The three ages of becoming a writer

Was writing so easy when you started? If you’re bogged down by all the techniques you don’t know and it’s squashing the life out of your writing, this post is for you

I used to take singing lessons. I’d always loved belting out a tune, and being rather a perfectionist I wanted to do it well. I sailed through the basics and was sent to an advanced teacher. Then the trouble started. She had been a child prodigy and had been coached, much like a Russian gymnast, to do nothing but her art. So she was entirely intolerant of imperfection.

I’d open my mouth and she’d say ‘your tongue’s in the wrong place’. And I hadn’t even made a sound. Tongues, by the way, are not just the flappy thing you can see. They go all the way down your throat and have to be kept flat. Pretty soon I was so bamboozled by the invisible anatomy that had to be under conscious control that I couldn’t sing at all. Not even a good holler in the bath, because I had a weight of bad habits to eradicate. What used to be so natural became impossible.

I stopped. Gradually the desire to sing came back. I started experimenting with the techniques she’d tried to din into me. I built a singing technique for myself, enjoyed making musical noise again, fortified (and amplified) with what I understood. Now, as friends will attest, just don’t let me start.

The uncomfortable second age

I meet a lot of writers who are flailing in that uncomfortable middle area. They began with ideas to express, stories to tell and a joy of playing on the page. Then they learned how many undesirable habits they had and how much they needed to unlearn. Making a scene instead of summarising. Structuring properly. Making our heroes heroic and believable. Not using adverbs. Thousands of criticisms that tell them they know nothing about the activity that used to bring them joy. Pretty soon, they aren’t trusting any of their instincts – or even letting them speak at all. Or they’ve lost faith in the book they’re writing.

It’s no wonder we hear people worrying that by learning craft they’re becoming robots obeying a formula.

The third age

But if we carry on, we come out into the third stage. One day, we find we’re kicking back and writing as ourselves again. We’re not thinking about rules any more. They’re not strictures into which we are trying to fit. They are tools we are going to use in our own way to make our individual novels. We know them as well as we know our mother tongue.

And, tongues notwithstanding, we’re singing on the page again.

Thank you, pink_fish13, for the picture.

I’ve said there are three stages to becoming a writer. Perhaps there are more. What do you think?

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  1. #1 by Deer Baby on May 8, 2011 - 3:42 pm

    Funny – I was discussing this very thing with someone the other day although it was about art rather than writing. Also I watched a TV programme (I’m in the UK) where they were judging a shortlist of writers for a prize and they said they could tell immediately which ones had gone on a creative writing course as they all wrote the same way. What a shame that your singing teacher made you so self conscious about your technique – I suppose she was trying to knock you down to build you up again and eradciate bad habits but it seems a bit heavy handed.

    I have a lot of How to Write books and the advice in them has been going round and round in my head. There comes a time when you just have to knuckle down and do it I suppose.

    • #2 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 3:57 pm

      Alison – I think this craft vs instinct struggle happens across all the arts. That’s interesting about the creative writing graduates – I’m sure I’ve heard similar comments. Possibly the middle stage is necessary in order to emerge more fully as your own writer. But a qualification won’t do it – although craft is needed, it’s the way you apply it that really counts.
      And as for the singing, it worked out okay. I can still make a noise!
      I love your blog name, by the way.

      • #3 by eojsmada on May 29, 2014 - 2:48 pm

        It happens in sports, as well. There is the beginning stage where you are just playing the sport and having fun. Then there is the stage where there is a great deal of individual coaching that goes on and everything feels out of place and awkward. Finally, when everything is no longer awkward and more ingrained, then you return to the point where the fluidity and joy come back to just playing the game.

  2. #5 by Carol Riggs on May 8, 2011 - 3:43 pm

    These are great things to ponder, Roz! I can really see how this can happen, and I’ve heard that it happens to writers. I know I can psyche myself out, and I start worrying too much about “fixing” things as I’m writing. It doesn’t work that way. Gotta get the basics down on the page, and THEN tidy up. Write for the joy of it. Yeah!

    • #6 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 3:58 pm

      Then revise for the joy of grinding teeth…. You’re absolutely right, Carol. Revising while writing will tie you in knots of despair. At some stages of the creative process you simply need to let go and splurge.

  3. #7 by Frances Silversmith on May 8, 2011 - 4:41 pm

    Great post, Roz!
    Right now, I’m firmly in the second age, and I’m glad to hear that is a normal state to be in. And I’m even gladder to hear there’s light at the end of the tunnel. 🙂

    • #8 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Frances! That second phase is normal, but you can be mired in it for quite a while…

  4. #9 by Sarah Peppel on May 8, 2011 - 8:34 pm

    I am still in the first stage. I have so many ideas and I want to put them all down and I think about them all through the day. Then, I sit in front of the computer and I write a few sentences and I’m done. It’s like sludging through mud. And, so I walk away. Then, I get excited again and the cycle continues. I believe in my story immensely but nothing is going to happen at this rate.

    • #10 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 11:09 pm

      Sarah, a lot of writing is done away from the keyboard – there’s a lot of working out in order to get things as you want, particularly when you’re new to writing. Later on you have the techniques to judge more quickly how to make something work, but to begin with everyone has to feel their way. Keep going, it will get faster.

  5. #11 by Jeffrey Russell on May 8, 2011 - 8:53 pm

    Oh Roz. Say it ain’t so! There’s two more stages after THIS one? 🙂

    • #12 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 11:09 pm

      Ah, er, I’ll get my coat.

    • #13 by Victoria Mixon on May 9, 2011 - 5:13 pm

      🙂 I was actually thinking of you when I was reading this, Jeffrey! Remember when I told you not having taken classes or been in workshops or critique groups was a good thing? That’s because it minimizes Stage Two.

      Smart people find a good mentor in Stage One and stick with ’em.

      • #14 by rozmorris on May 9, 2011 - 5:15 pm

        Stick with her, Jeffrey! She’ll do you the world of good.

  6. #15 by Zelah on May 8, 2011 - 10:10 pm

    I’m hoping that I’m finding my way into the third stage!

    When I was young I would always carry a notepad and pen around with me and any time I was waiting around for a lesson (or sometimes in the lesson) I’d be writing poems, songs, stories, whatever.

    Then I made the mistake of doing a degree majoring in Creative Writing. It taught me absolutely nothing about writing. The whole thing was basically “Read this book about a woman’s school days & write either: Something about your school days, something involving a flash back, something in a similar style or a poem inspired by schooldays, etc.”

    They didn’t teach us anything about technique and I had a lecturer who gave me exactly the same mark for absolutely everything I handed in over a two year period. Over a dozen pieces of work, good, bad & in-between, collections of poems, plays, prose, song, a short story, all came back with the same mark.

    I tried really hard to improve on the good average mark she kept giving me but eventually I couldn’t write anything other than poems or songs. It was over a dozen years before I could write prose or scripts again (I had plenty of ideas but couldn’t make myself put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard). It was only when I started watching improvisation that I started to feel my creativity coming alive again & only when I started actually doing improvisation that I started writing & doing NaNoWriMo.

    For me, Alan Marriott’s impro classes ( http://www.alan-marriott.com/ ) taught me more about writing in a month (four classes) than I’d learnt in all three years of my degree! I now feel confident with structuring a story & putting dialogue in the mouths of my characters, it’s only the descriptive stuff around it that I’m still struggling with for the first drafts. I’m still scared at the thought of editing & will be using Roz’s book to hold my hand through that process when I eventually get to it! I love reading the articles on this website to hopefully improve what I’m currently writing as I write it & to give me ideas for current & future projects (I still want to try the photo thing!) So hopefully that combination will finally get me fully in to phase 3!

    • #16 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 11:18 pm

      Zelah, amen to your recommendation of Alan. I loved those workshops of his. Your creative writing course sounds horrendous – is that a theme that’s emerging here? But honestly, editing is nothing to be scared of. I find it even more creative than the first stage of invention. But then you know that because my book has nagged you about that often enough… Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  7. #17 by Gale on May 8, 2011 - 10:52 pm

    Excellent post, Roz. Sometimes I long for the stage one days when writing was more fun, but if I can soldier through, I’ll get to stage III and I appreciate the reminder.

    • #18 by rozmorris on May 8, 2011 - 11:23 pm

      Hi Gale – thank you, and great to see you here, in view of the subject! I will just point out that I don’t do singing to anything like the magnificent level you do. Gale, folks, is a full-fledged mezzo-soprano.

  8. #19 by Stacy Green on May 9, 2011 - 1:58 pm

    I know I’m late to the party on this post, but I wanted to say this post really struck a chord with me. I started out writing my current book with a lot of confidence and excitement, but as I’ve begun to social network and follow blogs, I’ve also began reading on the craft. There’s a lot of valuable info out there, but I’m slowly learning that I have to be careful, because it can get really convoluted and everyone has a different opinion. Yes, there are rules to follow. But if you can’t write at all, there’s no point to learning the rules. I’m working hard on not going overboard on the advice search and just focusing on the writing.

    Great post!

    • #20 by rozmorris on May 9, 2011 - 3:49 pm

      Hi Stacy – you’re not late to the party at all. We’ll be debating this for ages, no doubt. It’s tricky knowing what advice to follow, especially as you’re bound to have blind spots. Also we all have differnet ways of explaining the same thing – and not all the advice out there is good. But take your time and enjoy the ride!

  9. #21 by Victoria Mixon on May 9, 2011 - 5:17 pm

    This is why it’s a lifelong craft, not something you just run down & pick up at the corner Famous Writer Store. As you say, Roz, it’s all about enjoying the ride.

    This is also why I refute con brio the common advice, “read everything you can lay your hands on.” Do. Not. Read. Crap. I read Harlequins as an impressionable young teen, and it took me twenty goddamn years to unlearn that cheap phrasing. I wouldn’t even let myself use the word “love” in writing for ten.

    • #22 by rozmorris on May 9, 2011 - 5:35 pm

      Wowee, Victoria, that is such a good point. I learned to write from reading. I also learned a lot of telling instead of showing because I read some frothy rubbish as well as good things – and later because of being a journalist. My brain is a voracious mimic. It is still hopelessly impressionable, and I always have to be careful what I’m reading while I’m writing.

      I also learned all grammar and spelling from reading. Thank goodness most publishers had decent editorial standards or I would have soaked up the wrong things and I wouldn’t have a clue. Ah, we could get into a serious side-discussion here… declining standards, anyone?

      • #23 by Jeffrey Russell on May 9, 2011 - 6:46 pm

        Declining standards?

        A few months ago I was early for a lunch date with a friend and found myself killing time in the Barnes and Noble down the street. I picked up a book whose jacket described a story I thought might interest my sister, so i bought it.

        She finished it, and in a very sisterly way told me she didn’t care for it that much, but passed it on to me to see what I thought.

        I’ll tell you Roz – and Victoria – I have no idea how she finished that book. I was ready to dump it after 5-6 pages. Mindful that she did actually finish it I kept reading, but only another 5-6 pages. Then I threw it out. Literally. In the trashcan! I would have been embarrassed to even donate it to Goodwill. LOL

        • #24 by rozmorris on May 9, 2011 - 6:51 pm

          I threw The Da Vinci Code away. Dave fished it out of the bin, scolding me and saying I needed to read it to learn what the guy had done right. Professional study, and so on. Fine, I said. You read it and tell me.

          He got less far in it than I did.

        • #25 by Victoria Mixon on May 9, 2011 - 9:20 pm

          I bail on books these days, too, although I’m so OCD there was time when my husband was ripping them from my hands just to turn off the complaint faucet. You should hear me–“And they’re doing THIS wrong and THAT wrong and the OTHER THING wrong. yadda yadda yadda. . .. I’m lucky I’m still married.

          But I have the same problem with donating. I pawned Amy Tan’s Bonesetter’s Daughter off on my son’s tutor, and now he’s wise to me and won’t take Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. What am I going to do? Drop it off at the thrift shop and add to the growing ignorance of the under-educated in this country?

          • #26 by rozmorris on May 10, 2011 - 7:42 pm

            ….’just to turn off the complaint faucet….’

  10. #27 by tahliaN on May 9, 2011 - 11:20 pm

    Sounds right to me. I’ve just recognised the fact that I’ve got to number 3 and it feels good.

    • #28 by rozmorris on May 10, 2011 - 7:43 pm

      Good, good, good. Now the fun really starts.

  11. #29 by Wen Baragrey on May 10, 2011 - 2:49 am

    I think you’re spot on. I found the same with other things I’ve had to learn, singing lessons, guitar lessons, and becoming a working artist. Writing is just the same. With my latest WIP, I realized that having spell and grammar check on was a nuisance rather than the security blanket it had always been. At last, it’s natural and I’ve learned what to sweat over and what to just enjoy. Now, it’s fun again. It’s a knowledgeable confidence as compared to a blind confidence.

    • #30 by rozmorris on May 10, 2011 - 7:44 pm

      Thanks, Wen. Love the name of your blog, BTW. And the fact that you’re another manic creative. I wish I had time to get proficient in more artforms, but novels have swallowed me whole, I guess.

      • #31 by Wen Baragrey on May 10, 2011 - 8:57 pm

        Oh, I know that feeling! I love all those things, but when there’s a novel on the boil, everything else is completely forgotten!

        Manic creative. I love that! It’s a perfect description, LOL🙂

  12. #32 by Hugh on May 10, 2011 - 8:58 pm

    I’ve always thought about these learning stages in terms of bears. You begin by thinking they’re easy to get along with (Pooh and Paddington), then you worry that they’re disturbing and terrifying (Killer Grizzly), and finally you develop a healthy respect for and understanding of them (all those furry animal docs)… But ‘It’s a knowledgeable confidence as compared to a blind confidence” summarises the process very well.

    • #33 by rozmorris on May 11, 2011 - 7:04 am

      Hi Hugh! Was it John Irving who wrote a novel called ‘Setting Free The Bears’?

  13. #34 by Amanda Hoving on May 11, 2011 - 1:56 pm

    I think there may be some additional baby steps (2.1, 2.2 and so on) before age 3😉 I also think that it’s easy to take a step backward depending on what you’re working on. Interesting thoughts, Roz!

  14. #36 by Tea and Crumpets on May 12, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    Having taught English for years and years is really crippling me right now, as a creative writer. I need to allow myself to misspell, to comma splice, to use unwieldy numbers of adverbs and adjectives with abandon, just to bring my story idea to life. Editing comes later– much later.

    But it’s hard to let go.

    • #37 by rozmorris on May 12, 2011 - 6:22 pm

      I know what you mean. I’ve been a sub-editor for years😉
      The first step was to get over my dislike of😉 s

  15. #38 by ewoomall on November 19, 2011 - 11:59 am

    Seems that i would never become a writer.

  16. #39 by Martha Jane Curtis on April 24, 2014 - 6:15 pm

    Having read your great post and all the comments has provoked much thought on the subject. I see the importance of that first stage because without it we would most likely never write at all.

    • #40 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 24, 2014 - 6:49 pm

      Thanks, Martha! That’s so true. It starts from compulsion and – at the risk of sounding soppy – love.

  17. #41 by Alexander M Zoltai on November 28, 2015 - 3:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Are you a writer?

    If not, do you think you might want to be?

    If yes (to either question), today’s re-blog should be of intense interest🙂

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