A craft without masters

I remember one of my earliest experiences with storytelling in elementary school, when my second grade class was instructed to write, illustrate and physically construct a book. My story, about a kid that gets sucked into a video game, drew praise from the teacher. Her notes in red at the end of the book applauded me, the author, for my imagination and unique story.

That praise was enough to push me to pour my effort into the next story I wrote. Praise, for many of those seeking to be a writer, is simply enough. It can pull a writer from one shoddy piece to the next, without ever getting to the root of why the writer’s work is subpar. Ever wonder how those terrible” singers” get all the way to American Idol without realizing they’re awful singers? No one ever tells them what they’re doing wrong, and they are praised simply for putting out the effort it takes to sing, or write, in our case.

The Invictus Writers are invested in each other, because if we’re not, there will be no book in the end. One of the ways we’ve shown that we’re invested in each other is by committing to not let praise be the only thing that motivates us. This process, so far, has included the way we’ve approached our story ideas in the meetings. Some of those in the group latched onto an idea early and didn’t need much help from the group to develop that idea into a story.

Others in the group needed to be coaxed to get at the heart of what their story idea was really about. Praise for showing up, however, was not given. They were told plainly by their fellow writing companions that they were dancing around a real story, and they needed to stop being afraid. In the past six months this group has changed from a room of strangers into a fellowship of people pushing each other to write about pain, love, loss, and above all, to write with honesty. Except for Rusty. He’s writing a fiction story.

Praise, also, will not lead us successfully through the editing process, which has now begun. Editing is one of my favorite parts of the writing process because it is the part of the process when writers are made into better writers.

Two of the Invictus Writers have experienced my approach to editing the last couple of days. They asked me to look at their work to help them prepare their first drafts and I’ve finished giving them feedback. To their surprise, maybe, they have discovered that I edit brutally. I refer to the process as “ripping their creations to pieces,” because that is what I do. I eviscerate their beautiful creation, something that was born out of the very core of who they are. I do this because I believe that having someone tell you the things you’re doing wrong is essential to becoming better at anything.

The title of this post refers to an Ernest Hemingway quote that calls writing “a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” This year’s crop of Invictus Writers will appreciate that quote if they make it to the end with a publishable story. It takes honesty, brutality, and companionship–not praise–to write well. And remember, as Hemingway said, we are all apprentices in this craft.