If the last book I reviewed, “How to Read a Book”, and Barbara Baig’s 2010 work “How to Be a Writer” are reflections of my personality, then it is clear that I liked to be told how to do things that I already do habitually. Although I seem to repeat variations of this same idea, “How to Be a Writer” has fixed the biggest problem I’ve had with my life as a writer. Without the aid of this book, I would have never been able to come up with genuine content for things I write. I would have continued floundering when coming up with content, never getting to the point of weaving deep and rich material. It is thanks to a short, readable book that teaches, of all things, how to practice writing.
Like “How to Read a Book”, “How to Be a Writer” sat in my bookshelf for a couple of years before I got to it – if you sense a pattern of me not reading books on my bookshelf, you’re right. When I did pluck its yellow spine out from my bookcase, though, I knew I was reading something that would prepare me for a new stage of writing. After reading only the first chapter where she insisted writers need to practice instead of getting everything to the point where it is graded or judged, I knew where I had previously failed. Rather than feel dismal and glum at this realization of spending years spinning my tires in the dirt, I continued reading to find my path forward.
“…most of us who are now adults learned how to write in school, and that means our writing was done under performance conditions – it always counted. Every essay, every book report, every poem or story was graded, if not by itself, then as part of a portfolio of work. If you had a typical American education, you were expected to produce finished pieces of writing without ever having had an opportunity to do any practice writing”
Barbara paved the way for myself and many others who are used to performance writing. It was through cultivating a practice of writing and at the core it is simple. Just as Julia Cameron suggested in “The Artist’s Way” it was to freewrite. The first step was to freewrite for 10 minutes about anything and everything. Any topic was fine as long as you kept the pen (or fingers for those who use strictly keyboard) moving. Baig did not stop there, however. She then laid out 6 skills of a writer that one should develop, as well as how to collect material for each of these skills. These skills, or as she calls them “writer’s powers are: curiosity, memory and expertise, observation, imagination, the subconscious, and curiosity. Each of these skills are both a source of content through which you can collect in a notebook, and something that will enhance your abilities as a writer. She then moves on in the novel to describe the kind of relationship a writer should have with their audience and ways to navigate that relationship through genre and other such considerations.
I feel revitalized after having read Barbara Baig’s work. Never in my adult writing life have I experienced such a rush in doing the physical practice of writing and collecting material. It is a renaissance of sorts that is pushing me to heights I thought were out of my reach, and yet now I know the path forward. I see know how one can grow from an amateur into a practicing professional, from a hot-and-cold writer into a self-disciplined one. It’s a long way to climb from where I stand to the greats that I so readily read, but the path set forth by Barbara Baig’s work assures me there’s not thing to feel bad about. Instead I see a long period of growth and artistry that I would have never been able to access.