When I was fourteen, I knew everything. And I was insufferable.
I can admit that now.
When I was fourteen, I attended a summer school for the performing arts*, creative writing unit, and accidentally lucked into the best room in the whole dorm. For six weeks, high schoolers from twelve to eighteen (I’m assuming) were trapped together with assigned strangers, to absorb as much art as our long-suffering teachers could shout at us. But like, in a quiet and artsy manner.
The roommate became a lifelong friend and we visited each other in high school, though she lived just north of LA and I lived in a tiny, tucked away desert town. One visit, I saw a how-to writing book on her bookshelf. I asked her about it. But I asked as a sixteen year old, two years into knowing everything, asks about things. I asked, What are you doing with that?
She said, it’s interesting and I like it.
Don’t we already know how to write? I asked, forgetting that we had spent six weeks learning how to write from Actual People. And how did she know she had a good book?
She said, Just pick someone you don’t disagree with.
It was still years before I picked up a how-to writing book. To find a guru, I had to put aside my pre-conceived notions of what I expected to receive. I needed to accept what I accept from any book: a new thought. I also needed to pick something that fit my mind space at the time. So the first how-to writing book I bought was Peter David’s Writing for Comics.
I was already a comic book fan, I loved Q and Star Trek, and I had no idea how to write a comic book and thought that might be fun to try. It’s a great form to study voice and dialogue, while learning to trust someone who is not you to realize the idea you believe you have put on the page. I held on to that guru for as long as I needed him. Then I got the next book.
My favorite writing book is The Portable Poetry Workshop. You’ll notice I don’t write poetry, but the exercises can be applied to prose and never fail. I’ve gained an appreciation for books on theory, personal essays, lists of rules that can be flexed and twisted and happily ignored as needed. In all these, I have developed judgment to determine what will work for me and what won’t. And to know that someday, that judgment will change, and what did not work then, will work now.
Through it all, I kept writing.
*California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). Home to artists, quirks, and ants. Oh, the ants.