Monday, November 26, 2018

Victoria Patterson's Letter to Her Beginning Writer Self

In the 29th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Victoria Patterson, author of The Secret Habit of Sorrow (Counterpoint), shares some insights gained through experience.

You have no idea what you’ve undertaken. That’s OK. You’re going to love writing. No matter what happens, it’s yours. But here are some ideas and thoughts.

Don’t suppress who you are—your oddities, wackiness, your un-literary background. You’ll end up closing off the source of your most true impulses. If you alter who you are because of fear of not succeeding, or of not fitting into a capricious market, you’ll hate yourself, and then your work will suck anyways.

Stop asking others, “Do you think I have talent?” It’s like asking, “Should I buy it?” i.e., “Should I buy myself?” No matter how difficult, no matter the obstacles, no matter the years it takes, be willing to trust yourself.

Learn to honor yourself through your failures. Let them contribute to a stealthy self-respect, steadiness, and poise, which will be integral to your work.

Praise your adversity-bred toughness. Many writers have abandoned their craft due to the necessity of rejections.

It’s not that exciting. Learn to appreciate the drudgery. It’s a requirement. The grind becomes part of your ability to write well.

One of your best teachers will be yourself: by copying sentences, paragraphs, pages and pages in private notebooks, from authors you revere. Don’t worry. It’s not imitation. Go hog wild. Copy as much as you want. The magic of these sentences will cast a spell, impelling you toward your own expression.

Try not to worry too much about angering people. Chances are they’ll be angry at what you didn’t predict, and the things you fretted over won’t matter.

Your deficiencies and weaknesses will paradoxically become the best and worst qualities of your prose. Don’t despair. Whatever you don’t or can’t overcome, you can let it be purposeful and useful to your work. But to do this, you have to be aware and alert, otherwise, it’ll hide in your prose, diminishing it, and you won’t even notice.

Don’t use talent as exhibitionism, withholding behind language. Move deeper, risking vulnerability and foolishness. Don’t fall for the easier, flashier accomplishment.

A commitment to your work is not a pledge to achieve fame or success. Try not to dwell over the fate of your work. Instead brood over the writing.

Remember that your truest appreciation comes from silent, absorbed readers.

Learn to live for the next thing you write, and the certainty and thrill when your own work speaks back to you.

Don’t fall for the constant fatuous exhibitionism of social media, a need to be in public view as conspicuously as possible. Most of your time must be reserved for privacy.

Don’t be afraid to write badly, just do it in private, where mediocrity and badness can flourish, and where you don’t have to strain not to be trite, sentimental, or clichéd. You have to loosen up and write badly. Unless you’re willing, you can’t write well. You’ll need lots of privacy for your inevitable bad writing.

One of your greatest attributes is your urgency to write, that vital seed of determination, interest, need, and desire. It’s all yours. You might not know what the story means yet, but you are impelled to tell it, and this fundamental element propels a reader’s interest and can’t be faked.

Be glad that your stories are hungry. If the motivation is trivial to the writing, the story will lack the passion that generates interest, no matter how beautiful the prose.

Try not to worry about intellectual expression or academia. Your respect and delight in the incidental and prosaic details of life are more helpful, as well as your ability to perceive through emotions.