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Writing Brave and Free
Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing
By Ted Kooser Steve Cox
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Writing Brave and Free
Carl Sandburg wrote poems all his life. When he was eighty-five years
old, he published a book entitled Honey and Salt (1963) and in it is a
long, free, funny poem about love.
In that poem, "Little Word, Little White Bird," Sandburg compares
love with all sorts of lively things. Is love a cat, he asks, "with claws
and wild mate screams in the black night?" Is love "a free glad spender,
ready to spend to the limit, and then go head over heels in debt?" Or
maybe, he says, love is an elephant, "and you step out of the way where
the elephant comes trampling, tromping, traveling with big feet ...
immense and slow and easy."
Page after page, Sandburg slings ideas, comparisons, and images
every which way, like a man digging through a box of favorite tools
and pulling out this and that, pleased to show us what he's found.
Never does he seem to doubt himself.
To write that exultant poem about love at eighty-five, Sandburg
must have learned a way to start fresh all over again, every morning.
He must have developed great confidence in his ability to write, and to
write wild and free. Confidence is one of a writer's mostvaluable tools,
and though it can sometimes be hard to find at the hardware store, we
know where you can find it. We intend to show you that tool. It's right
there inside you, believe it or not, hanging on a nail under the stairs,
ready to be taken down and dusted off.
But first, a little about the writer's other tools.
Like Sandburg, every writer has a tool kit. Every writer needs tools
you can touch and feel-a desk and a lamp, a computer or pen and
paper-and tools you can't quite touch but can hold in your head-the
ways to use nouns, verbs, ideas, metaphors, rhythms, attitudes,
feelings, questions, memories of people and places, and the ways of
Most of the tools writers need they gather through experience.
Singers learn by listening to lots of music, and then by practicing and by
singing in public. Writers build a writing tool kit by reading hungrily,
by borrowing tools from other writers, by making a little time to write
every day, and then by showing what they've written to someone else
and carefully listening to what they have to say.
That business of reading hungrily and borrowing tools from other
writers needs a little emphasis. Every writer learns by imitation, and the
more you read, the more you find to imitate, to model your own work
upon. If you want to start writing, part of the discipline is to read as
much as you can. And you'll find that you learn almost as much from
reading bad writing as from good. Each and every exposure to the
written word will help you as a writer.
By the time he was eighty-five, Carl Sandburg's basic tool kit probably
could have filled a freight car. Yet the most important things he
pulled out of his kit every morning were his confidence, his joy in the
work, and the heart to write wild and free.
The authors of this book are not yet eighty-five. But we're old
enough to be retired from our day jobs (perhaps you are, too), and
each of us has accumulated a garage full of writing tools.
Nobody else has had exactly the experiences you will be writing
about. And nobody else has drawn on exactly our experience in writing
a book about writing.
Ted has been writing and publishing for more than forty years. He
has read his poems and essays to audiences in galleries, libraries, and
sitting on the ground in a native prairie, and he has listened to writers
read their own work in those same places. He has talked with and
corresponded with other writers about their words and his own. He has
led writers' groups and taught university seminars. Steve has written
poems and essays and spent his working life as a book editor. Both
of us have watched writers get started, and mature, and we've cheered
them on as they have succeeded. We've both thought a lot about how
to start writing, how to keep going, and what makes writing effective.
We've written this book for people who want to write and are looking
for a way to get started-people who, halfway through a full life,
want to set down what they know, people who may have some potential
readers in mind, whether relatives, like-minded people, or complete
strangers. We want to help people who have been saying for ten, twenty,
or thirty years that they'd like to start writing, but who haven't started.
Starting to write takes courage, of course, and maybe you've never
been able to find that courage. We intend to help you find it.
We want to show you a few other tools-to tell you a few of the
things we know, think, and feel about writing. Rather than offering
a schoolbook that proceeds in a straight line from A to Z, covering
all the bases, with quizzes at the ends of chapters, we decided to give
you a short book resting on our own experience. We throw in a few
surprises, some of them in unexpected places. You can skip around
and open our book at any page and, we hope, get some good out of it.
We want to help you write because we believe there can never be too
many writers. Why not a world in which everybody is writing? Surely
writing, and the contemplative life that goes with it, is a much better
way to spend your time than a hundred time-filling activities we could
name. Besides, nothing is so exhilarating as to work at something you
enjoy, and that's an experience that writing can give you.
Your own experience-the world as you live in it-is unique. It is
a matchless, deep pleasure to write with love of your experience, to
relive your life while you write it down, and to learn from your own
experience as it unfolds on the page.
Your experience is unique, and so is that of every human being. That
is one reason we want everyone to enjoy the privilege of writing.
Writing is not about showing how smart you are, says Barry Holstun
Lopez, author of River Notes and Arctic Dreams. Writing, he says, is
about telling the best story you know, the best way you can.
Writing both extends and makes permanent the sort of sharing we
do each day. In everyday conversation, we tell each other anecdotes, we
show others how to do things, we make up stories. Writing is no more
than doing those same things on paper. It need not be intimidating.
Writing doesn't use another language, but the language we're already
We know that the more regularly you write, the deeper the pleasure
you'll take from it. We talk about the habits that help a writer get
started and keep going. We've got our jumper cables handy.
Once you're in the habit of writing a little each day, we're eager to
show you a little about how to develop as a writer, to show you some
of the tools you can use to tune up what you've written, and we list a
few books that explore the nooks and crannies of writing.
Lots of writers start by wanting nothing more than to express
themselves-to write a poem that's a kind of primal scream that no
one else may hear, a story that's like a tree falling in an unpopulated
forest. We encourage you to go beyond that, to write to be read or
heard. Perhaps what you have to say may be of real use to somebody. If
you think about it, all day every day you're sharing what you've learned,
what you know about everything from jacking up a car to making pan
gravy. Writing makes a permanent record of that kind of sharing. It's
an important part, even an essential part, of offering even your most
common, everyday experiences to others in the human community.
We talk about how to attract and hold a reader's attention and how
to make writing vivid and memorable.
If you want your writing to be read, you'll want to publish. We walk
through the steps that can lead toward publication, and we give you a
taste of the issues involved in copyright. But publishing is only a tool
that helps you connect with readers. We're not trying to turn you into
a successfully self-employed commercial writer-we believe that, for
most writers, that's a false goal, an illusion.
Instead, we know only that if you sit down at the same time every
day and-starting with a memory or with something you just saw out
the window-you write for as long as you can set aside time for, at
the end of even one week you will have produced something that you
can feel good about. Isn't that enough? Even a few words a day is more
than you had before you started. A novelist we know writes 250 words
a day, day in and day out, and never tries for more than that. When
he's finished for the day he treats himself to a game of computer golf.
He has published a number of novels and several books of stories, just
by letting those daily 250-word pieces add up toward something.
Why not say what we want? We want this book to be liberating.
We want to encourage you to ramble off on your own. We know
you'll find a path that it would never occur to us to map. We ourselves
have heard lots of advice, have tried many step-by-step regimens, and
we know that the only advice that's always valid is "Get on with it!"
We're eager to see what road you take and, as you glance in the
rearview mirror, we'll be there, grinning and clapping and cheering
We wish you joy in the work and the heart to write brave and free.
What Do You Know?
"Write about what you know."
Writers hear that advice all the time. It sounds like an imperative,
an order. It seems to draw a border around what you should write
about, with a guard prohibiting you from stepping over the line into
the realm of speculation or fantasy.
But the more you read, the more you see that there are no limits,
no rules about writing. You can write whatever you feel like writing.
You're free to choose, and that's one of the joys of writing. If you're
painting, you can paint the sky green. If you want to, you can wear a
red hat to breakfast. Did anybody ever tell you that?
Once when Steve was young, his Uncle Franklin accepted the job of
babysitter and asked Steve what he'd like to eat. "A peanut butter and
jelly sandwich," Steve said, and he asked, "Would it be all right to fold
the bread over instead of cutting it?" Uncle Franklin was astonished.
"You mean your mother doesn't let you fold the bread over?" To Steve's
satisfaction, Franklin bravely broke the rule.
When you're writing, it's ok to fold the bread over.
There are rules everywhere. You have to stop at stoplights and take
off your shoes at the airport and have money in the bank if you write
a check. If you're a fry cook, you have to wear a hairnet, and your
mother may have taught you that there's only one way to make pan
gravy (some mothers say with a spoon, some with a fork).
But in writing there are no rules other than to remember that somebody's
going to try to read what you've written and you don't want
to discourage that person. Writing is communication, and it needs to
communicate. Writing in a secret language you've invented isn't going
to get you very far toward reaching an audience.
As to what you know, what you're going to write about, you know
far more than you could ever write in a lifetime. The southern fiction
writer Flannery O'Connor once said that by the time we're eight years
old we already have enough material to last all our lives.
What you know arises directly from this very life you are living. It
comes from your own experience, including the books you've read and
what other people have told you.
What you know is more than facts-more than an old trunk packed
with memories of people, places, and things. What you know is also
how you feel about what you pull from that trunk.
What you know is also what you think about what you know. And,
when you stop to think about it, isn't it also what you think about what
What you see, hear, touch, taste, smell is what you know.
What you feel-how your emotions move you-is what you know.
What you think, and what you imagine, about this world and all
other worlds, is what you know.
That's what you're going to write about.
Getting Advice, Taking Criticism
You write, you read what you have written, then you rewrite again and
again. It's just you, alone with your story or essay or poem, hour after
hour. Eventually you think you've done everything in your power to
make what you've written as good as it gets.
When Stephen King was in high school, the editor of the Lisbon,
Maine, Weekly Enterprise offered him this advice: write with the door
closed, rewrite with the door open. That is, you write the first draft for
yourself, and you revise to communicate with others.
Writing with the door open, you'll want to show what you have
written to somebody. Writing is, after all, communication, and it's
natural to want to know how well you've communicated. So go ahead,
Writing can be like folding a banquet-sized tablecloth; you can do it
yourself, but it's a lot easier when you can find somebody to help. Both
beginning and veteran writers need help, and the acknowledgments
page of any book will show you how grateful they are for receiving it.
University professors show their writing to their peers to get technical
advice, but you are seeking something other than peer review,
and it may be best if the first person you ask to read your work isn't
a writer and doesn't have an English professor's vocabulary of critical
terms. The slightest hint of disapproval from a "professional" can stop
you in your tracks just when you need to be writing away, brave and
free, and improving every day.
Your first reader does have to be somebody you can trust to be
honest. And the reader should expect to put time and energy into
reading your work and talking with you about it. You might ask your
spouse, a neighbor, a good-humored friend, or another beginning
writer to look at your efforts. Stephen King says that he asks his wife
and five other friends to read and comment on a draft of every book
Your writing needs, first, to be understandable and interesting.
Above all, you want your first reader simply to tell you where your
writing makes sense and holds his or her attention-where it reaches
across the ever-present gulf between a writer and a reader.
It's tempting to ask, "Is this any good?" But the last thing you need
is a value judgment, and anyway, what reader will answer that one
candidly? (Even when you submit your work to an editor, you're still
not seeking a value judgment. The question is not whether the editor
thinks it's any good but whether the editor believes it will benefit his
or her readers.)
Instead of asking your first reader to rate your piece on some kind
of scale from one (awful) to ten (terrific), you need to ask questions
like "Is this clear?" and "How can I make this more interesting?"
You need a first reader who will take the time to answer those questions
candidly, and with specifics. "Well, it's really diff 'rent!" is just too
vague. You want somebody who will say, "In the third paragraph of
page 2, well, this may seem like a dumb question, but what do you
mean by the word 'salutary?'" You need to encourage your reader to
ask dumb questions-and to thank him when he does.
Specific comments are far more useful than general ones. When
somebody does tell you "I really like this!" you might as well enjoy the
comment. And then ask the tough questions. "What was it exactly that
you liked? Was there anything you didn't like, maybe just a little?"
Librarians in the state of Kentucky once decided to produce a series
of books to use in teaching adults how to read. They engaged
professional writers, and then they showed the manuscripts, not to
educational experts but to adults who were just learning how to read.
They sat the writers and the student readers down face to face and had
the writers listen to what the students had to say. The writers sweated
bullets, we've heard, because they had never confronted their readers
quite so directly, and the students, all adults who wanted desperately
to learn, did not hesitate to say very directly what they needed from the
books. The new readers wanted stories about a world they could relate
to, and they wanted them to be clear and full of concrete detail. You
want a first reader with the commitment of those beginning readers
If you and your reader are both beginning writers, you will have
to teach one another to appreciate the value of specific comments.
Though it's nice to receive praise, what you both really need is, "I don't
understand how the umbrella stand got over under the parlor window
when a couple of paragraphs back it was just inside the kitchen door."
Specific comments like that are invaluable. Another valuable criticism
might be, "It takes you two paragraphs to describe how Doctor Abraham
pushed his chair up to the table. Do you really want to spend that
much time moving a chair? Unless that chair is a lot more important
than I think it is ..."
Excerpted from Writing Brave and Free
by Ted Kooser Steve Cox
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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