Writing as growth?

Our topic for May, 2021 is: Does writing change the author? Do you think your writing has changed you in any significant way?

It’s a good day when I learn something new. All my life, research, study, learning has been one of my major antidepressants. Almost any piece of writing requires a wide field of knowledge, so either it is the fruit of past learning, or the opportunity for new research, or hey, both.

When I was a little boy in my 20s, that learning was actually part of formal research, but academic writing is still writing. Nowadays, if I need to learn something new, it’s a few clicks in a search engine, or perhaps reading a book.

Wait a minute. I am not my knowledge; I have my knowledge. Accumulating more knowledge doesn’t change me. It doesn’t necessarily even make me wiser.

Let’s try again. My very first bit of popular writing was an article about an easier way of making mudbricks (adobe). This struck a chord with a wide audience, and I became a regular contributor to Earth Garden magazine for 40 years, and this resulted in my first published book, The Earth Garden Building Book: Design and build your own house. So, my writing transformed me into an author. By the way, this book was in print from 1986 to 2018, and went through four editions.

My second practical self-help book, Woodworking for Idiots Like Me, which I wrote in the early 1990s, is genuinely an instruction manual in woodcraft, but also, it is an anthology of short stories, so, I was moving sideways into fiction.

In my life, I was also moving sideways into psychotherapy (providing it, not receiving it), and this was not a coincidence. The main tool of writing fiction is empathy. The main tool of psychotherapy is empathy. So, writing fiction made me a better therapist, and being a therapist made me a better writer.

Until I started writing fiction, empathy was more a curse than a blessing. During my first years in university, I played with the idea of studying medicine, but in Biology, I was required to murder a frog, then a mouse. If I had less empathy, I might now be a retired medical specialist, but then, one of my favourite quotes is:

Being a nursing student toughened me up: “It’s not your pain. You are not there to share it, but to relieve it.” Was it coincidence or synchronicity that I started writing short stories during this time? By investing my empathy into created realities, I could be effective as a nurse because I could maintain this “professional distance.”

All the same, I am sure I still would have hated to murder frogs and mice.

The very first story I wrote won a prize. This was Peace for the Joker, one of the stories in the anthology, Through Other Eyes.

Back to our topic. This changed me: it showed that I could engage in a traditionally creative activity like writing fiction, and got me ambitious enough to think about writing a novel. Also, I learned how to combine very different memories into an organic whole. When I worked as a research scientist, one of my colleagues was a practical joker who made a “Digital Extractor,” a key element in this short story. Like the narrator of the story, at 17 years of age I’d worked at a metal recycling place during my summer holidays. And the story illustrates “validation therapy,” something I’d learned about as a nurse.

My first two attempts at book-length fiction were approximately hopeless. They were full of explanations and other author intrusions, I had no idea of how to use point of view (POV), the storyline went wandering all over the place, and while the characters were alive to me, they didn’t seem so to the friends I’d asked for feedback. So, I engaged a professional editor for each, and learned an enormous amount from them. Both helped me to improve my writing skills a great deal, acting as much teachers as editors.

My third attempt ended up as a series: The Stories of the Ehvelen. Following advice, I meticulously plotted the first book. When I needed to convey information, I let a character do it, and presented everything from within POV.

(By the way, the naked ladies on the covers are not my fault, but of my friend Martine Jardin, who designed the covers for me as a gift.)

The first person I showed this book to was a third professional editor. Again, I learned lots. The result was four books, with many more planned, only these books were part of a sort of self-therapy. They follow the formula of goodies beating up the baddies, but then I realised, the baddies weren’t baddies, but just people shaped by their culture and circumstances.

So, I lost interest in writing more of these books, and instead deliberately set out to write a book with no villains. This was Sleeper Awake, which won an international award in 2001, and has just been republished. You can STILL get a free copy in exchange for a review, but this offer won’t last much longer.

By then, I was confident enough that I didn’t plot the story, but let the characters tell me where it was going. I got a surprise on almost every page, particularly on the last one.

Another change Sleeper, Awake made in me was to convert me into an editor. It was accepted by a publisher called Clocktower Books, which was a sort of a cooperative of authors. Among other things, we were asked to review each other’s books. So, I read one by Max Overton. As well as writing a public review, I emailed him a long list of line edits and helpful comments on content. It so happened that his wife was the chief editor of this publisher, and she immediately invited me to be part of the editing team.

I am delighted to let you know that Max’s work has enormously improved since then, and I can thoroughly recommend any of his books. At a guess, there are about 40 of them.

So, writing has made me into an editor, and I am giving back. In the way my first three editors taught me, I teach my clients rather than merely scribbling within their manuscripts.

            Have I complied with Rhobin’s ask?
            Have I succeeded in the task?
            I’ve done my best, but do not know,
            So, in the Comments, please do show
            What I’ve done right, and what not
            And I might just thank you a lot.

            And I know,
            Poetry is not
            Supposed to rhyme
            Or have rhythm or even scan or have any other regularity, right?
            But I’m an old bloke and have
            The excuse of not
            Knowing any

After you have written your comment, please visit my friends to find out what they have to say on this subject.
Connie Vines
Skye Taylor
Anne Stenhouse
Fiona McGier
Helena Fairfax
Rhobin L Courtright
Judith Copek
Marci Baun
Diane Bator
Beverley Bateman

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Writing as growth?

  1. fionamcgier says:

    You’re so right about good fiction writers needing empathy. Until I started writing, it was just useful in public places when complete strangers would start talking to me over some chance remark, and the next thing I knew I was hearing their life story, and all about their anxieties and fears. All for free, of course. My family jokes that I have a sign on my forehead that says, “Tell me, I care.” And as a teacher, albeit a sub, I’m always learning things about students that they don’t even realize they’re giving away when they yak–bless their little unguarded mouths. Luckily I’m very good at changing the subject, and I’ve learned to use any opportunity to encourage them to think of themselves as strong and successful, no matter how little they believe me. “You can be anything you put your mind to” is my motto for them.
    I’ve read that readers grow in empathy the more fiction they read, so it stands to reason that would be the same, if not more so, for writers of fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. okwriter says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey through writing and how it changed you and how your writing changed. Interesting post and I think it met Rhobin’s topic. Beverley

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Skye-writer says:

    We seem to have touched on two similar aspects of how writing changes us: empathy for others and research. Good post. Your journey took you to a lot of places along the way to where you are today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr Bob Rich says:

    To Sustain Blog: stupid WordPress won’t let me reply to your question. I meant 7.5 billion, which is more or less all of humanity.


  5. Loved your post, Bob. That’s really interesting how you started out in writing. I agree totally about needing empathy as a writer, too. You can tell the writers who have it as you’re reading. I’ve really enjoyed this topic again. Thanks for the great take!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent post, Bob. I also owe much to the editors in my life. MuseItUp had Judy Roth and Greta Gunselman whose diligence removed x-trillion ‘thats’ from my MSS. Recognise your teaching quote about it not being your pain. I had always wondered how professionals did it until I worked as a ‘responsible adult’ in a rehab unit. Now I know. It’s still not easy… Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Anne. Yes, we all have overused words. Over time, I have pruned ‘just,’ ‘bit,’ ‘Well’ to start a sentence, and so on. Nowadays, I only allow one character to overuse each of these. 🙂
      I used to say, you can’t pull someone out of a hole by jumping in yourself. But of course the person can trample all over you and climb out by standing on your head! There is a story in there somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Sue. I was a storyteller as soon as I could think in words (give or take a few decades), but never thought to tell anyone about the offspring of my imagination. After all, who would be interested?
    It wasn’t until I cured myself of depression that I felt strong enough and safe enough to come out of the closet as a writer.


  8. Rhobin says:

    Enjoyed you post and your poem. And I think you showed a lot about how writing changed you! You even gave me some edits on a book some time ago. Help is always appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sustain blog says:

    A great post on writing. Thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Carolyn Howard-Johnson says:

    Oh, yeah. Finally following my dream as opposed to writing for practical purposes (copywriting for my businesses, etc), saved me from cancer. Long story. I now have a first person essay on that I keep as a reminder that the most important self care we can give ourselves is following our dream. Funny you should ask.

    Hugs, Carolyn


    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Very glad you are still around, Carolyn. I’ve been lucky with cancer so far: only little melanomas that were cut out, fruit of all the many hours of distance running. But we do live on Poison Planet…


  11. Sue Rich says:

    It’s really funny how writers start writing for a wide variety of reasons. Unlike you, I was always, from the time I was a child, the storyteller. My cousins and I would lay out on grandma’s grass at night, and I would make up stories. In my thirties, I started reading Harlequin Romances. I tried to write one. No good. Then one day a neighbor gave me a Historical Romance. The moment I finished the book, I knew what I was meant to do. Simon and Schuster’s Pocket Books has published ten of my stories and St. Martin’s Press one.

    Liked by 1 person

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