Are you one of those people who thinks that maybe somehow someday you’d like to write something? Maybe you don’t even know whether you’d like to write fiction or nonfiction. Still, you like words, you notice words. (I notice words so much that I like to read billboards on the highway, but that’s another matter.)
If this is your situation, help is at hand. If you’re not ready for a writing class, I recommend Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True. What’s that? You say you haven’t read anything by her? Well, sure, she writes about women and relationships, but saying that she writes chick lit is like saying that Robert B. Parker wrote detective stories. In novels like her recent The Last Time I Saw You, about some people preparing for their 40th high school reunion, she shows her warmth and generosity of spirit. Those are good qualities in any writer—and terrific qualities in a writing teacher.
So naturally she says, “As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing you need when inventing characters is empathy.” Of course, writing is a lonely business and eventually it’s going to come down to you looking at a computer screen or at a piece of paper. But one of the many great things about Berg’s book is that she emphasizes the way writers need to come out of themselves and notice the world around them. She urges writers to notice the way people dress and talk, and to make up stories about them. Writers who notice, who have the generosity of spirit to enter into the lives of others, even into the lives of people whose attitudes and personalities are distasteful, are writers whose work we remember.
Berg is the opposite of a control freak. She believes that good writing happens when you let yourself go, when you get in the zone, as the jocks say. What it comes to is that she believes that writing—maybe all forms of creativity—involves something like channeling. She quotes approvingly Edna O’Brien’s principle: “Writing is a kind of wakeful dreaming.” If you can hold yourself open to whatever the writing wants to be, to whatever the piece wants to evolve into, you can write. The rest is details—punctuation and grammar.
So if you take Berg’s advice, and escape into the open—that is, let your psyche open up to the world around you—you can write whatever you’re supposed to write, however you’re supposed to write it. She helped me to understand my own writing process, and she can help you understand yours.