Coming Out about Obsession

Holmes and Watson lying around on chairs, a newspaper between them.

Sidney Paget’s original watercolor illustration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Resident Patient.” [public domain]

I am obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. You probably already knew that, so why do I feel the need to “come out” about it? (I say “come out,” because this feels really similar to having a non-assumed sexual orientation.)

I recently saw a colleague’s Facebook post about rereading “The Six Napoleons” in preparation for watching Series 4 of Sherlock. There were so many tips of icebergs packed into that post that I wished I could be as forthcoming about my ideas as she was. But she also said “Yes, I am just that dorky.” I recognized that behavior, the gesture of it, the way I drop my eyes and do a little laugh when I say anything related to Holmes. I realized that I am embarrassed about my obsession.

Why? Am I afraid of the depth of it? I do sense fear there. But when I’m all by myself, I experience only the joy and interest of my obsession. The fear is not of the obsession itself, but rather of its potential social consequences: will people reject me if they find out?

Considering further, I realize that everyone already knows. I write essays entitled “Watson Loves Me.” I watch Sherlock over and over. I listen to audio recordings of Arthur Conan Doyle stories as a way to combat insomnia. The people I care about know these things, and they still like me.

Yeah, says the voice inside, but they don’t know the white hot obsession, they don’t know just how many clock cycles you spend on this, how deep into the water you go.

But you know what? Maybe they do. Lots of people I know are fans of things, so maybe they’re obsessed with those things the way I am obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. Maybe some of them even incorporate Holmes into their personal mythology as much as I do. Hm, I think, maybe not, but that’s the fear again.

I have written here about my obsessions, with Holmes, with Star Trek, and I faced my audience straight on: I stood tall and told the truth without chickening out. That’s because I was writing, and writing’s not worth anything if you chicken out.

I wonder what would happen if I did that in real life, too. I think I might become “more powerful than [I] can possibly imagine.” (Note: I am not obsessed with Star Wars. But lots of people are!)

Obsession is the clock of the universe. I’m going to see what happens if I let it tick out loud.

Accept the Magic of Imagination

painting of a bell in rainbow clouds

Campanil Ascendiendo by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (used under Creative Commons license)

 

Ringing the Bell

When I was a kid at Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church, the altar boys used to ring a little golden bell when the priest raised the host. I watched from my wooden pew and wondered if that was the moment when the miracle happened, when the host changed from bread to flesh. Because otherwise why did they ring the bell?

They don’t ring it anymore. I know they used to because my ears still vibrate with its sound, but actually I had forgotten the bell until I went to a poetry reading at a church in Santa Cruz, and a poet read a poem about when he was an altar boy waiting for the time to ring the bell. The other altar boy, his rival, could ring the bell so beautifully that you knew it worked, that the bread for sure had transformed into the body of Christ. The action of the poem happens when it’s the speaker’s turn to ring, and you experience with him the build of anxiety as the priest raises the host, up, up, and finally at the apex he has to ring the bell, and it doesn’t make the magic sound but instead goes all wonky and wobbly. The poet gave a brilliant performance, and you really believed that he was the altar boy trying to ring the bell to transform the bread into body and failing, failing, failing, just like we all think we fail at the important things we try to do.

Maybe that’s why the Church stopped ringing the bell, because it makes people believe that something humans do is what’s changing the host, and the whole point is that it’s not what we do: that the ritual is not the magic, that God is the magic.

Now maybe you don’t believe in any god, or you don’t believe in the Catholic God, but please still listen to me because I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just making an analogy.

The RItual Is Not the Magic

It’s true that rituals for writing help us, but the ritual is not the magic. The ritual is a container for the magic: it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient (and there are many rituals and practices that can work). The magic comes from somewhere else. The magic comes from the Place. You can’t control it; you can only invite it. You can only make your house ready for it. And then you have to step back and accept that you’ve done your part. You have to relax and let the guest come in. At church, we hold up the bread, we ring the bell. But the miracle happens through no action of our own. The miracle comes from God, comes by grace, whether we deserve it or not.

The miracle of imagination is the same.

The Gift

Try this improv exercise with me.

Imagine a closed box, a gift for you. Notice its size, its shape. Is it wrapped? Does it have a ribbon? Hold it in your hands and feel its weight. Now imagine yourself opening the box. Find the gift inside.

What did you find? It’s yours to keep and use. I wish you the joy of it.

Who puts the gift in the box? Not you. The gift comes from the Place. We are surrounded and interpenetrated by love and support, always. You think you breathe all by yourself? No. The atmosphere breathes you: it’s the pressure of the air outside that pushes air into your lungs. Our own agency is nothing compared to the forces that continually support and help us.

Accept the Gift

Does the bread always change? Yes, because the change doesn’t depend on our poor skill at ringing the bell. Steven Pressfield says that this is his religion: that no matter how many times you open the box, there’s always something inside.

When you’re writing, remember this. You don’t have to “make it up;” you only have to accept what’s in the box and write it down. Sometimes you might want to refuse it, saying “I don’t know what’s in there,” or “I can’t think of anything,” but try not to be afraid. Remember that you don’t make the gift.

Imagination is not ourselves. The gift comes from the Place. All you have to do is accept it.

Lie vs. Lay

egg-laying end of a chicken, and two eggs

“Chicken and Egg” by Leslie Seaton. Used under Creative Commons license.


(Skip to tips on how to “get it right.”)

Dear lie,

You are going to become extinct, and it’s your own fault for overlapping your past tense with another word’s present tense. I mean, seriously, who does that? I do love you, but my money’s on lay to consume you. Sorry!

Dear reader,

Do you get frustrated trying to figure out when to use lay and when to use lie? If you’d like to help get rid of this problem once and for all, simply stop using the verb lie to mean “recline.” Instead, just use lay. Yes, you will cause some people to cringe, and many will think less of you. Yes, your story might get rejected by a particularly pedantic editor. But you’ll be a proud crusader for language change and the elimination of verbs that are just asking for it.

If you try to maintain the traditional use of lie, you’ll only be perpetuating the confusion and discrimination for another generation. And seriously, lie’s demise is inevitable. Why not take the hit and thereby save future generations from suffering? If everybody eliminates lie, it will cease to exist. If everybody uses lay instead, lay will eventually be seen as correct, and we can check that off our list as another difficult word we don’t have to deal with. (Endangered animals and plants can disappear in a few years, but the extinction of lie will probably take a couple of generations, so you’ll need to have the courage to be seen as “wrong” for your whole life.)

I’m not sure if I’m being sarcastic or not. I really do take a linguist’s view of language change: descriptive not prescriptive, and all that. But on the other hand, I believe that agreeing on standards helps us communicate, and I believe that precision and diversity are valuable. Also, I work hard to use these verbs “correctly.” Am I willing to give that up “for the cause,” when the cause is the death of a word? Um…so far, I’m not. But I’ll think about it and get back to you.

If you’ve decided to fight for the endangered species lie, or you just need to “get it right” so your editor will be happy, read on. Otherwise, go forth and boldly use lay for everything! I’ll try not to mind.

Get It “Right”

If you can’t stand grammar terms, I guess you could skip the next two paragraphs. But seriously, if you’re a writer, it would really help you to learn about the structure of language. It’s like learning about pigments for a painter. And it makes understanding this distinction so much easier.

Lay is a transitive verb. This means it must always take a direct object. If there’s no direct object in your sentence, don’t use lay. (A direct object is a noun that the verb acts on. For example, in the sentence “Chickens lay eggs,” eggs is the direct object.)

Lie is an intransitive verb. This means it never takes a direct object. (You can’t say “Chickens lie eggs.”)

Here is where things get complicated. The past tense of lie is “lay.” Also, lay oneself down is a synonym for lie down. I am sorry about this. You might want to change your mind and join in the extinction of lie. But if you still want to try to save lie, let’s do this:

Intuition Tests

When you know you can’t trust your intuition in a language situation, the best thing to do is to create a test that uses a parallel situation for which you can trust your intuition.

For example, to know whether to use me or I in a list of a bunch of people, you can remove the people, choose the pronoun based on language intuition, and then put all the people back.
(Example: “Give it to Sally, Jake, and I/me.” Remove list: “Give it to I/me.” You know this should be “Give it to me,” therefore when you add the list back, you say “Give it to Sally, Jake, and me.”)

Your intuition is correct for lie. You will never, for example, accidentally write “Chickens lie eggs” or “I’m lying this book on the table.” These sound wrong, and you can hear it. Yay!

But you probably do accidentally use lay when you “should” use lie, so we need to devise a test you can employ that will take advantage of your correct intuition from some other language situation.

Here are two tests. Try them out and see if one works for you.

IMPORTANT: I am only talking about the present tense right now. If your sentence is not in the present tense, you will have to find other help while you wait for me to figure out how to explain other tenses (or see Verb Specs at the end of this article). But let’s take the long view. Learn to get it “right” in the present tense, and then later we can work on other tenses.

Test 1: Replace with “Recline”

Lie means “recline,” and it can be replaced with “recline” in a sentence. For example, “I am lying on the floor” can become “I am reclining on the floor” and mean more or less the same thing. So, when you’re about to use lay, ask yourself yourself if you mean “recline.” If you do, use lie. (PRESENT TENSE ONLY!)

For example:
Please lay/lie on the floor. (You mean (more or less) “Please recline on the floor.” Therefore, you should say “Please lie on the floor.”)
Please lay/lie this book on the floor. (You mean “Please set this book on the floor.” You don’t mean “Please recline this book on the floor.” That sentence sounds wrong. In fact, your intuition already tells you that “Please lie this book on the floor” is wrong, so this is an easy one.)

Test 2: Chickens Lay Eggs

Remember that lay always needs a direct object, such as “eggs” in the sentence Chickens lay eggs? Whenever you’re about to use lay, ask yourself “Where are the eggs?” Check if there is a person, place, or thing that you can replace with “eggs” in the sentence. If there is, keep lay. If not, change it to lie. (You have to lay something. Yes, I realize there is another method you could use to remember this. Go ahead and use it if you prefer.)

Here are some examples:
I’m going to ____ this book on the table. (Where are the eggs? “This book” is the eggs. You can say “I’m going to lay eggs on the table,” so lay is correct.)
I’m going to ____ here and read a book. (Where are the eggs? There are no eggs, therefore use lie. (If you’re thinking of saying “I’m going to lay here and read eggs,” remember that we’re looking for “lay eggs,” not “read eggs.” If you’re thinking “I’m going to lay eggs and read a book,” remember that here is not a noun, so it can’t be a direct object. )
I fell down, and then I was _____ on the floor. (No eggs; use lie. “I was lying on the floor.”)
Please ____ your jacket on the floor. (Where are the eggs? “Your jacket” is the eggs. You can say “Please lay eggs on the floor,” so lay is correct.)
I was _____ my jacket on the floor when she told me to use the coat rack. (Where are the eggs? “My jacket” is the eggs. You can say “I was laying eggs on the floor,” so lay is correct.)

Verb Specs

I am out of time for this article. I hope what I’ve written so far helps you begin your quest either to cause the extinction of lie or to help save lie from extinction. And if you’re determined to save lie, the present tense covers a lot of the cases you will encounter, so you’re well on your way! I will work on the explanations for other tenses and post them when I can.

However, if the following lists help you, they should be enough:

Lie
Verb: lie. Intransitive (doesn’t take a direct object). Means: recline.
Present tense/plain form: lie (e.g. Every day, I lie on the floor. I like to lie on the floor. Tomorrow I will lie on the floor.)
Past tense: lay (e.g. Yesterday I lay on the floor.)
Past participle: lain (e.g. Many times I have lain on the floor.)
Present participle: lying (e.g. Today I am lying on the floor. Yesterday I was lying on the floor. Many times I have been lying on the floor when the phone rang.)

Lay
Verb: lay. Transitive (must take a direct object). Means: set down
Present tense/plain form: lay (e.g. Every day, I lay a book on the floor. I like to lay books on the floor. Tomorrow I will lay a book on the floor.)
Past tense: laid (e.g. Yesterday I laid a book on the floor.)
Past participle: laid (e.g. Many times I have laid books on the floor.)
Present participle: laying (e.g. Today I am laying a book on the floor. Yesterday I was laying a book on the floor. Many times I have been laying a book on the floor when the phone rang.)

What Does Your Music Reveal about You?

animated gif of phenakistoscope image of a couple waltzing

Eadweard Muybridge’s Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing. Animated gif version created by Trialsanderrors. Used under Creative Commons license.

Do you have an iPod or similar audio player? Try this: put your device on shuffle/random, and write down the first 10 tracks that play. Post them in the comments if you’re willing!

What does this collection say about you?

Think about one of your characters. What tracks would play on this person’s device (if they had one)? You can post that list too, if you like.

I hope you find some insight into yourself or your characters. See the comments to read my list and add your own!

Please Finish Your Story

painting of a girl writing with a quill pen

Detail of George Goodwin Kilburne’s 1875 painting Writing a Letter Home. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that story you started last week? (Or maybe it was last month, or a few years ago.) We want to hear the rest of it. In fact, we would like to purchase a publication that contains it and read it in print. But you haven’t finished it, have you?

That’s okay, I understand. I haven’t finished a whole bunch of my stories either. And it’s not that I want to force you to finish a story you don’t want, a story that’s not for you. Or even a story that was for you at one time but is now so far in the past that you couldn’t write it anymore even if you wanted to. But the ones that are still “on” for you, please finish those. Because this is what it’s like for us, your readers:

The Readers’ Experience:

We hear the first part of a story, the part you wrote in 20 minutes while sitting around a table with us. We get excited about it. We get interested in the characters. We want to see what will happen to them. We want to know why certain details of the story are the way they are, because they seem mysterious. We want to keep reading. If the text you just read out loud were printed in a book, we would keep reading past our bedtime in order to find out these things.

Then at the next writing session, or the next week, or the next time we see you, or even just randomly as we go about our days, we are hoping to hear the next part of the story. I know that stories don’t always come out linearly; I know you can’t promise the next installment as though this were a serial on TV. But we want it. The brain science people would say our biology expects it. This is the point of view of the external reader: we want to see what happens next. But as a writer, you also have to take into account the internal reader: yourself and your own interest in a story.

Don’t Finish a Story You Don’t Care About

Remember my story “The Death of the Station Wagon”? People asked me to write more; they wondered what happened next. But I’m not going to try to find out what happens next, because I think that story is either complete or failed. If I ever work on that story again, I might add a second thread to try to make the events more meaningful, but the sequence of events is already complete: after the station wagon dies, the story is over. So if you wanted to hear what happens next, I’m sorry. Nothing happens next. The universe ceases to exist, and all the white mice get their necks broken.

I’m not asking you to keep going on a story you know has no future, one you’re not interested in, one you think is done. Don’t let anyone else tell you to do that either, no matter how interested they are in the story. They can write their own story.

Say no to narratives you don’t care about.

Finish the Ones You Care About

So I’m done with “The Death of the Station Wagon.” But there are others, like “Dazzlewelts,” that I still feel the pull of sometimes. I know there are people who wish I would finish that one, and I am one of them, because I want to see how it turns out. You have stories like that too. Please finish them. I want to read them. I bet you do, too.

Watson Loves Me

This illustration by Sidney Paget originally accompanied “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1892. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Watson loves me. I know because he treats me so kindly, explains things so clearly, never sends a harsh word in my direction. I know because he’s willing to be vulnerable, to share his potentially embarrassing thoughts and feelings with me. He is a gentleman narrator; he is warm and welcoming; he takes me into his confidence; he expresses his love through the care he takes in his sentences.

But I also know he loves me because he loves Holmes. Watson fails over and over to make the correct deductions, but he keeps trying. Holmes treats him callously, but Watson understands that Holmes doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings; he accepts Holmes’s intentions to teach rather than getting upset at his friend’s unskilled delivery. He treats Holmes kindly, both in person and as a narrator. Even when he is assessing Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the solar system, Watson is kind.

I am unlovable in the same ways as Holmes: I am unstable and obsessive; I care only for my work; I am socially inept. (You may know me and disagree, and your view is probably more accurate, but this is what it feels like inside.) But Watson loves Holmes anyway, cares for him, lives with him joyfully (as much as possible—Holmes is annoying). And because this is fiction, everything Watson does for Holmes, he does for me, the reader.

When I am lonely and sad, when I need a kind hand on my shoulder, I turn to Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories are often repetitive in their structure, with pages of summary and not much plot. I almost never read them anymore to find out what happens or to solve the mystery. I read them to spend time with Watson, to participate in a living relationship between narrator and reader, a relationship that is no less real than Holmes and Watson’s celebrated friendship, and no less real than a relationship between two non-fictional humans.

Why am I saying this? To tell you to write? Of course, yes! Write! Maybe you will write a character who becomes your reader’s true friend, or maybe you will write a story that lets your reader experience unconditional love. But I think there’s something else here, too.

There are other types of narrators, and they show us different ways we can be. Chuck Palahniuk’s narrator in Survivor hates the reader and shows it. Borges’s self-narrator in “The Aleph” is so journalistic that none of his emotions reach the reader at all. Walt Whitman’s narrator in Leaves of Grass makes love to the universe in a way that is practically obscene. These people show us different ways to live, as well as different ways to tell a story. Maybe I will never allow myself to be as exuberant as Whitman; maybe I will never write a narrator like his; but he shows me that it’s okay to feel that inside myself. A first person narrator expands our idea of human experience. It lets us see more ways of being human; it lets us accept parts of ourselves we might otherwise deny.

When I ask the question “How shall I live?” I always look to literature for the answer. Watson has shown me his answer, and that helps me find my own.

No Enterprise

photo of laptop and books, including Uhura's Song

Warning: This essay contains a very minor spoiler (not plot significant) for the third book in the Bloody Jack series.

I’m in the movie theater watching Star Trek: Beyond. I haven’t gone in blind, and I’m finding much to complain about. But although my mind is churning on dialogue problems and weird plot choices, my main experience is this: My heart wants to come out of my chest and go to the screen. I don’t know these new characters; I keep comparing them to the originals; I don’t understand them at all. But they are on the Enterprise, and I feel a gravitational pull to be there too.

Later I’m crying, and it’s not because of the events of the movie. It’s not even because Leonard Nimoy is dead. I’ve known that fact for over a year, and my mind can finally almost touch it, but not quite, certainly not enough to cry. No, this is something more fundamental: I’m crying because Star Trek isn’t real. I can’t live there. There is no Enterprise.

Where can I find consolation? Where can I learn what I should do in the face of this problem? Of course I look to literature for the answer. Here’s what I find: In Under the Jolly Roger, L.A. Meyer puts Jacky Faber on the Pequod, even though his novel is historical fiction and the Pequod is a fictional ship. Why does he do that? It’s so he can live in Moby Dick, through his character. By putting her on the Pequod, he refuses to be left out of fiction; he declares that we’re all the same, and that we’re all in the same world, whether we be fictional or whatever the other thing is.

So, Mr. Meyer, I thank you for this comforting hypothesis. And I see that, in a way, I live in Star Trek when I experience Star Trek stories. I see that if I were an officer on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t be living in Star Trek the story, I’d be living a life on the Enterprise. But still, in the theater the feeling is visceral: My whole body is straining toward the screen: I belong there, not here.

Writing this, I realize: The feeling isn’t that I belong in space, or even on the Enterprise. It’s that I belong in a story. It comes down to that. I’ve never seen it so clearly before.

What makes your heart swell? What makes your soul want to come out of your body and go there, more than anywhere else? I love Rembrandt, I love van Gogh, and my heart moves toward The Starry Night. But it moves toward Star Trek more, toward stories more. I love linguistics and math, and my heart moves toward them, but they are mainly loves of the mind. I love making books and origami, but that is mainly a love of the body, of fingers and eyes. The place that pulls my soul out of my chest is fiction, is words, is story. Literature is my first and truest love. I can’t deny that anymore. I must make it my first priority. What must you make yours?

There’s a fashion for saying to do only your top thing and ignore everything else. But if you need to be creative, doing only your top thing doesn’t work. You have to live in order to get ideas. You have to go deep in other areas if you want to make breakthroughs in your area of specialty.

If you love writing, but it’s not your top thing, keep writing. Maybe write a little less and do your top thing a little more, but keep writing. Keep coming to Write to the End. What you do with us will help you do your top thing.

I won’t stop making non-written art, doing other things I love, living in the moments I’m not writing. What a gift this world is, what varied and wonderful opportunities it contains: Not only to read and to write, not only to study the things I love, but also the meaningfulness of pure experience: to touch the texture of a 20-year-old construction paper cover I made for Uhura’s Song, to hear slow crickets at 2 a.m., to feel the lemony squeeze of tears beginning to form, to look into the night sky and find Antares and recognize the Scorpio that’s not Jessica’s Scorpio, but to think of it, and her, and the times we spent together. Life, if I let myself open to it, is like being in a story.

I promise to write, but I also promise to live, and I ask you to do the same. Do your top thing, and put it first, but let the rest of your life flower, too. The other things you love, the care and depth with which you do them, the appreciation you give to the passing and irretrievable moments of this one life—all will return to you and help you as you work on your top thing, and your life will become a story.

Promise me you’ll do it.

There is no Enterprise but the one we make ourselves.

We Welcome All Writing

image of the Lagoon Nebula

New stars are being created in the Lagoon Nebula. Detail from a photo by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe. Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.

Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.

I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.

Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.

And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.

When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.

This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.

Don’t Show Your Work to Your Friends

baby seal

Photo by Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps. (NOAA Photo Library: corp1516)

What’s the right thing to say to someone who has just shown you a manuscript of the worst prose you’ve ever seen, which they say is a story, but you can hardly even find a character let alone discern a plot?

Wait, I’ll make it worse: They’re looking at you expectantly, as innocent as a baby seal waiting to be clubbed.

Hold on a sec, it’s still not bad enough: You like this person very much and have known them for years. Maybe you even love them. Maybe you live in the same house.

Okay, now go ahead: What’s the right thing to say?

This is why you shouldn’t show your work to your friends.

(You’ve probably already made this mistake. Go ahead and use the comments section below if you’d like to tell us the terrible things people have said to you. Remember, they didn’t know what to do! They were trying their best to help! Let’s try to forgive them.)

But what if somebody really is showing their work to you? Seriously, what should you say?!

Everybody has to start where they are. Most people who eventually write amazing things at one point wrote horrible things. If you don’t believe me, and you like Harlan Ellison’s work, go find a copy of his collected stories and read the one about the snake. “But he was a kid when he wrote that,” you say. Yeah, and he was also a beginning writer.

What would you say to the nine-year-old Harlan Ellison, if he was showing you that story? I bet you have no trouble coming up with an answer this time, because you’re thinking of a kid (even if it’s Harlan Ellison). I bet you would say something like, “Wow, you wrote a story! How about you write another one?” And I bet you would mean it.

And you know what else? I bet it would be exactly the right thing to say.

Protect Your Reader’s Trust with Good Mechanics

line drawing of people boarding a sailing ship

Illustration by Henri Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is always telling you that you need good mechanics, so why am I wasting your time talking about it too? Well, if you already study regularly and frequently in your never-ending and joyful quest to master grammar, punctuation, and word usage, then please skip this article. But if your motivation or practice falls below that level, I hope to inspire and encourage you by letting you experience from the inside one of the reasons you need to continually, on-purpose, improve your skills. And then I’ll give you a few ways that you can improve them without having to take a class.

Be Worthy of Your Reader’s Trust

Mechanics are a big part of your relationship with your reader. Every mechanical error you make reduces your reader’s trust in you. Every error takes the reader out of the flow of your writing and into a state of doubt.

This Is What It Feels Like

Let’s say you’ve sent me a text.

I follow the convention (very common) that “captain” is capitalized when it stands in for a name, but otherwise not. The following text follows this convention:

The captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the captain. Everyone started to get ready. The captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

If you were to write this text with “captain” capitalized all the time, it would FEEL like this when I read it:

The Captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the Captain. Everyone started to get ready. The Captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

See how distracting that is? See how it reduces trust (“Why is this person hitting me over the head with these crazy huge C’s?”)?

My point is not to teach you this particular convention, but to get you to consider: What if this type of experience is happening to people when they read your work?

So, What Can I Do?

Using good mechanics is a skill, and you can’t become a master in one day. That’s the trouble with most articles that tell you to “watch your mechanics. It bugs editors when you make mistakes.” You can watch your mechanics all you want, but if you’re not regularly and frequently improving them on purpose, then someday your work will do this to someone. It probably will anyway, so don’t worry about that! But you want to have a good enough foundation in place that your reader will trust you enough to keep reading.

I have very good mechanics skills. But there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. Just recently I was proofreading a manuscript, and I spent over half my time looking things up.

What to do, then? Here are some actions you can take and habits you can cultivate that will help you improve your skills, without investing a big chunk of time:

  1. Pick a style guide. If you don’t have one in mind already, take no more than 15 minutes, right now, to look around online and find a style guide seems to be pretty common for the type of writing you most often do. Get a copy of it (or an online subscription).
  2. While editing, rewriting, and proofreading, look things up! (I recommend using your own physical (paper) copy of reference books. It may feel slower, but I’ll bet what you learn in passing will save you time in the end.)
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise use of a word, use your dictionary.
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise rule/convention that applies to a sentence, use your chosen style guide.
    • Never, ever grab a synonym off a list without looking it up in a dictionary to make sure that’s what you actually mean. (Avoid the salad bandage!)
  3. Do real work. This will help you more than any “study” ever will. For example:
    • Beta read, and look things up.
    • Proofread the same document as a friend. (It’s best if you do this for the manuscript of another friend. That way everyone gets to learn, and you help someone’s manuscript as a bonus.) Talk about why each of you marked the things you marked. Find outside documentation to support each choice. (What if you thought “captain” was always capitalized, and you marked it, but your friend didn’t? You’d look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, and you’d learn that a rule you thought you were applying correctly was not real, and you’d get to improve.)

P.S. I’m sure there’s at least one mechanical error in this article. If you saw any and want to point them out to me, I will fix them and be glad for the opportunity to improve my skills. Thanks!