David Farland’s Writing Tips: On Nurturing Writers

This week I celebrate a kind of anniversary. Thirteen years ago, in the first week of October, I started this blog. Originally it was going to be a daily blog, “David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants,” with the goal of helping to inspire and train writers. I kept it up daily for two years, but there were deadlines and sick days and I finally decided to cut it down to twice a week.

I started it because I’d taught a writing workshop, and afterward, one participant joked, “What I really need is for you to come over to my house each morning and give me a good kick in the pants to start me writing!”

I thought about it and realized that I could do that: in the form of a little article.

My urge to help other writers didn’t just come out of nowhere. I was raised on a farm in Oregon. As one of four children I began picking crops in the strawberry fields and bean fields. By the age of eight I was raising my own beets, corn and cauliflower. I’d put my crops in a wheelbarrow and take them downtown and sell them door to door. By the age of nine I began raising calves and pigs.

I became intrigued with horticulture in part by watching my grandmother, who consistently won awards for the roses she grew. Whatever I was raising, I wanted to do it well.

Being a farmer is all about nurturing. Figuring out how to prepare the soil, where to plant a seed, how often to water it, and when to get out of its way so that it can grow.

Nurturing writers is much the same. You can train them a bit, but mostly you help them out when they struggle, then just let them grow. Really, the writers are in control. They’re the ones that have to do all of the hard part. Writers learn best by doing.

When I started this blog, I had been working with writers for years. It was thirty years ago that I began teaching my first writing workshops. Twenty-eight years since I began working with Writers of the Future. Twenty-one years since I began teaching creative writing at Brigham Young University. I’ve won a couple of “lifetime achievement” awards for helping writers, but sometimes I think I should give them back. I’m not dead yet, so I don’t want any more lifetime achievement awards.

Instead, I’m trying to perfect the process. Many people over the years have been surprised that I don’t seem to have any hobbies. I write; I teach writing; I study for entertainment. But I do have a hobby: nurturing writers. And I’m not the only one. Over the past few months I’ve been interviewing other authors, people like thriller writer James Rollins, science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card, and romance author Amy Jarecki. I’m finding a lot of writers who love to help others and who do it out of the goodness of their own hearts.

I’ve been taking notes on what they have to say about writing, and I want to say this:

Learning how to write is easy, but it’s kind of like learning how to swim. I can tell you how to dog paddle or otherwise move your arms and kick, but if you really want to learn, you as a student need to jump into the pool. You might have to brave some cold water and even swallow a lungful or two, but that’s where you learn to swim.

Ultimately, all of my teaching won’t help you if you don’t get in the water.

But here’s something more: there are many people who learn how to swim well without being taught. They can fall off a bridge and learn to swim enough to save their lives in thirty seconds.

Twenty years ago, someone asked me if I could teach anyone to write. My answer is, yes, I can teach most people, but can’t guarantee that I can teach “you.” I worry that with some folks, teaching them how to write is like trying to teach someone how to swim who doesn’t have any arms or legs. There might be a person or two who just doesn’t have the mental equipment to be a writer.”

I think that such a person would be rare. It’s the equivalent of being unable to talk. Most people can talk, after a fashion, and they can also write.

That’s the way I felt 20 years ago. Then one day I saw a television show about a boy who was born with no arms or legs. He was just a toddler, but when his mom set him at the edge of a swimming pool, he dove in and swam in a way I’d never seen before—using his stomach muscles to eel through the water like a dolphin. On land he was a prisoner, but in the water he was free.

I realized then that there may be people like that, people who can’t speak well but who learn to communicate beautifully in writing, people who use language in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined. Can I teach people like that, or do I just need to get out of the way and watch?

That question comes up from time to time. I get busy like anyone else. It’s not always convenient to write these articles. But I’ve gotten several letters from new authors in the past couple of months thanking me for my help and begging me to keep it up.

My answer is to them is this: I’ll keep on nurturing, looking for new ways to encourage and inspire writers. It’s my hobby, and like my grandmother, I plan to keep it up for a long, long time. I’ve only been at it for 30 years. I’ve got plenty more in me.

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