Friday, July 15, 2011

Acknowledging Shortcomings as a Writer

Philip White

As a writer, you get to know pretty quickly what you’re naturally good at. My good lady wife is the best, untrained copy editor I’ve come across and, as Erik Larson says about his other half, my “secret weapon” in writing my next book. A good friend is a grammar wizard, and what’s more (unlike me) he actually enjoys wielding his Chicago Manual of Style and Gregg Reference Manual. Another longtime buddy is the master at describing people and places, and holy crap I hate him for it!

Perhaps you also, in times of honest self-appraisal, realize what your weaknesses are. I lack the skills of the three mentioned above, and wonder how on Earth they acquired such gifts. The answer is obvious – a combination of acquired knowledge and God-given talent. It’s easy to get down on your inadequacies, to despair when staring your shortcomings in the eye, and to covet your neighbor’s grasp of the past participle!

But I’ve found that embracing what I lack and seeking assistance is actually quite a formative experience. By involving the aforementioned people in my writing and editing processes I’m submitting myself to an ongoing skills development program. And if you can check your ego enough to take constructive criticism from your spouse, you can certainly take it from any editor.

Next is to seek people who are willing to provide mentoring. I’m lucky enough to be related to one such person and seek regular guidance from my former college adviser on all matters regarding the written word. Another professor (and author of 15+ books) who’s based on the West Coast has guided me through the tangled web of the publishing industry. The keys to learning from these people? Humility, receptiveness to the opinions of people who know more than me, and a willingness to share my weaknesses openly.

Another way I am constantly trying to improve is by reading the work of writers I admire. This involves poring over all forms of books – history (Rick Atkinson, David McCullough), nonfiction (Larson, John Berendt) and historical fiction (Robert Harris, Juliet Barker), as well as keeping up on the latest features from the WSJ and magazines such as The Atlantic. The third individual I mentioned is the executive editor of a prominent culture magazine, and as he’s kindly put me on the mailing list (thanks again, Luke!), I am confronted by his brilliance once a month.

The idea here is that you become what you behold. So by focusing on those who are skilled writers, I’m hoping that I assimilate some of their powers of description, mastery of pacing, and brevity (hmmm, still working on that one, for sure).

I admit to have not having arrived at a place where I can be satisfied with my writing, nor do I ever want to get to such a place. But by surrounding myself with talented people who can teach me something and reading the best work in the genres I dabble in means I’m better than I was yesterday, and tomorrow will be another step along the road to “writing well.”


dan allosso said...

Interesting observations, Philip. I was struck by the way producing a book is really a concert of tasks, but we call it "writing." Research, copy editing, conceptual "editing," and then navigating the "tangled web" of publishing are all vital, but very different skills. And then, as you say, some people are better at describing people and places, some at arguing conceptual points, some at writing dialog. But hopefully your'e right: with good examples and lots of practice, we can expand beyond our natural strengths.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Philip, thank you so much for putting this into words. As I hone my own manuscript I can find myself overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. When I teach my students to do research writing, this sort of humility and joy in diversity of gifts is something I'd like to spend more time discussing. Your examples of how this works in your own life are very instructive and I may copy that method of illustrating how writing is a shared skill.

Yvonne said...

As you have highlighted, one of the most important attributes for writers is humility and the desire to learn. But the humble writer needs to guard against lack of confidence which can become crippling.

I like how you have drawn attention to the fact that while the writer is the principle actor in the creation of a written work, publication is a team effort. The buff and polish provided by the team is essential for the writing to attract attention.

Thankyou for this post!

PW said...

Thanks for your comments.

Lisa, honing a manuscript certainly is a terrifying task, even for the most seasoned of writers. As Churchill rightly said:

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him out to the public."

I certainly find myself in awe of the writers around me, and am constantly trying to take the lessons they give on board. It is a shared skill indeed.

Yvonne, certainly a healthy amount of self-confidence is needed. I find that a "guilt free" first draft process helps - as Max Hastings once told me, it's much easier to edit a page that has something on it!

Dan, I completely agree that "writing" a book is a misnomer in some ways. I recently saw Peter Jackson's second video on the early stages of The Hobbit and he talked a little about how he's doing everything at once - pre-production, post-production, finding new locations, and so on. I feel that a book is the same kind of thing in a way. Though I fear Mr. Jackson will be a little better compensated that this humble scribe...