see what other kinds of workers are doing: we can watch a carpenter put up a wall, for instance, or watch a teacher conducting a class. But even if we could step inside a writer’s office and watch her or him at work, what would we see? Someone typing at a computer or staring out the window! That doesn’t tell us much—and that’s because the work a writer does happens inside her brain.

I’ve been writing and teaching writing for almost thirty years, and for most of that time I have been fascinated—you might even say obsessed— with this question of what it is that writers actually do when they write.

If you want to be a baseball player, you have to start out swinging the bat and throwing the ball. If you want to play the piano, you have to move your fingers over the keys. The same thing is true for writing: if you want to write, you have to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard on a regular basis. This does not mean, however, that what you produce is going to be any good (if you were starting out as a baseball player, would you expect to a hit home run with every swing?); it means that you are engaged in practicing what writers do, in getting a sense of what it feels like to do the work of writing.

Perhaps you will discover that you don’t really enjoy this activity. Perhaps you will love it. You won’t know until you give it a try—ideally more than once. Here’s how:

Take a pen and paper (or open a word processing document). Now, start to write—about whatever first comes to your mind; it doesn’t matter what it is. When you get tired of that subject, move on to something else. If you get stuck, write the same word or sentence over and over until your mind gives you another idea.

There are three important rules for this practice:
1. You have to keep writing, no matter what, for ten minutes. You can’t stop to look out the window, get a cup of coffee, think about what to say next, or anything else. You don’t have to write fast; you do have to keep your fingers or pen moving.
2. No one else will ever see what you write.
3. Relax. This is only practice.

When your ten minutes are up, take a couple of minutes to reflect on how this exercise went for you. Did you enjoy being a writer? What parts appealed to you? What didn’t you like?

It’s essential to remember that what you have produced with this exercise is practice writing. You are not going to show it to anyone; you don’t even have to look at it again if you don’t want to. The purpose of this exercise is not to write something “great”; its purpose is to give you practice in doing what writers do: namely, put thoughts on paper.

If you want to write, if you are coming back to writing after an absence or a bad experience, if you get stuck or blocked when you try to write something, doing this practice (known as freewriting) on a regular basis will help a lot. It will make you comfortable with the activity of writing.

Once you feel comfortable just putting words and ideas on paper, then you can begin to develop the skills necessary to produce writing that others will want to read.

Some cautionary words about freewriting. Freewriting is a great practice, especially for beginning and blocked writers; it puts you in a place where you start to get a sense of what writers do. It’s a way to think on paper, and, as such, it can often give you great ideas.

HOWEVER, freewriting is only a practice, a way of warming-up your brain. It will not—except perhaps occasionally—give you finished pieces of writing. If you think that all you need to do to write a story, for instance, is freewrite a draft and then “fix” it, you will probably be quite disappointed with the result.

Instead of hoping that freewriting will give you a finished piece, try this: Imagine, as you are sitting there at your computer, or with your notebook, putting down words, one after another, that you are in fact a writer. Now, without judging your words, try to open up some space in your mind for the acquisition of skills that will help you do what you are doing right now—being a writer—much better.

Getting comfortable swinging a bat is only an aspiring major-leaguer’s first step. Getting comfortable putting words on the page is a writer’s first step. Now it’s time to look at the skills we need to write well.

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