By Shahnaz Radjy
Last year was the first time I carved out time and space to take myself seriously as a writer. Even though I have been writing stories for as long as I could remember, it was only after completing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for those “in the know”) that I decided it was time to invest in myself as a writer.
In the hopes that you do not wait for an arbitrary milestone to do the same, here is one concrete suggestion and example of what I mean by “investing in yourself as a writer”:
Read books by experts who want to share their knowledge and experience.
Books about Writing
Having devoured a few books about writing – though my wishlist is still growing – I found that some are much more theoretical, if still enjoyable, while others are workbooks with practical exercises that make it easier to integrate the advice.
To illustrate this spectrum, three examples: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr – an interesting take but mostly theoretical, On Writing by Stephen King – fascinating with a mix of memoir and concrete advice but with just one exercise, and Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Navigating the Story by Ursula Le Guin – a brilliant set of lessons and practical exercises.
Ursula Le Guin’s Take on Writing
Although I still haven’t read any Le Guin (I know, I know), in early 2018, a writer friend asked if I would be interested in teaming up to work through her book “Steering the Craft.”
The idea terrified me, so I said yes.
Broken down into ten chapters, Le Guin takes a lifetime of writing and teaching writing workshops, distilling her key lessons into easy to digest parts with one or two practical exercises each. Click To Tweet
Once past the first awkward experience of writing on the spot and sharing words with someone, I realized vulnerability is perception, and this was, in fact, more like going to the gym and working on new machines to strengthen different muscles.
Examples from Chapter 7’s Exercise
To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here are the instructions for the Chapter 7 exercises on point of view, and my version of the exercises, which included telling a different story, with both versions in the first person instead of a limited third (or tell the story of an accident twice, once in detached author mode or a journalistic, reportorial voice, then from the viewpoint of a character involved in the accident.)
VOICE 1 – The Student Perspective
Gustav and I had decided to meet before class so we could walk over together because the whole point of signing up for the same writing class– one of the few overlapping requirements between his business school curriculum and my arts & science one – was to spend more time together.
At the end of last semester, we had gone through the list of writing courses. After discarding anything that sounded too demanding such as “writing about film” (that would have been fun, and I love watching movies, but both Gustav and I had full schedules, and I would have hated for obligation to turn something enjoyable into a chore), we had found the perfect class: Writing about Love and Death.
Gustav had laughed when I first suggested it, but when I had half-jokingly said, “how hard can it be – isn’t everything about love and death?” he was convinced. It helped that the class was in a time slot that worked for both of us.
On that first day, we got to class early and chose neighboring seats in the middle of the small classroom. When the teacher showed up and introduced herself, I was reassured by the fact that she was young – somehow, that seemed to confirm the promise of a more engaging semester ahead.
After telling us she had graduated from Brown University and was currently pursuing her Ph.D., she summarized the intro by turning to the blackboard and – as the chalk danced across the slate – she read what she was writing out loud: “Welcome to Writing about Love and Death” – but instead of stopping there as expected, her hand moved to the next line and continued with –“…in the Renaissance.”
My excitement turned to dread, and my eyes went wide right as I felt Gustav punch the side of my thigh under the seat. I started to look in his direction but realized that if our eyes met, I would dissolve into laughter because clearly, the Universe was laughing at our plans: our “easy” writing class was going to be based on texts in old English!
John Donne, whether we liked it or not, we were coming for you.
VOICE 2 – The Teacher Perspective
It’s time. I gather my things and start walking towards campus.
I don’t like how nervous I am, even though I am sure this is normal. Most importantly, I can do this. I picked the theme, and any student who shows up will have selected this topic out of all the writing classes offered, so there is a good chance it will be mostly women and that this semester will be amazing. I should be excited!
Today is my first day teaching at a top-notch university as I embark on the last phase of my Ph.D. – this is a dream come true.
As I make my way to the English department, everything is comforting in how familiar it is – even though it feels like I see it in a new light, as not just a student but also a teacher, which is part of who I am as of today.
When I get to the small classroom assigned to me, I am both surprised and reassured: it is almost full, and only half are women! Ok, well, the important thing is that not only are students interested in what I have to offer, but they are punctual students.
I can do this.
I say hello and take a few minutes to arrange my things on the desk. Then, at last, it is time.
Closing the door, I then go to the front of the desk and lean on it as I introduce myself, trying to keep it short and not start babbling. It feels odd to stand there, and they are all looking at me as if they see right through me, so I do the only thing I can think of: I turn around, take a deep breath to steady myself – I can do this! – and go to the blackboard. Taking a piece of chalk, I narrate as I write: “Welcome to Writing about Love and Death in the Renaissance.”
I hear something behind me and hope it’s not a student who is getting up to walk out. By the time I turn around again, a few students are doodling in open notebooks, and a boy and girl are even smiling at me!
I can definitely do this.
They are going to love John Donne!
Neither text is perfect, but they were written in 20 minutes each and barely edited. More importantly, they would not have come into existence if it weren’t for Le Guin nudging me to go beyond my usual writing.
So, I hope that regardless of whether or not you like John Donne, you’ll take the leap and build on the experience of writing giants, to stretch past your comfort zone as you level up with your writing.
Consider signing up for NaNoWriMo or other writing challenges – whether you’re into fiction or memoir-based writing, and look for your tribe of writers to work through exercises with – because when people say it takes a village, that applies to writing, as well as raising children.
Bio: Shahnaz Radjy
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania. Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
http://casabeatrix.pt/shows the adventurous spirit of Shahnaz and her husband, François. First, they traveled the world working on farms to hone their skills, and since 2017 have been in Portugal. They bought an old farm in 2018, and are turning their biggest dream into an unforgettable farm / nature / disconnect-to-reconnect experience we’d love to share with you.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
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