Learning What You Know: Taking Your Own Writing Advice

In the fall of 2018, I had the honor of teaching a class at my local non-profit. I had just earned my MFA in Writing just a few months prior and was ecstatic to begin my career as a writing instructor. The course was on screenwriting. As a fiction writer, I was somewhat daunted by the subject. But I had enough experience with the format and genre that I felt confident I would do a good job.

And I did. The students were respectful and kind to what I had to say. The class took place twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the evening, with office hours on Wednesday (which no one ever showed up for), and the students ranged from high school to college levels. What started as a class of five students became three students by the end of the semester. Still, the students that stayed were dedicated. They listened to my lectures, shared their stories during the workshops, and participated in class discussions regarding craft. One of the students even entered a screenwriting contest and won. Their script is now to be produced in the summer of 2019.

Teaching creative writing was interesting, mostly because I am often stumped on my own writing process. I often felt confident in front of the class. I loved talking about the craft of writing. I loved talking about story structure, plot, character, theme, and screenwriting format. I loved giving them advice on how to get started with their craft and how to revise.

And yet, when I am sitting at my local cafe, with an iced coffee to my right and my laptop to my left, I am stuck. I don’t know where to begin. I take small sips and often finish my drink before writing a single sentence. I look over my old files and try to make sense of what I have written before, trying to generate more ideas in my head, to no avail. I flip through the book I carry at the time and spend my time reading instead of writing, looking at the clock and realizing I have spent about two hours doing everything but writing.

One piece of advice my therapist gave me was telling me to imagine a friend who is going through what I am currently going through. Then ask yourself: what would you tell them? And finally ask yourself: why aren’t I telling myself the same thing?

I thought about this when instructing students. I told them that writing is hard. Like, really hard. But I also told them it’s doable. That it’s possible to get something done, along with advice to get them started.

Here is some advice I’ve given them that I often have to remind myself to take:

  1. Look at Your Options: I am currently at work on my first novel, having finished three drafts and currently working on the fourth. But I am also working on some poems, short stories, and screenplays on the side. I’m working on this blog post now. I’ve noticed that (for myself) more projects means more choices, meaning that if I am stuck on one project, I can easily write another. At the same time, you can choose to focus on one project before moving on to the next. There is no one way to do this, and you can do what works best for you.
  2. Write What is Currently the Most Fun: This is a piece of advice an instructor gave me at my MFA program. Writing is a stressful job, even more so when the project is a pain in the ass. Thus, why not make it fun by writing something that will be fun? Art is a way to express yourself, but a lot of people (myself included) discovered art and have stuck with it because it was something fun. It’s fun to think you’re a genius on the page. It’s fun making characters do what you want. It’s fun creating worlds out of language. There is literally no other job like that of a writer’s. So take advantage of it!
  3. Pick Your Battles: Another piece of advice from my MFA program, this one is a little more focused on revision, though. The idea here is to choose what you want to work on for that day and stick with it for that day only. Let’s say you’re writing a script and you can only focus on one element. Would you like to work on your characters? Or your settings? Maybe Act 1? Scene 7? The point is that the writing can get overwhelming, especially if you think of your work as a whole project needed to be done for today. So, try tackling one element at a time to lighten the load. Maybe it won’t be so overwhelming now.

These pieces of advice have a lot, if not everything, to do with choice. There is no one way to be a writer. And that’s something I have been taught, have taught to others, and have to constantly remind myself of.

But even more important is understanding that while I may not have all the answers, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some of them. I studied writing for a reason, and it’s up to me to use what I have learned to my advantage.

If I want to continue being a good writing instructor, I should learn to lead by example. I should remember what I’ve learned. I should remember not to doubt myself too much. I should remember how to just write.

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