The start of the year found me with my books-to-be read pile down to nothing. To celebrate this rare happening and to take advantage of the free time, I’m re-reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
I shouldn’t say “re-reading.” The fact is that I’ve never read past the first eight chapters since it is a guide for writing non-fiction. The book came as optional reading material for a creative writing class. At that time, I thought those eight chapters were all that applied to me and after the class ended, I put it away. I thought I could even sell it one day.
I’m glad I never sold it. And I was wrong about the number of chapters that apply to fiction writers because down in chapter 13, I found words I needed—the advice that finally helped me jump over the hurdle of my writer’s block. Since last September I’ve been trying to get through writing chapter 3 of my book with no happy results. Action was going nowhere and my characters were bland.
Then On Writing Well, chapter 13, I read the words: TRUST YOUR MATERIAL and suddenly, a light bulb shone brightly inside my head. I finally understood why I was stuck in my story. It was because I was not letting it go where it wanted to go! Instead, I was trying to channel it, contain it, or divert it with preconceived notions of how a story and the characters should be written out.
When I wrote my first book, it was an unencumbered experience. As any first timer, I was not worried about making anybody happy, and I knew of nobody’s expectations but my own. I published the book. Then the reviews, the comments, the how-to-improve-your-writing articles, the recommendations, and critiques came in. All well intended but when I started writing my new book, they became baggage.
Instead of welcoming the ideas, instead of trusting the material that was coming at me, I started to doubt it (sometimes unconsciously). I found myself wondering if I was good enough of a writer if I didn’t follow so-and-so advice. Will my story fit with what the readers wanted to see? But then, when I was trying to create my characters according to this-and-that book, I had the feeling that I was doing something akin to painting by the numbers, choosing their qualities and defects out of a pre-determined menu. Zinsser reminded me that writers need to do two things: master the skill of writing and master how to use that skill to express themselves. Write for yourself, he encourages. Part of writing for myself is to find out what I want to say. I write to discover and understand. That’s where the fun is for me. That’s why I enjoy writing.
Zinsser advises to trust your material because “there is nothing more interesting than the truth.” In nonfiction, the truth is in the facts. In fiction, I would say, the truth is in the honesty of our vision. During one of my English classes in college, our professor reminded us that the mission of an artist, any artist, is to use our chosen form of art as a medium to translate our life experiences into works that would help other people understand their own lives better. How we translate, how we find the right words or the right colors is through our creativity combined with the skillful use of our art’s tools. The result, what we have to offer, is our unique vision of life and the world. And that will happen only if we stay true to ourselves because we are, in a way, the material from which we draw our works. So this weekend I’m tackling chapter 3 of my book with Zinsser’s and my professor’s words in mind. Trusting my material is trusting the story I’m creating. It’s trusting myself too.