Back to School... for Writers

[Here's a post I wrote for, republished here with permission.]

Over the next few weeks, across the country, students (and teachers) will be going back to school. Writers, in contrast, never stop writing, so the event has no bearing on our writing life whatsoever… except that maybe it does. Maybe, if we’re really honest, we admit that we don’t always follow Stephen King’s writing regimen perfectly. We take breaks. Sometimes those breaks are longer than they should be. Or maybe we’ve been pounding out our daily wordcount, but we need to be reinvigorated. Remembering how to “go back to school” can inform our practice as writers.

Summer Break

Hopefully the cause for our hiatus from our writing regimen isn’t seasonal. As a teacher, I’m struggling not to launch into one of my rants about how summer vacation is a throwback to an agrarian economy, how summer breaks don’t prepare students for a working world where no adults get them (not even teachers), and about how it’s amazing that our schools measure up as well as they do when compared to the schools in countries where students go to school for eleven months a year, six days a week. I won’t go into that. Except to say that it is analogous to taking a long hiatus from writing in that both are terrible ideas. Try to avoid taking long breaks from your writing. Get back to work. If that means ditching that novel which seems to be set in the nation of Writer’s-block-istan and tells the story of Prince Spamlet who is dithering about whether to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream, drop that project and write a short story about someone in a more interesting place who actually does something that has real consequences. Or go outside and write some Haikus. It doesn’t matter. Just tell yourself, “Break’s over. Time to go back to school.”

Back to School Shopping

Students waste exorbitant amounts of their parents’ money when they beg for trendy, gaudy clothing to wear the first day of school, especially when you consider that the only thing changing faster than fashion is the size of clothes those kids fit into. Then they turn around and forget to buy paper and pencils to put in their flashy new backpacks. Some writers make the same mistake, in a way. We worry about what kinds of novels are selling and try to write the next Harry PotterHarry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7) or TwilightThe Twilight Saga Collection or The HelpThe Help (Movie Tie-In) instead of worrying about the way we’ll actually do our work. Stephen King, in On WritingOn Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, tells the story of his uncle’s toolbox, and uses it as a metaphor for the collection of skills we acquire as writers. A student’s backpack will serve the same function. Those flashy sets of 300 colored pens of all shades; that’s an overly flowery vocabulary. The student doesn’t need all those pens, and you don’t need to use a thesaurus to find words your reader won’t know. Something drawn with a simple dollar-store box of crayons can be beautiful, and something drawn with nothing but black ink on paper can be powerful. Save those weird words for Scrabble. They don’t belong in your writer’s backpack.

Proper grammar and mechanics, on the other hand, are your notebook paper, the means to pass your work to someone else in a way that’s intelligible. If you’re really good (and sure you’re not going to create a cultural caricature or simply look like a fool) you can get away with fancy notebook paper, like writing in dialect or a character’s voice which breaks the rules. But even then, you need to know them. You can’t go to school without paper.

Make sure you have an eraser, too. The tiny little multi-colored erasers on your pencils are garbage. Get a big, fat pink eraser. You will need to edit brutally, bravely, and with some elbow grease, so make sure you’ve got an eraser that shows your commitment to that part of the process. In fact, buy more than one.

You also need to be willing to refine your skills. That’s your pencil sharpener. You don’t need a five pound electronic device that plugs into the wall. Getting better, as a writer, takes time and effort. Get a tiny little sharpener and work that pencil to a sharp point. Those little ones really work. Read some Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Voltaire. Those guy’s pencils were lethal. Grab some Cormac McCarthy. He’s ground his pencil down to a tiny little nub of metal and graphite. There’s barely any cheap pine left when he goes to work. Be inspired by that, and sharpen your own tools until your words cut the paper to shreds.

Don’t worry too much about what you’ll write about. Textbooks might not even be distributed until the second week. The ideas will come. When you’re shopping for your writing skills, focus on being prepared so you can do excellent work when your muse finally gives you that big assignment.

First Day Jitters

After a break of any length, you’ll come back to writing with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. The writer’s vocation is not mandatory, so if you weren’t somewhat eager, you would just watch daytime TV all year. You’ve come to this because some part of you loves it, but you also know that it will entail some struggle and possibly some heartbreak. That’s okay. Just be grateful that you attend an academic establishment with a student body of one. The teachers are not identifying the behavioral issues. The mean girls aren’t sizing up the threats to their popularity. The bullies aren’t figuring out who is skinny enough to fit in a locker and who is fat enough to create suction when tossed in a trash can. You can come back to school, write something more embarrassing than that nightmare where you forgot to wear pants one day, and no one will ever know. Rejoice in the privacy of the writer’s life.

But save everything. Your draft might be a pimple-faced kid with no pants on, but later you could put some leather pants on those scrawny legs and he’ll be a rock star.

Reconnecting with Old Friends and Making New Ones

Your summer break may have been caused by a story that was a dud. It happens. But you may also find that you and your characters just needed some time apart. Going back to school provides an opportunity to reevaluate those relationships. Sometimes, when students come back to school, they find that their inner circle is changing shape as people grow apart. This doesn’t have to mean that your characters were worthless. It just might mean that some of your acquaintances could turn out to be better friends than last year’s BFFs. Try identifying that interesting ancillary character who was more fun to write about than your protagonist. Maybe, now that you’re back in school, it’s a good time to take a whack at telling her story, or telling the same story from her point of view. Even if you maintain the same relationships you had back in the spring of your writing life, this fall provides an opportunity to get to know those characters better. As a writing exercise, imagine how they spent their summer vacations. What kinds of things did they do to fill those long, hot months? How were their family relationships? What kind of trouble were they most tempted to get into, and did they avoid that temptation, succumb to it reluctantly, or revel in it? What did they learn about themselves (or choose not to learn about themselves)? Maybe this exercise will drive you back into the story. Maybe it will drive you out, and you’ll realize you need an all-new circle of friends for the upcoming school year. That’s okay. It can be hard to make new friends and hard to say goodbye to old ones as you grow apart, but take comfort in the fact that the same thing is happening to millions of kids all over the country. They’ll get through it, and so will you.

Hitting the Books

Despite what some of my students might tell you, school isn’t just about your social life. Now that you’re back, there’s work to be done. Just in case you’re still stuck, in the vein of our return from summer vacation, allow me to give you a writing prompt to begin the school year. Consider this your “back to school” countdown:

“Nothing forced him to return. He could have hidden forever. But he made the four step voyage across the porch. Three months was too long to run away from life, from love, from consequences. He took two long, careful breaths, ran his fingers through his hair just once, and knocked…”

Hopefully that will get you going. Welcome back!