Sorting the Garbage

When I received my glorious and wildly unexpected National Merit Scholarship and got a chance to attend Universities, I had a little bit of common sense.  Or I thought I did.

Of the three Universities that sought me out – for I was far too naïve to have done the searching myself – I chose the newly married ‘Case Institute of Technology’ & ‘Western Reserve University’ simply because they were in the city where I grew up, and no one had told me that a scholarship might include room and board.  No one had told me anything.

Once on board, I gravitated to the ‘Case Institute’ party of the marriage.  I was not accepted as a student of Case Institute, because they had a limit of 3% on their female students.  Whatever I was, I was not amongst the top 3% of STEM students.  (We hadn’t that acronym STEM in 1967, but the idea was the same.)  So I was officially a student of Flora Stone Mather college, while taking a lot of Case classes.  And all my friends seemed to be Case students.  Which meant all my friends were male, except for one extremely brilliant woman.  She was so brilliant I never could focus my eyes to see her name, but I remember her brilliance.

I suppose this was all natural progress to a person who read as heavily as I had read, and who had read a preponderance of Science Fiction.  Not all of what I had read was SF, I’m glad to say, but enough of it was that I easily fit with the propeller-beanie crowd.

What my common sense was telling me was that I mustn’t waste my precious time having fun, which is to say, taking literature classes.  I knew I could read on my own.  So I did everything but study English.

In one sense, I created of myself a very stupid writer.  Everything I know about writing I have learned from tolerant editors.  I didn’t appreciate them at the time, gods know, but I do appreciate them now.  Now that tolerant editors don’t seem to exist for young writers, I bless them. Not all of the editors I worked with fitted that description, but enough of them did.

But in a sense, by my continued ignorance, I saved myself as a writer.  The truth is simply that it takes only a few months of studying writing to learn how abysmally bad one is as a writer. And once that is understood, the paralyzing shame destroys almost everyone who wants to write.

There are paths to avoid this, now.  There is Clarion.  There are other workshops.  There is such a thing as a mentor, for the one-in-a-thousand students who might find a mentor.  The old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” must be true only in a world-view that includes many re-incarnations.  A person like myself was in no danger of finding a mentor.  Nor did I have the money or family resources for a star-gift like Clarion. So, what I did was avoid classes containing anything like literature, because such classes would be fun, and I wasn’t at school for fun, but to save my life. (When I attended CWRU, post K-12 schooling was an unusual thing, unlike today.)

As it turns out, nothing I did at school got me work anyway, because I graduated in the same year Nixon beheaded the fellowship system in the U.S.  Nineteen-seventy-one.  I became an artist’s model, and froze standing still for hours at a time.  I became a bartender, and got paid fairly well, although I learned that I was being paid by folks for helping them ruin their lives.  And I slowly learned to type, so that I might get a more reliable job.

In the end I learned to type amazingly well, and did get work that could keep me alive.  And it enabled me to write.

Oh, how I wrote.  Reams and reams of paper went through my IBM Selectric.  And oh, how badly I wrote!  I had good ideas, and have re-used them all in subsequent years, but still I wrote so much lovely stinking trash.  I continued writing because I didn’t know it was trash.  I bless the fact that I learned to write without knowing it was trash.  There are writers with egos so strong they can learn they are writing garbage and keep writing, while learning to write something better than garbage.  I would not have been one of them.

It was ten years or more of typing novel length things of one sort or another, and sending out the homing pigeons in manila envelopes, before I found the one person who told me exactly what sort of garbage it was that I was writing.  That was the important part.  A writer can’t simply be told she is writing garbage.  She must be told what sort of garbage it is.  Knowing that, a writer can change.

For me, it took eight hours.  Eight hours of sitting at someone’s dining table and being made to read my work aloud, while she sat there and said nothing.  Eight hours and then a year of redrafts.  I remember there were seven of them.

I’ve said this in print before and I’ll likely say it again.  I don’t recommend my own history as a program for aspiring writers.  It was just the way it worked out for me.  I would so like to help other writers avoid the ten years of trash.  Unless, of course, their goal is to become a very good typist.

My only real advice for a person without the resources for mentorship, or the money for the few blessed workshops where writers can help each other (without falling into the common trap of trying to destroy each other,) is to find a person who will be willing to tell the young writer not that they are writing garbage – because that is a given – but exactly what sort of garbage it is.

The reason I keep repeating this advice is simply that it is the only advice I have to give.

2 thoughts on “Sorting the Garbage”

  1. “The truth is simply that it takes only a few months of studying writing to learn how abysmally bad one is as a writer. And once that is understood, the paralyzing shame destroys almost everyone who wants to write.”

    Quoted for truth. I still fight this almost every day! It happens to artists, too. Very thankful I didn’t major in visual arts, because while I knew my work was bad, I didn’t care; I just kept doing it. There was no stake. I allowed myself to fail, so I got better much faster. I kept writing, too. But much more tentatively, less experimentally, and certainly less publicly. My development was slower.

    1. We all fight it. And the damned thing is, Nancy, that it slides back into garbage in a moment, if I’m not paying attention. And I’ll tell you frankly – you are too timid about your own writing. Throw those ‘messages’ out. When you speak of rules of writing, remember they don’t mean a thing. It’s just what you can get away with. Perhaps you need a complete stranger again to remind you that you’re good.

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