One Thousand Words on Being a Non-Writer

I had a big fish / small pond writing experience in high school.

My senior year, my English teacher took me aside and asked if I had plagiarized one of my short stories. Even though I was a good student, he didn’t think the piece could have been written by any high school student. I didn’t know whether to be proud or offended.

I hadn’t plagiarized it and the teacher later wrote me a college recommendation based solely on that one story.

So I wasn’t afraid of tackling a college level writing course. Unfortunately it was the first and last college fiction writing course I took because one particular incident that has caused me to doubt my abilities ever since.

We were writing a group piece. We each had one character and all the characters were at a party together. We had to write a short story featuring not only our character, but several of the characters written by the other students in the class.

The details of my character are still crystal clear. His name was Lonnie. He was a small town boy who had just moved to the big city leaving a girlfriend back home. He worked in a bookstore and was obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe.

I don’t remember my party story about Lonnie, but later in the class we were allowed to write about our character without constraints. I wrote a story where Lonnie went nuts and thought he was living the story of “The Raven.”

I’m sure it was awful. I was young, in college and, like most college students, pretentious.

Plus I was blatantly stealing from Poe.

The professor marked the story all up and at the end she wrote “Pretty good for a non-writer.”

That single comment successful brought any delusions I had about possessing even a pinch of writing talent to a screeching halt.

In retrospect, I understand what she was saying. She was telling me that I wasn’t bad for someone who didn’t want to write for a living; for someone who was majoring in theater, not English. The funny thing is that she probably meant it as a compliment.

But it had the reverse affect. I don’t think I ever took myself seriously as a writer after that. I permanently labeled myself a “non-writer.”

Maybe this is putting too much power in the hands of one college professor. She probably read the story at the last minute before the class and was just trying to get through the pile. I can’t even remember her name, so why should her scribbled comment at the end of a stupid story affect everything I write for the rest of my life?

When I began this blog I jumped the first hurdle between non-writer and writer.

The second hurdle was publicizing my blog. I started slowly, just telling my close friends. Now my posts appear on Facebook and Twitter. I still don’t get a ton of hits, but I think that’s part of the nature of my project.

If I wrote about horses every time, I’d have a lot of regular traffic from people who like horses. But you never know what you’re going to get when you read my blog. I could be writing about music or birthdays or road rage. Or you might get a piece of my “might possibly become a novel” or a random short story about the first black sheep or a young widow.

Unless you know me, it’s probably not that interesting.

Still, I’m putting my writing out there for people to read, and that’s a big step for a “non-writer.”

Tonight I successfully got past the third hurdle: my first writer’s workshop.

This wasn’t one of those cutthroat groups of writers who gather and tear each other’s work to shreds. Thank God! Instead, it was group of five other perfectly nice writers, including the group leader, who share their work and offer comments.

We were at all different stages in the process and in our writing lives. One gentleman was a seasoned writer and workshop participant who wanted feedback on a new project. Another was just starting to share his writing. One of the women in the group had just published her first novel, an accomplishment akin to winning an Olympic gold medal in my estimation, but submitted an essay for us to discuss.

The workshop was exactly what I needed. It was an open and safe environment where I could ask questions and get answers.

One of the looming questions I’ve had about my “might possibly become a novel” is whether or not people would want to read about these characters.

It’s easy for me to care about Daniel, Pastor Sebastian and the rest of the gang. They live in my head. Just today I saw an ad for Payless and said, “That’s where Daniel works.” Then I thought, “Did I really say that out loud?”

If my workshop tonight was any indication, I discovered that the characters are likable and interesting on the page as well as in my mind.

I was also able to ask technical and process questions. We discussed why adverbs are considered “evil” and what to do to avoid them. I got advice on how to move forward from here; that it’s all right to continue writing scenes and not worry about how they’re going to come together just yet.

And I learned that, while all the research I’ve done was necessary to me, I am overwhelming the reader with details they don’t necessarily need to know.

Most exciting, my workshop colleagues thought the eight pages I submitted read like a novel and that I had a firm grasp on how a scene should flow between dialogue, back story and exposition. Heady praise to someone labeled a “non-writer.”

The comments weren’t entirely positive of course, but all the feedback was constructive, thoughtful and greatly appreciated.

So I clear another hurdle and move forward. I dare anyone to call me a “non-writer” now!


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