We all want to improve.
I make that a blanket statement, because while there are those writers who already think their writing is as good as it gets, us saner folk still have days when we look at our work and think, "Oh goodness. I really, really stink at this. Did I write that? That is so stupid. Backspacebackspacebackspace...!" and daydream of a time when our writing is polished to perfection. (At least, I do. On rare and not terribly lucid occasions.)
Our desire to improve in the craft of writing is what drives us to read the self-help books and writing blogs dedicated to the subject. We dig through all the posts on fight scenes or dialogue, hoping to glean something that will make our writing in those areas shine and stand out from the crowd. We fret and sigh over cliches like "black as pitch" and practically rip our hair out over stray adverbs. We chew our nails as we wonder if maybe our fantasy world isn't as original, after all, as Patricia McKillip's. And on top of all that, as Christians we often stretch our brains to amazing lengths to find out how we can fit the Gospel or maybe just a prayer into the plot - because that's what we're supposed to do, right?
Now, some of you know already that I'm not a huge fan of self-help books. I'm not going to denigrate them, though, because I know that they can hold very useful information and have helped numerous writers work out difficult parts of the writing process; I know that for myself, I frequently store away the tips on such blogs as Go Teen Writers, to be implemented at some later date. Nothing beats an extensive library and broad tastes, but it is nonetheless helpful for us to see things broken down, the parts examined in detail and then put back together again.
All things in moderation, however, for this approach can be overdone, and then nothing so thoroughly robs a story of its life. This self-help business often - necessarily, even - looks at writing in a mechanistic fashion: take it apart, look at the cogs and gears and gerbils, then assemble it and voila! a story! It can fail to recognize that a story is much less a machine than it is a living organism, needing to be nurtured, not to have its leaves and roots pulled out and inspected. We simply end up trying too hard.
That is a difficult thing to say without sounding as though I'm implying that writing is an easy flow of words onto paper every single day with no agonies whatsoever. But of course that is nothing more than a fantasy, and not even a pleasant one when you start to think carefully: what, after all, is writing without any work? We do have to labor over our stories. We do have to make the plant grow, and we do have to get rid of all the bugs and the fungus and the what-have-you that distort it. The point is not to sit back and clear your mind of all the wisdom of other authors and readers.
The point is to have the right mindset.
Writing is an art. It isn't the same as putting together the parts of car until when you turn the key in the ignition, the engine comes to life. It's an art, a work of creation, a tying together of a multitude of thought-threads into a story that feels - and in some ways is - alive. That is not something that can be taught. And because of this, we cannot go into self-help books and the like expecting to be shown how to write. We can be shown how to polish our words. We can be shown how to spruce up dialogue. We can be shown when to leave a cliche and when to reinvent one. But in all that, we cannot be shown how to write.
We can't be taught this, and yet I do believe we can learn it. We learn it individually in the process of our writing, and also in the process of our living. Because being a writer is not just an expression of what we do, but of something we are. I don't know that it is essential and I won't run off on a philosophical rabbit trail; it is enough to realize that writing is a necessary part of who we are. And I think that perhaps the process of improving our writing is not, after all, so much the process of polishing grammar and the like (however important that is). It's a process of growing.