“It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” —John Steinbeck in a letter to a writer seeking his advice, circa 1963
If I could go back and sit down with the younger version of myself—say, the me who was flitting up and down the sidewalks of the Rollins College campus at nineteen or twenty, having just discovered that writing was not something one was left to struggle with alone at a keyboard but could be discussed with other like-minded souls around a long oak table—what might I say? What aspects of improving one’s writing most eluded me at the time, and if I had to boil down the most transformative implementations of craft or habit to a few key pieces of advice, what would they be?
Over the past several weeks I’ve flipped through dozens of tattered notebooks and files in my office, the sort of spring-cleaning that ought to happen every six months, but doesn’t (at least not very thoroughly); I get down to a serious purge in those years when there’s a dip in the compulsion to write, when my brain demands de-cluttering so it can imagine clearly, free from all those tired story-starts trapped beneath rusting paper clips. I came across drafts from the two years spent attending workshops at conferences and residences, studying for the MFA, and before that—frightening—drafts from my tenure as an undergrad. As a seasoned writer and college instructor, one can make the mistake of believing our own writing must have been superior to the drafts our wide-eyed students turn in. Certainly ours would have ranked among the best. Alas, a cursory glance or three over my papers on Modernism, early story attempts, and professors’ comments—spot-on, by the way—shattered this illusion for good.
For my whole career as a student and throughout college, I had always been told my writing was good. And it was, if by good one means competent with an occasional flash of style. But now, from my lofty perch as a creative writing instructor at that same college, I see that I wasn’t the best, in no way could have been. Like many, I had been a competent writer with more talent in the well than on the page; probably I hadn’t been the most innately talented in the Writing minor program, either. How does one transform from average “But-you’re-such-a-good-writer!” English major to something more—literary excellence. Not that I’m in the ranking of Alice Munro and George Saunders, mind you. But once you see how far you’ve come, it becomes easier to believe you might one day get there.
What I wish now, at thirty-four with my first story collection coming out, is that I had read more widely but also closely. For most of my life, I gobbled books up; not until I entered the MFA program at Vermont College did I earnestly learn how to slow down and see what writers were up to as architects of literature. Only after I saw their techniques could I grapple with implementing them (i.e. steal) in my own writing. That’s when my pages took a big leap forward. As for reading widely, I’d always thought I had—but again, not really. I hadn’t read comic books or plays or famous foreign writers, didn’t take literary magazines seriously until I wanted my work featured in them. So if I were to sit down for a straight-up talk with my younger writer self, I’d say: get on this, daylight’s burning. Practice the patience to read closely, to take more time agonizing over drafts, to honestly compare your writing to the best if your heart’s desire is for your work to rank among theirs. Because who are you, really, but another average English major?
This may sound stern. I don’t mean for the words to come across that way. But I’m one of those writers who ardently believed that she’d have at least one book out by thirty, and the fact that I’m having my first come out now, four years later, has inevitably unearthed insights both uneasy and reaffirming. I’m sure I’m not alone.
What’s been reaffirming? The observable truth that, while sifting through those bulging binders and faded drafts, that if one possesses a certain dollop of talent and keeps stubbornly working at improving one’s craft, keeps an open mind to criticism and hones his or her intuition on what to apply and what to ignore, that the average-good-writer-English-major can break through to something more—that beauty and truth which lives inside all of us, that is both of us and beyond us. Bullheadedness may work in one’s favor here, if one has the stuff (“it’s about 40% talent,” the writer Caroline Adderson admitted to me recently). So check your ego at the door, and be quick.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, is now available from Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. She has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.