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Monday, October 21, 2013

"You Are Better Than You Know" by Rory Miller

Author Rory Miller

You’re a good writer.  You are better than you can know.  Let’s crunch some numbers.

You’ve been writing since you were six years old.  Even with no college, that is twelve years of formal training.  Is there any other thing in your life where you have twelve years of formal, expert teaching?  Anything?

And writing isn’t like martial arts, where twelve years of training may be combined with an absolute absence of experience.  You have written for real.  A lot.  Maybe not every day… but I will bet that you read every day.  Maybe you don’t have time to read as many books as you like, but I know you.  You’re a reader.  Cereal boxes.  Labels.  Advertisements. You read. Every. Damn. Day.  And reading and writing are the yin and yang of each other.

Is there any other aspect of your life where you have this combination of skill and experience?  You are good.

But here’s the problem.  You have been writing since you were six years old and almost every single thing you ever wrote was judged.  An outside authority figure who didn’t know and care how your friends belly-laughed would say it wasn’t ‘literary’ or ‘concise’ or ‘choose-your-word’.  And you would get a ‘C’.  Or a ‘B’.  Or an ‘A’ or an ‘F’ but it really didn’t matter.  What mattered is that we were taught, as children, that writing was hard, and judged by secret criteria we could never grasp.  No matter how good we are, all of us were taught we sucked, and it is simply safer not to risk.

If you look at your unfinished manuscript right now, you will hear the voices in your head telling you to give up, that it is not good enough.  Shoot those voices.

Let me tell you a story:

A couple of years ago, a special friend got into some medical bills.  Our circle of friends did what we could, but I suggested we put together a book so that there would be a constant trickle of income.  Problem with making a suggestion like that is that it becomes your baby.  I was named editor.

I call these special friends not because of some weird sexual relationship or because we all rode the short bus together.  This particular circle of friends shared some common history that most people really can’t grasp—former cops and former criminal, operators, EMT’s and patients, we hang out together so that we can tell our stories around the campfire with people who won’t have nightmares (or vomit.)  It’s a tight bond, and an exclusive club.  And a great source for stories.

The first thing I noticed was the insecurity.  Messages would come in that were the e-mail equivalent of, “Mr. Editor, sir,” Head bowed and wringing a hat in his hands, “I have an idea and you probably won’t like it…”

Get this—these were people who had survived mental hospitals, escaped cults and abusive relationships, and hospitalized your worst nightmare.  Bad-asses of the nth degree.  And they were so insecure about their writing that they requested permission to give me a gift with all the subservience of a slave in “Gone With The Wind.”

So I’d say, “Hell, yeah, let me see it.”  And a couple couldn’t even do that.  They sent no manuscript and no more e-mails.

But others did, and every last one was good.  They didn’t use prose like Nelson Algren (who does?  That’s why he’s Nelson Algren and not John Keats or Kristine Kathryn Rusch.)  Some were linear and some were scatter shot.  One was simply a list, a list of things you must do to escape an abuser and that list is possibly the most chilling thing in the book.

So I would send back an email that said something like, “That’s fantastic, thank you!”

And every single one sent back a message saying, “Oh, no.  That wasn’t the real manuscript.  That’s just a rough draft.  Here’s the real manuscript.”

These bad-asses, people who had been a gaijin in a Japanese prison or practiced martial arts in Antarctica or trained counter-terrorism had sent me a draft so that if I rejected it, I wasn’t rejecting them.  “It was just a draft, just a rough outline, really…”  Insecurity.

Here’s the part you need to hear: In every single case (including the case where the author had his retired news-editor wife help with the re-write) the second draft they sent me was weaker.  The first draft they were passionate people communicating about something they loved or feared.  It had passion and clarity.

In the second draft, they were trying to be writers.  Whatever that means.  I suspect that each and every one was trying to make a dimly remembered third grade teacher happy.

Go get four glasses of wine and bring them back to the computer.  Go ahead, you’re writers.  One of the job perks is to be able to sit in your underwear while drinking wine and still generate income.  Got the wine?  Good.  Not hard, right?  I mean, four glasses is tough, but it’s just about moving wine.

Now get four glasses of wine and do it like a circus performer.  Go on.  Come on back and finish this article when something breaks.  It’ll only be a few seconds.

Delivering wine is easy.  Delivering wine like a performance artist is hard.  Writing is easy.  It is just communication, just telling a story—and you are good at it.  Writing like it is some kind of performance art, trying to be a writer instead of just telling a story—that’s not only hard, it has a tendency to ruin the story.

Write.  Just write.  If you really, really care your passion will come through and it will be good.  If you don’t care at all, you will be lazy and efficient and your writing will be clear.  And that’s good too.  But if you try to ‘be a writer’ and either put clarity into your passions or passion into your clarity, or if you try to please your long-dead third grade teacher (and what the hell did she ever write, anyway?) you will ruin it.

You’re good at this.  Put your butt in your chair and fill some pages.  Have fun.


Rory Miller is a veteran Corrections Officer who has worked as a mental health specialist; Tactical team member and leader; sergeant and instructor as well as spending over a year as a contractor in Iraq. He is the author of the award-winning "Force Decisions" as well as "Meditations on Violence" 
"Facing Violence" and "Violence: A Writer's Guide." Though he is reluctantly on FaceBook (For now) he does not tweet.  Or text. There is a blog, though, and a website, since he travels all over teaching people about bad guys.

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