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Learning to write

Monday, March 2, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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My writing journal and one of my inspirations, Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love' at a cafe in Portugal in 2007

This week I've learned a lot about how I write. I've also been reminded that what helps me at one point in the process won't necessarily help me at another, nor will it necessarily help another writer. Some people advise to just write, without editing or stopping to read back. This works for many writers, and it was certainly the right advice for me for the first six months of my efforts to write this book

This week, however, stopping to read Judith Barrington's book was the right thing for me to do. I've been writing like a fiend for the past few months. But since my "structure" was basically a chronological outline of the two years I spent in Afghanistan, I've been writing everything. At that rate it was going to take me ten years and 5000 pages to write this book.

Judith Barrington stopped me in my tracks by eloquently and concisely summarising my key questions about writing memoir, including "how do I decide what to leave out?". She was unequivocal in some of her advice, which freaked me out for a minute, but in the end helped me to sharpen (and cut drastically) the outline of my story.

Now I'm back to writing like a fiend but with a much tighter framework to write my way through.

In the coming days and weeks I will also go back and read over all that I've already written to see whether it fits into the new, streamlined, story-line. If not I'll be quite happy to drop it. I might have to rewrite some sections to add in key details that will be lost when whole draft chapters are cut. For me, at this particular point in my writing process, this was helpful.

Two months ago it may not have been. Writing those chapters, even if they are not going to make it into the final shape of this book, has certainly been improving my writing. So now that I launch into chapters that have a much better chance of surviving into the first draft, they also have a much better chance of being well-written.

I'm learning to write as I go. I've been honing my "voice" as a writer of legal opinions, policy analysis and case reports for more than a decade. It is going to take more than a few months to let go of that voice and grow into an "authentic" and eloquent voice as a writer of creative non-fiction. I needed to write all those "practice" chapters. Maybe there will be many more, I suspect there probably will be. But for now I am enjoying the process of learning to write.

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8 Responses to "Learning to write"

  1. Mervat says:

    Thank you for this post. I am certainly familiar with having to put that ‘professional voice’ on mute (for me this voice is used to medical, statistical and regulatory jargon) and in my experience has stunted my creative writing. But, the freedom experienced in creative writing is exhilarating don’t you think?

  2. journals are a great place to start and great for inspiration and thinking. i think you should check out a 20 minute talk Elizabeth Gilbert gave at the “TED” conference this year. it’s @ http://www.ted.com/index.php she had some great things to say about writing …and “creative genius”

  3. Swirly says:

    I am trying to learn how to get my first drafts down without editing as I go along – a deeply ingrained habit that I am now learning isn’t the best approach. So much to learn!! Reading about your process is helpful and inspirational. And yes – you must watch the Elizabeth Gilbert speech.

  4. Tara Bradford says:

    I’m glad you’re finding what works best for you. Just remember writing is a process and will keep evolving throughout. Just let your story-telling voice speak. xo

  5. susanna says:

    Keep writing, Maryam. What a fascinating creative process. You’re discovering your own written voice.
    Definitely check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech on TED. It’s inspiring and humorous. She and her husband (her love in Eat, Pray, Love) have a shop in Frenchtown, New Jersey, where they sell a warehouse full of beautiful Balinese furniture, jewelry, carvings, etc. (I think they are Balinese). Next time you are in NYC, you should go. I think it’s about an hour and a half from the city, in the beautiful countryside.

  6. susanna says:

    Keep writing, Marianne! What a fascinating creative process. In the end, you will have something written in your own voice, in your own unique style.
    Yes, definitely check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech on TED. It’s inspiring, interesting and humorous. She and her husband (her love in Eat, Pray, Love) have a wonderful shop in Frenchtown, NJ. The next time you are in NYC, you should take a drive out there. It’s in the beautiful countryside of New Jersey, close to Pennsylvania.

  7. supporter says:

    Keep up the good work, Marianne, Just keep it up! Our best wishes.
    Perhaps you’ve spoken about this before — but do you find it easier to write-to- someone? or now you can just writing from yourself without writing – to – anyone?

  8. megg says:

    What a great post! I love that you are still learning and still seeing how things work for you!
    I know I owe you an email – it’s been hectic here, but I will send one this week!!
    Sending you lots of good writing energy!

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