With some tasks, there is a set strategy for success. When you create a stained glass panel, there exist a series of steps that each artist learns and follows. Certainly, there are minor variations; some artists cut their pieces with the aid of a lightbox, while others use patterns cut from butcher paper. However, once the design is decided upon and until the piece is hung, there exists a clear formula to be followed.
When a writer sits down to a blank page or an artist takes up a fresh canvas this is a totally different story. Where one begins is a matter of choice. Some writers establish their ending and create their story backward from that clear ending spot. Others begin with a place, a time, a setting. When you are painting, some people begin with the background and move forward. Others focus on the details in the foreground leaving themselves a fresh background to be completed last.
I woke up this morning to meet with a young woman who had requested support in writing her memoir. I performed the usual due diligence and checked out the website she shared. She needed help with passive voice. She could clearly use help engaging the reader in her narrative. Like many young people, she appeared to want to share something profound about her life without allowing the reader to see who she was.
I have seen this approach-avoidance dance many times in the writing of young women. This is a typical hurdle that young women struggle with when writing college admissions essays. There is a clear desire to make a profound statement, but the writer wishes to do so from behind the living room curtains. Young women often don’t feel comfortable bragging about themselves. College admission essays and memoirs ask them to do something that is in clear contrast to their socialization.
Not long into our conversation came the question…
“Where do I begin?”
It wasn’t asked in so many words, but the question was clear. The author made it clear that she was unused to having conversations regarding writing. And I, still drinking my first cup of coffee, wasn’t astute enough to charge in and take the lead. I answered the questions that were asked and explained that I, as a proofreader/editor, tend to allow the writer to take the lead. I told the young woman my experiences with editing and attempted to draw her out asking where she was with her narrative.
Like a frightened animal, the young woman retreated, responded in vague terms.
“Have you read many memoirs?”
Silence lay dense upon the air.
Ultimately, I offered a suggestion that the young author read Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, and told her to reach back out when she felt that she was ready for someone to edit her work.
I had missed the opportunity to help a young writer understand the opaque nature of writing. No formula exists for writing your personal story. I can provide no one a step by step process to follow or even confirm that they are doing the act of writing “right.” Each writer must face the blank page alone and muster the courage to plunge into the icy depths of self-discovery.
Until you write, no one can help you become a good writer. There are tons of great reference books on how to write well. There are even more examples, lining the booksheves of bookstores around the world, of how it has been done. But the opening gambit remains the same.
In the words of Julia Cameron, “Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.”
It’s what you do with that vast expanse of unmarred territory that defines you as an artist.