Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hire the Guy with the Truck AND the Trailer

A famous drummer was asked once why he spent so much time learning to play overly complicated rhythms, blazing fills, and impossible multi-limbed independence when most of his recorded playing was a straightforward groove. His answer: Every carpenter wants the best tools in the toolbox.

As writers, I can think of no better metaphor. Aside from how to get an agent, the most popular question ever asked of writers is "how do I become one?" (When a young woman asked Robert Penn Warren that question, he replied, "When did you decide to be so beautiful?" What a schmoozer.)

The best way to become a writer is WRITE! See my BIC entry below. The mere act of putting words on paper engages the mind, teaches us what we really think, how we really feel. We learn by doing--dialogue, characterization, setting, conflict, all these things become clearer as we implement them on the page. You learn nothing by talking about writing or staring into space. You learn nothing by writing only when inspiration hits. Write often, every day if you can. Do your thinking in the car and shower. Over time, your writing will reveal what you're good at, what you're bad at--which should then arouse curiosity, which takes us to the next tool: READING.

You don't get point of view? Google it or buy a book on it. Read a novel in that viewpoint and study how the other writer did it. Not good with grammar? Take a day and relive those joyous middle school moments. Learn what an introductory participial phrase can do and how to include that construction in your toolbox. (Re)learn the comma rules and how to use those stupid apostrophes. No one who calls himself a writer should be making the its/it's mistake. Try submitting something with a few there/theirs/there's mistakes and see what happens.

My habit is to read constantly. Always, I have a novel and a book on writing going simultaneously. Sometimes I take a break and read non-fiction. Sometimes I read Entertainment Weekly (oh, the shame). In any case, read to enjoy. Read to fill the toolbox. You never know when something will come in handy. Learn new words, new sentence constructions. Learn to be funny, serious, poignant. Know why people do things.

Yes, it's simple. You find tools at Lowe's and Home Depot. Writers find tools through reading and writing. Imagine that. If you call yourself a writer, but you don't read, then REPENT, SINNER! That's like running on one leg. And your toolbox will be only half-full. If you read and don't write, well, you're a reader.

The Greeks say "Know Thyself." I say have a toolbox so big you can't fit through the door. Always hire the guy with the truck AND the trailer. Know what I mean?

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