Friday, September 10, 2010

On Being a Writer

What is it to be a writer? This topic has been pounded into the ground. But here is my slant on it anyway.

Years ago, a famous woman author (whose name now escapes me) told me (as I was watching her being interviewed on TV), that she always, always, always reads as many books as possible whenever she is writing a book of her own.

She had said, it only increases the quality of your own writings and not to do so, is simply foolish. There is a great wealth of the greatest minds the world has every known out there, documented in books, and why wouldn't you want to make use of that? That same author also said that she never reads contemporary authors out of fear (and respect) of accidentally misappropriating their thoughts, concepts or writings.

This is a very good point for any artist, or basically, anyone, in any discipline. You can always learn from those before you. And if you "know it all", I assure you, there is still someone out there who knew something you didn't know, and you should search that information out. In fact, the more you "know it all" the more badly you may need to find where that information is.

When asking the greatest musicians in the world, if they practice, now that they are considered the greatest in their field, everyone I have heard asked that question, had the response of, "absolutely". Some even said they practice more now than before they were annotated with that distinguished moniker.

If you want to be a writer, first and foremost, write. But also, read. Stretch your boundaries, your make your limitations as much a thing of the past as you can. Then remember that the old adage that writing, is rewriting.

Hand in hand with writing, is having an opinion, which I'm only going to make a passing comment about on here. Obviously, one has to have an opinion, something to say, in order to be a writer. But, as most people tend to have that, I would only suggest to educate your opinions and gather disparate information on your considered topics. Which is gained by being aware of your surroundings, the world, current issues in life and reading.

When I was a child, my grandmother told me to always try to read a book a little above your level of understanding. Every so often, read a book that you know for a fact is above your ability to understand it. So for years, during my initial years or reading entire books, about every other book, I would read a book like that. It was painful sometimes, a little boring other times, but I always had the thought that in the future, I would benefit from it. And I did.

I inevitably looked back on those books and realized that I now knew what they meant, as I had eventually filled in the blanks as I learned new things. Or I would perhaps, read that book again later. I do that with certain books, as later on I know I have grown and matured, and I find greater meaning in those same words. Its invigorating to realize I didn't get it before, but I do now. It also gives me a gauge by which to measure my progress.

All this lead to my writing at too high of a level for general audiences. But I didn't know that. Then, when the software was available, I took a story I had written from years before and ran it through the program. It rated it at grade level seventeen. I looked up what you should write at for different media and newspapers it was said, wrote at about a eighth grade level; mostly for ease of quick information dissemination. Someone told me that most novels are written at a twelfth grade level, but that varies quite a bit for obvious reasons.

The Flesch-Kincaid tool is built into tools like Microsoft Word. You can measure the readability of whatever you like. Some examples (from Tim Porter):

-Average newspaper story: 70-80 (about eighth-grade level).
-John F. Kennedy's inaugural address ("Ask not what …"): 10.3.
-Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech: 6.6.

That saddened me somewhat at the time, but it does point out something very important. You don't have to show off what "level" you can write at. You should simply consider communicating your thoughts, to as many as possible. Then once in a while, write at your own level, just to cleanse yourself and enjoy the process.

I always liked how the original Scientific American magazine was written, because it started very general, then got more and more specific and higher level until at the end, I very seldom understood what they were talking about. But you felt like you were part of a group of people who were very well educated indeed (even though, really, you possibly weren't). But that magazine is no longer even recognizable to me. And that too is sad.

In the end, being a writer is, well, being a writer. Writing. Rewriting. But also, reading. Yes is a need to have at least a passing understanding of the mechanics of writing, but like my first college composition teacher told me, "Oh, just write, don't worry about it."

As for reading, its a fact that having read a great deal, one can only become all the better a writer for it. So, if you want to write, don't stress over what you think you cannot do, and focus on what you can do. Like reading, and rewriting, until you get it right.

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