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Letter To a Young Writing Coach

[4-minute read]

Armed, but not sufficiently dangerous.

Dear S.:

I’m a coach myself — basketball, mainly — and I taught writing forever. I’m a chalk- and red-ink-stained wretch, so despite my bride’s entreaties, and the general on-line encouragement I’ve gotten from you, I still don’t want a writing coach. Stubborn? Maybe. I persist in wanting to lift myself by my own bootstraps; mind you, the physics of that is still mysterious to me. After quite a few years of not exactly setting the WordWorld on fire, I still want one of two outcomes: slay this ridiculous dragon of vaguely literary desire, or find a way to harness the sucker all by myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t look for inspiration, tools and writing-my-way-out-of-the-wilderness tips, though.
Mostly because of a suggestion from Margaret Atwood — via her Twitter account, that is — I follow Chuck Wendig and his fiery, rude and funny advice to his on-line band of fellow “pen-monkeys”. That’s also how I wound up lurking near Story is a State of Mind. (Your gentle, organic counsel makes for a very interesting counterpoint to his, as far as voices in a struggling writer’s ear go!) I’ve subscribed to your daily writer’s prompts for months. Never used ’em, and yup, I sometimes rolled my eyes. (“Write about the taste of rain.” Yeah, right.) Hey, listen: I know what you’re pushing me to do. I was a writing teacher in small-town high schools for years, and I, too, gave eye-rollingly absurd suggestions as Journal Topics for the Day: break OUT, guys, try stuff, just get your pen going and then you can go wherever you (or IT) want(s)… The taste of rain wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with tenth-graders.
I’ve been dry for a while, but I’m back in the saddle. Hit a big birthday, saved up for it by giving myself licence to NOT write ’til the day came, which siphoned a full tank of frustration out of the top half of August. (Good for me.) Since my birthday crepes, I’ve been trying to act more like a pro, showing up at the desk, grinding. Bird by bird, buddy. (I’m sure you get that reference.¹) I’m also a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, and yesterday began re-re-re-rereading it with some dear ones. Three of us, at least, clearly aspire to Writingness and can hear the clock tsk, tsk, tsk-ing away. And yes, I’m on a two-week roll, which is lovely, and to get to the point, I’ve finally started using your prompts, blue pen in my own Journal. (And I did write about the taste of rain. Got down some nasty/good stuff I liked and might use, among the blathering. I got going.)

¹ A superb writing resource, funny and blunt, beautiful. Anne Lamott is really good.

I went full analog, printing your many suggestions out and taping them into my J, and I’ve done about five of ’em. I proved your point (which for decades was mine, as scribbling coach): we/I can write about anything. Not that I didn’t know this, but it seems that this is a bit of creative magic that we (at least, I) need to be shown, to show ourselves, over and over again. I was recently startled, and then oddly consoled, and finally completely unsurprised (“well, yeah, of course“), to read Atwood tweeting about a return to her “writing burrow”. There, cut off from Twitter and everything else, she — even SHE — would face the screaming blank-screen demons again. After 40 books! So I know I’m not going to get this scribbling thing Figured Out, ever, except by day-by-day-ing away as if I had a plan, and some tangible goals, and as if my inner life depended on it. (I think, to a large extent, it does.) As Pressfield would say, Resistance never sleeps. But as Saint Margaret has said, A word after a word after a word is power. You helped me find a little of mine.

I’ve done 4 or 5 of your prompts, and they had one main benefit for me, other than the proof in the putting (of words on paper) that I mentioned above. I got briefly carried away by microscopic, fairly ludicrous but certifiable stories of my own. The bulk of my writing has always been non-fiction. (This here site has maybe one short story and a couple of poems on it. The other 700+ posts are reviews, opinionations, and musings.) I’m afraid of fiction. I’ve gone through lots of layers. With every step forward, I answer my wife’s pointed and repeated query — So are you a Real Writer NOW? — with a squirming Okay, sorta, but… But fiction is another frontier. As silly as most of my responses have been, your story-prompts have allowed some tiny but real storytelling thrills. I got carried away.
I’m going to finish my still-born non-fiction book this year, but I also will go jump in the story lake. IwillIwillIwill. Short story long, writing to your prompts gave me some fun, inspiring little sips at the Sea of Stories. (Surely, you have read Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories? Marvellous.) So yes, thanks coach!
Yours storily,
James

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