your elementary teacher lied to you

Last month I tweeted “its a crime that so many ‘learn to write’ books are published & do very little but reinforce the idea that only some people are writers” it was inspired by an afternoon at my local library and the shelves upon shelves upon shelves I found of books that have been published designed to “teach” people how to write.

I’ll admit, I’m a masochist and I’ve read a few dozen of these books, though thankfully not until I was already a published writer. I’m convinced If I’d latched onto them sooner, and if I hadn’t had such wonderful storytelling mentors I would have been a casualty of their rhetoric. Too often it seems they are more aimed at creating self doubt and disbelief in ones ability to write, than the proposed aim of helping people to become writers. I  even sometimes wonder if they are simply designed to lower readers artistic self confidence, in order to ensure they continue being a market for more and more of these books.

I like to start my workshops by acknowledging that at some point, often in elementary school most of us were told and convinced that there are some people who are writers, and there are other people who are not.  What if everything you were ever taught about writing is a lie?  Yep, I’m calling your third grade teacher, or your fifth grade teacher, or whatever teacher it was who told you couldn’t write, a flat out liar. You are a writer. You have important stories to tell, and you’re the only one who can tell them.

Particularly jarring for me on that particular day as I stood in the library, was that 48 hours before I’d been on tour at a queer youth center in Detroit facilitating a writing group for a group of teens who wanted to tell their stories. In the two hours we spent together each and every one of them wrote incredible brave, funny, intense stories. They are absolutely brilliant writers and I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to spend time with them.

I have no idea what the spelling and grammar looked like in the stories the youth in Detroit wrote. It doesn’t matter. One of the first things I tell people in my writing workshops is to not worry about how to spell a word, or if they have properly punctuated a sentence. What’s important is getting the story written without self-censoring. There is time to edit later if that’s what you want to do, but it shouldn’t happen during your creative process. We’ve been taught to be our own worst critics, to censor our writing styles before we even begin writing.

You don’t need any book to tell you how to write your story. I know that believing that can be scary, but I promise it’s true.  Pick up a pen, a pencil, your laptop, a typewriter whatever implement feels comfortable to you and start writing. Start at the beginning, or the ending, or a strange place in the middle. There is no wrong way to tell your story, no matter what your elementary school teacher told you.