Open-Heart Surgery

My day job as a college professor means I deal frequently with 20-year-olds who want to write but haven’t anything to say. Some of my teaching colleagues shrug off the problem with a comment along the lines of, “They should wait until they’re 40 to write.”


I was 21 when I sold my first novel, and I built my career from there. Everyone has something to say. Everyone. I don’t care if you’re six years old or ninety.

Does a lot of life experience make you more profound? Not necessarily. Does it make you more insightful? Possibly. Does it give you a better perspective? Perhaps.

Sweeping young writers aside dismissively isn’t the answer to helping them write better stories. Saying they lack knowledge or experience isn’t the answer either. Any good writer can research a subject sufficiently to write about it. The key here lies in training the inexperienced writer to open his or her heart.

Anyone, regardless of age and maturity level, who wants to write for publication must reach for what’s inside before any reader will be touched.

My young students, so anxious to appear cool, so determined to perfect the pose of indifference or even apathy–lest someone realize how unsure of themselves they really are–trap themselves in cages of their own design. They’re afraid to be laughed at. They’re afraid that if they care, they might end up caring about the wrong thing (whatever that might be). They’re so terribly afraid to make mistakes. Am I defining immaturity here? I think so. But immaturity shouldn’t be allowed to cripple a writer.

Habitual, deliberate detachment does not make a good writer.

Your critical, editorial brain hemisphere and your creative, emotional brain hemisphere cannot work simultaneously. When you’re writing, shut the critic off.

You must–absolutely must–wade into the soul of your protagonist. You must put on the emotions of this character and suffer whatever grief, despair, fear, and anguish this individual is enduring. (You will encounter the relief, joy, and delight as well, although they happen far less often within the pages.)

Sharing the pain of someone else is a messy business. It’s a little repugnant, isn’t it? A corner of our mind is thinking, Ew! I don’t want to go there.

You have to, so get over it.

Find the willingness to open up and express what you really have to say. Maybe no one out there is interested, but you don’t know until you try. Stop hiding yourself through the production of boring, rambling junk.

Granted, inexperienced writers of any age can’t always draw on what they have when they first start practicing their craft. They must learn to reach deep and be honest. But until they’re able to do that, they’re going to write dull little passages about flat, cliched characters they don’t truly understand.


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2 responses to “Open-Heart Surgery

  1. juliejarnagin

    This is a great post. I’m one of your past students. I graduated in 2002. You were such an encouragement to me.

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