The Real Secrets I Learned from My First Writing Program

In 2006 I was living in San Francisco, working at a private detective agency, and thinking about picking up writing again. I had moved to San Francisco in 2004 and I had quit drinking in 2005. For the past couple of years I had felt lost and confused. I didn’t really know what to do with myself if alcohol wasn’t going to be a major part of my life. I’d used it for a long time to numb myself and block my emotions—especially those emotions I felt around writing.

But working for a private detective exposed me to a goldmine of stories. Our surveillance guys sent me reports every day and they were always interesting. I profiled new cases and thought about how similar the process was to building fictional characters. I watched and edited countless videos of people doing the weirdest things, and then wrote it all down for our clients.

I felt my creative brain waking up. I wanted to be writing more than reports for clients. I wanted to be writing for myself.

One day I was scrolling through Craigslist and found an ad from a writer’s program looking for volunteers to help set up on a weekly basis. In exchange, they would let me sit in on the writing sessions for free. I decided to go for it and answered the ad.

I showed up every week. The program revolved around doing one-hour blocks of silent writing together. From the first session, I was hooked. When the timer started I was like a frenzied horse out of the gate. So many words came pouring out of me it was scary. I ripped through page after page, my palms turning inky and black as I wrestled with the paper (I was handwriting everything).

At first I wrote about the years before I moved to San Francisco, when I lived in Seattle and had been drinking all the time. As the weeks went on I found myself writing pieces about my family, my childhood, trauma from my teenage years—everything I was struggling with and embarrassed about. Everything that had preyed on my mind for the past seven years of my writing drought.

Eventually the output of my writing went from crazy storm to calm rainy day. After those first few months of fire hose writing it seemed I had cleared the tubes in some way and then naturally fell into my own pace. I discovered that this natural pace was slow. I kept showing up every week for that one hour, but I didn’t write outside of that. And during that one hour, sometimes it could be torture getting the words out.

During that time I learned what it was to constantly compare myself with other writers.

Some of the other writers in my program were zipping through novels. Some were writing concurrently on two or three projects at a time. Some were already pitching their just-about-finished work to agents.

I wasn’t doing any of that.

I was just showing up once a week to dive deep into the morass of my own emotional muck and hopefully make something out of it. So far it looked like nothing more than a holy mess.

But I kept showing up for the next two years.

At the end of that time many of my fellow writers had moved on. A few were fortunate enough to get that publishing deal or finish all of their projects and take on even more. I was still me—albeit a more hopeful, feeling-more-powerful me—and I was still left with my holy mess.

However, it was a finished mess. I had done it. I had finished the first sloppy draft of my novel. Or memoir. Or autobiographical fictional novel. I wasn’t yet sure what it was or what I wanted to call it. I only knew that it was done and I had done it. I had finished writing my book.

During those two years I acquired a staggering depth of knowledge about writing. No, I didn’t learn things like how to choose the perfect metaphor or raise the stakes for my protagonist at the optimum point in narrative arc. But I learned things that were way more important. Like how to listen for my own writing voice. How to unearth the pieces of my story so that they remained as shining and intact as they were when floating around hidden in my soul. How to remain detached from the successes and failures of the writers around me and stay focused on my path, my journey.

These are lessons that I carried forward and still use today. They are the foundation of my writing practice.

Anyone can do this. Any writer who wants to make it can make it happen. It’s not about talent or luck. It all comes down to persistence, to showing up rain or shine or taking chance after chance on yourself, to believing in your stories.

Because the art of learning how to write is really you learning how to read yourself.

Related Article in This Series:

Why I Never Got an MFA

Why I Stopped Writing for Seven Years

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