How to Be a Writer in Five Steps
February 13, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Step One: Write
I’ve been a writer my entire life. I still have a story penned on lined paper bound by ribbon. I’ve long since thrown away scraps of paper with bad poems, the kind of poems you need to write before you can write good poems. I wrote for my school paper and took poetry workshops in college.
When it was time to get a real job, I summarized newspaper articles for a research database before starting to freelance for my local daily, the business paper, and a women’s magazine. The work was wide ranging: I filled in for a home and garden columnist, did restaurant reviews, covered crime news, and had a column on health and another on local attractions. I took every opportunity I could find to write.
Step Two: Find Your Ground
As I wrote I got a better sense of what was important to me. When I joined the staff of the business paper, I did my best to broaden their coverage by profiling the head of a feminist women’s foundation, penning a controversial column in support of a local fairness law supporting LGBTQ rights, and writing an award-winning story on women in depression.
As I wrote my skills got sharper and what mattered most to me, social justice and making the unseen seen, became clearer. I enjoyed the buzz of having a byline appear each week. It felt productive, even if the newspaper pages might end up lining someone’s birdcage.
Step Three: Have the Courage to Follow Your Dreams
Despite the rewards of being a freelancer something was missing. I wanted to get back to where I started and write creatively, but I was afraid I’d suck at it. I was 32 when I decided to give it a real go. I started writing poems, joined a writers’ group. and began the process of honing my skills. I wrote lots of bad poems. I started reading to get a better sense of what a good poem required—the play of language, the crystalline images, and the accumulation of meaning. I submitted my work, got some published and eventually developed a chapbook, Surrender, which explores the loss of my father and coming to terms with growing older.
Step Four: Educate Yourself
When I felt strong enough, I took my writing out into the world and looked to deepen my knowledge. I attended workshops and earned an MFA, developing techniques, anchoring myself in the canon, learning about innovators, and getting feedback on my own work. I explored short stories, expanding my view to include scenes and dialog, drama, and catharsis. I trod my ground working over themes of seeing and being seen, the power of kindness and the cruelty of fate, and what we as humans can do in face of the beauty and horror that is life. I missed the thrill of a daily byline, but it was replaced with the sense that as the words filled the page, I was accumulating a greater sense of mastery over the work itself and my ability to articulate what it means to be human.
Step Five: Take Joy in the Process
I gradually succumbed to the realization that everything about writing (and life) is process. Joy is found in front of my computer in the act of writing. In the doing and redoing. In the vision and revision. There are no perfect pages, no perfect stories. Still I write. I’m working on a novel now, a task so daunting I never imagined I would take it on. I am world building, letter by letter, word by word, bird by bird (Bless you, Anne Lamott). There is no guarantee of an eventual byline. The challenges are endless and the rewards scanty. But this is my path. The only thing I’m sure of is that I will make the most of the journey.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s essays have appeared in Brevity Blog, The Butter, The Writing Group Book, The Girls’ Book of Love, The Common, The Fem and South Loop Review and on public radio. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Inscape, and Upstreet. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.