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.
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
After you have written your comment, please visit my friends to find out what they have to say on this subject.
Rhobin L Courtright