Steve Liskow  
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On Writing: Growth

When you can look at something you wrote over a year ago without wincing, you've stopped growing as a writer. We always need feedback and advice, but the advice we need changes as we develop. Or don't. When I was in first grade, printing a capital "s" with all those curves took five minutes. When I was twelve, dyslexia made for creative spelling. Now I struggle to make my characters real and my prose lively.

Twenty-five years apart, two people's comments stick with me, partly because they were so concrete and practical. Both were easy to say, but putting them into practice keeps me busy.

Dr. Joseph Reed sponsored the novel that became my sixth-year thesis at Wesleyan University. Joe didn't give a rat's ass about hurting your feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my advisor, he said, "Probably not. But come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

I went to the meeting bearing a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a "synopsis") and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the scenes and events. Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves.

"You've written this book before, but now you're going in a very different direction with it, aren't you?" It wasn't really a question. Two early versions of the book already had over twenty rejections, but I was adding a new major character and a meaty subplot. "Come back next week with a chapter you haven't already written before."

I wrote chapter twelve because it involved the new character, and met Joe in his office again the following week. He dropped the pages on his desk without even looking at them.

"OK. Now write me a new Chapter One for next week. Then I'll decide if I want to do this."

When I showed up with Chapter One, he decided we could work together. When he found out that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he gave me the first "simple" piece of advice.

"That wastes too much. Learn to compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

Well, DUH.

I still do early planning in longhand because I draw arrows or diagrams to help me see plot and character connections, but I type all my first drafts. Joe also gave me a way around writer's block, which mattered because I only had nine months to complete the project for a grade. I was teaching high school English and working weekends for a photography studio, too.

"You've got an outline," he said. "If you can't think of chapter four, write chapter nine or ten. Write the ending. You'll smooth out the time and transitions when you re-type it all anyway."

There you are, friends. Don't worry about getting it right, just worry about getting it down. That counsel helped me write a 349-page novel between Valentine's Day and mid-June. We agreed that only three sections of the book needed major revision, and I had five months to do them.

Joe gave me an "A" and urged me to send the book out again. It didn't sell, but, as you read this, I still do a rough outline and fast first drafts.

Skip over twenty years.

Back to Wesleyan and the 2004 Wesleyan Writers Conference. I've sent in twenty-five pages of a PI novel for a critique, and Chris Offutt, who teaches even better than he writes, looks at me over a stack of other samples. The word is that he gives the best critiques, so he gets more chapters for the week-long workshop than all the other visiting writers combined.

"You write really good dialogue." His tone sounds like, "Sorry, we'll have to take the other leg off, too."

"Thanks," I say. "Why is that bad?"

"Because you know it, so you rely on it too much," he says. "You need to writer stronger narration and exposition. Learn more technique so you can vary your approach."

He flips through the pages.

"Here. Two sentences of description would get you as far as this half page of talk. A pitcher can't use a change-up until he's got a fast ball, but he needs both of them and something else or he won't survive. "

"Oh, by the way, I like your characters."

He goes to the student union for coffee and I go to the bookstore for more books on writing.

You only stop learning when you decide you know it all. I'm still making lists of what I don't know.

It keeps me pretty busy.

 

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