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.)

Continue Reading >>

Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)