Enter Jim Michels: my ninth grade English teacher and flunker of unsuspecting freshman. He’s been my writing mentor ever since, and he’s a goody with 46 years in the classroom and 16 years of writing a weekly sports column for my hometown newspaper, The News-Herald.
Remember to call him Jim, I reminded myself as I dialed his number. I’m a little past 14-years-old, and he asked me to start using his first name … doing the math … two decades ago (ahem)? But he’s forever Mr. Michels in my mind (and yes, I started that sentence with a conjunction, Mr. Michels. Whoopsy!)
Do you remember any of my writing from ninth grade?
That hurts, Jim.
I remember that it was good.
That’s a cop-out answer.
Your writing in ninth grade was distinctive from your classmates – you had a comfortable flow and a wittiness to the things you wrote. The roots were there, and the storytelling focus of the Freshman year was to help your voice come through. When you guys came into class, your writing had no voice, whatsoever. I blew up that concept for you with the My Most Prized Possession paper.
Did anyone ever pass?
Oh yeah, there was a C+ one time.
Let’s talk “voice.” What does that mean?
Voice is to make your writing sound like yourself instead of a writing robot. Everyone speaks distinctly, but when they write, there’s a lot more pressure. They know others can look at it and pick it apart. There’s a fear of being judged.
You spent a decent part of class orally sharing your personal stories. Tap-dancing on your wife’s pizza and trimming your sister’s parakeet’s beak to oblivion are just a couple I remember. What was the purpose of this?
No one can tell your story as well as you. One of the most important features of the story-telling unit was to make you comfortable sharing personal experiences with me and your classmates. It took the judgmental aspect out of play because nothing you could come up with would be more embarrassing or ludicrous or just plain stupid than what I had already shared. You could all now write truly and fearlessly about personal experiences without worrying whether your topic would be accepted. The more outrageous the better.
Why start with personal stories?
To start small and build. If someone wants to start writing, don’t start out with War & Peace. Maybe just start out with War.
Funny English teacher.
Everybody has stories in the background. They give you topics you’re familiar with so that you can concentrate on telling them as well as possible. It’s about first getting comfortable in writing things you enjoy because that will keep you writing. Who knows? What comes out of those might turn into a gem for a longer work, like you with the Crock-Pot.
How important is the enjoyment of writing?
The joy has to be in writing. You have to enjoy the idea. If you have to drag yourself to a table to sit down and write, you’ll never get anything done. And quitting writing doesn’t do anything, either. It’s not like rabbits. Tell me, how many years did you break from the first time you tried to write Lu to the second?
And when you took it back out of the drawer, were there more pages?
Not a one.
Writers work their way toward solutions. Ignoring a problem is not a solution. Even when things aren’t going well, you have to believe, “Somehow, I’ll get through this. Writer’s block doesn’t mean I’m not a writer, it means things aren’t going well right now.” Fight through that stuff. Choose another direction or change the topic until you’re comfortable with the way things are coming out.
How do you grow that confidence?
As a teacher, I’d ask questions. How do you like it? How do you think it’s going? I wanted all of you to make your own decisions, think about your own topics and how to go about them in your own way instead of patterning yourself after another writer. Anyone trying to be the next Hemingway can be no more than an imitation. Does anyone really want imitation vanilla or imitation crab meat? No, those are purchased only because they are cheaper. Why be a cheap copy when you can be one-of-a-kind?
I get it, but how do you achieve it?
While keeping the audience tucked in the backs of their brains, successful writers write for themselves. They have to like what they are doing, otherwise no one else will.
And how does that confidence play into the form our writing takes, like the choice to write a blog vs. a book?
Different people are able to do different things with their writing. I sometimes thought I’d write a book, but when I look back at what I was able to do – to do the teaching I wanted to do plus write and be published in the paper 2-3 times/week – that was enough. And maybe that’s why a book has never come out. There’s different approaches for everybody. You just have to do what’s right for you.
What do you think makes for a good story?
All good stories have two simple components. The storyteller must have something to say that matters to him/her and then must say it well. Every year in Sports Illustrated I read stories about topics that do not appeal to me. Some I find I cannot put down. How does this happen – that a story on spelunking suddenly becomes important to me? They become important to me me because they were important to the writer who conveyed that importance to the reader.
And to write well?
The treatment of the topic is as important as the topic itself. A bad writer cannot tell a great story. This is as painful as listening to someone who has no business telling a joke trying to tell a joke. A poor delivery system always ends in disaster.
Writers need to be themselves in their work. Great writing is unique writing, and the first judge of that is the writer.
Which brings us back to where we started.
There’s an individual inside each person. It takes confidence to be an individual, but unless you’re an individual, you won’t have true voice come through in your writing. Finding your voice is allowing your voice to say what it has to say.