Monday, January 21, 2008
Good Advice From Maureen Ryan Griffin
I asked Maureen Ryan Griffin to guest post today, and she sent me the following:
What Questions Do You Ask?
As a writer, the questions that you ask matter. Why? For one thing, they are important clues to the context you have for your writing. This context affects, not just the way you feel, but also what you choose to write about, how hard you're willing to work, and how tenaciously you seek publication.
I've had well over a thousand students in my writing classes and workshops, and there's one question I get asked over and over. Want to guess what it is?
The question is some variant of Do I have talent? Sometimes it comes out Is my writing any good? or Do you think I can get published? Regardless, what students are really asking for is a measurement of their innate ability. This is dangerous. And not particularly useful.
Of course, we all want to know, beyond all doubt, that we are brilliant. Of course, some people have more raw talent than others. But think about it-the correlation between talent and success is not particularly high. There are extremely talented writers who never publish a word, for reasons that range from practical to heartbreaking. Conversely, there are moderately talented writers who publish profusely. You've read their books, poems, and/or articles. You've said, "How could this get published? My stuff is so much better!"
I'll tell you how. The writer did what it took to write it and get it out there. Sure, he or she may have had connections, but forging those connections took effort, too. The focus was not on Am I talented? but something more akin to What will it take to get this published? or What's the next step?
Asking Am I talented? keeps the focus on you. And you will be much better served if your focus is on the writing, or on the reader. Remember J.K. Rowling's Dumbledore telling Harry that our choices say more about us than our abilities do? Talent is far less important than commitment.
One of my early successes was the publishing of an article, "Faith Lessons from a Dying Woman," in a Catholic magazine called Saint Anthony Messenger. It was about Lynn Tucker, a woman in my church who died of cancer, leaving behind a family, including a son who, at eight, was only a year older than my daughter. One evening several months after her death, our parish priest, the Father Burke I spoke of earlier, gave my daughter an angel filled with candy that Lynn had made and given him. The circumstances of that evening, coupled with my memories of Lynn's loving generosity, so inspired me that I was determined to share the story.
I'd never written an article like this before. My husband told me later that when he read my first draft, his heart sank because it was so bad. I don't remember how long it took me to prepare that piece for submission. I do remember that I turned to my mentor, Irene Honeycutt, for constructive feedback. And I'll never forget the day I revised and polished it for over four hours, only to have my dedicated word processor (a precursor to the desktop computer) lose every word. Of course I was discouraged. But I didn't let even that stop me. I rewrote the whole thing.
My husband was surprised when Saint Anthony Messenger took my story, but I wasn't. "Faith Lessons from a Dying Woman" made it to publication because the question I was asking was What will it take to get this story in print to show Lynn's family my gratitude? and I was willing to do whatever it took. My context was love and honor, not talent.
Instead of focusing on your talent, or lack thereof, ask questions such as How can I become a better writer? and What's possible for me if I throw my whole heart into my writing? What juicy, fascinating person, place, or thing can I write about? What can I write that will touch, or entertain, or inspire someone else? Your chances for happiness-and success-will multiply.
What questions will you ask?
Keeping in mind that the questions you ask are the foundation of your whole relationship with writing, which will you ask? Choose a question or questions from the paragraph above, or create a question or questions of your own.
From Spinning Words into Gold by Maureen Ryan Griffin
To order a copy, see www.maureenryangriffin.com.