My first quarter in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program, I studied fiction with Mary Yukari Waters. Mary said something once that was mind-blowing to me, a real lightbulb moment. Mary actually said many mind-blowing things over the course of our time working together, but this one in particular has stuck with me. Mary said it succinctly, but I can’t remember her exact words. The idea, though, was something like this:
Babies understand the meanings of words long before they can say them. It takes a long time for babies to learn how to talk, how to translate the words from their brains into actual speech that comes out of their mouths. It’s the same with writing. This is why we can imagine a brilliant story in our minds, but when we sit down to write it, it comes out all wrong. It takes a long time, years of practice, to learn how to write, to translate those brilliant stories in our minds into good writing that comes out of our pens and onto paper, so that the story reads the way we imagined it.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
This was life-changing for me as a writer. Before Mary said this, I thought there was something wrong with me–why couldn’t I get the story from my head onto paper? My story ideas seemed fantastic when I imagined them, but in written form, they were dreadful–amateurish, cliché, and contrived. I know now it was a part of the process of my development as a writer—I was a baby writer, and I needed to learn how to communicate, how to translate my thoughts and ideas into written stories.
Ira Glass is a writer and the host of NPR’s This American Life. He famously described this gap between what is in our brains and what comes out of our pens another way, as the gap between having the ability to distinguish good writing from bad writing and actually being able to write well. Here is what Glass had to say, in its entirety, because I think it’s important for you to read this and know it to be true:
Here is a beautiful video created by Daniel Sax featuring Glass’s words, which I urge you to read and to hear over and over again:
Keep going, writers.