Learning How to Learn the Writer’s Craft

The following post was originally published February 4, 2010 as ‘Second Chances’ on the RWA Women’s Fiction Chapter blog. I repost it here for my dear friends, with a bit of editing because of a couple of errors, and because I am always learning and changing, so my writing does as well.

* * * *

Last night when I went to sleep, I had been pondering what I wanted to tell you. Something inspirational. I did not feel very inspiring. For the past two years, since I had finished my thirty-fourth book, I had tried to write a new novel and not gotten very far.

The very first book that started it all. It has seen numerous reprints. The editor who bought it said it was 'different'. I found it currently available 'new' on Amazon from a used bookseller. How did they do that?

Burnout is the popular term. I had been writing consistently since the mid-1980s, when, after selling two small human interest pieces, it seemed natural that I should write an entire novel. I was fortunate to sell the first book I ever wrote, and to continue selling each one that I wrote, until I decided to give it up. I wondered if I might never write again.

This morning when I awoke, I had the sharp memory of something a highly successful writer of long-standing had once told me: When starting each new novel, she would re-read Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain.

I took my cup of tea and plopped myself on the floor in front of my bookshelf . When was the last time I had cracked open any of them? I always seemed to be writing from one book to another, taking courses in writing, enjoying being the author and simply moving too fast through my life to allow myself to deeply study, and even to enjoy, writing. I think my drive for writing stemmed from, as the old saying goes, wanting to have written.

I pulled Techniques of the Selling Writer (not well used) off the shelf. The original copyright was 1965, with a number of reprintings through 1980. (A check online shows the book remains in print and selling today, fifty years later.)

Chapter One begins with this statement: “A story is experience translated into literary process.” I recognized what I had been doing with twenty-two years of my life, and this, too, had been a drive, one that remained with me.

Further down the page is a list of eight traps to which the writer is prone. Number two on the list is the hunt for magic secrets. Perhaps there is something of a secret, though, and that is the discipline of reading writing books whenever starting to write a new novel.

My precious writing books. How will we enjoy looking at books on the shelf with e-books?

I pulled another book from my shelf: Writing Novels That Sell, by Jack M. Bickham, the author of sixty-five published novels. I call him Jack, because I was fortunate enough to be one of his students. In the forward, Jack writes, “I pretty much wasted my first five apprentice years of hard, discouraging work before I found my teacher, Dwight V. Swain, and began to learn how to learn the writer’s craft.” He inscribed the book to me: “For Curtiss, who knows all this.” But I did not, and what I did know, I forgot along the bumpy way of the writing business.

I had always had a much harder time with being a writer than with the actual writing craft. Books on the shelf call to me: If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, who reminds us that writing leads us to ultimately deal with our whole life.

Just then, there comes a call from the stairway: “Nana! I am here!”

My three-year-old grandson hurls himself into my arms, and I am brought back to my particular whole life.

I have somehow come full circle, and it seems I’m given a second chance to experience being a woman writer managing an active household—sometimes four generations fill this house—and a mothering-grandmother to a pre-schooler. But this time I am in the enviable position of being older, wiser, and with more resources.

I am writing again! And today I no longer think constantly and strive for having written. Today I am giving myself the gifts of enjoying the wonderful process of writing, and to learning how to learn the writer’s craft. It is a lifelong quest, and joy, too.



3 thoughts on “Learning How to Learn the Writer’s Craft

  1. The craft pf writing us such a mystery to me and I am in awe of anyone who can do it well, CurtissAnn.

    I think no matter what we do or what age we are we all benefit from a little rest and reflection and that is probably what you have been doing these past few years. Now your battery is re-charged and ready to go!

    Good luck with the new novel!


  2. I love that phrase “enviable position of being older, wiser, and with more resources”! That can apply to so much of my life nowadays. I especially like the “wiser” and “more resources”, it takes the sting out of the “older”!
    Whatever you are doing, and however you are doing it, keep on keeping on. You are doing something right, so as they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!


  3. I had to giggle reading this and seeing the Silhouette novel. We devoured these in college and I always remember coming across an author that was just better than all the rest – the books were more interesting – better written, you know.
    Funny, I wonder if I read yours – I”ll have to go back and reread!
    Anyway – looks like you’ve come a long way – fun to see the journey!


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