Here’s how it goes:
Nice Smart Young Woman New to Writing: (Enters class on a Friday morning her laptop under her arm) Shit. I didn’t write anything! (She slumps down into chair, dropping her oversized handbag to the floor.)
Me: So what does that matter? You’re here anyway. That’s the deal.
NSYWNTW: Well yes, but I don’t have anything. I just couldn’t write. You know, here I am going on and on about the same old crap—going to the health clinic in fucking Sylmar because I don’t have any money and about how awful they treat everyone even if you’re a legal immigrant, which most of them probably aren’t, and how just saying that makes me feel like a racist, and the health care system being fucked even for people like me who have a heart condition and have to have their blood taken every month, even from when I was kid and then calling my crazy mother to see if I could drop in on her knowing she would say “It’s not a good time,” not because it wasn’t a good time, but because she has turned into a hoarder and there are no chairs to sit on and you have to climb over stacks on the floor and I can remember a time when she was beautiful, really beautiful and it makes me so sad.
Me: Oh. Yeah…..and…?
NSYWNTW: Well… just nothing.
Me: (head down on the table laughing helplessly) “Nothing” you say? (another fit of laughing)
Of all the people I get to work with the ones new to writing are often my favorites. They show up because there is something they want to say, they wonder if they can and if they do, will it be worth it. They are at their most curious and innocent at the same time—a great combination. The liberating logic is, if you don’t know how to do something, then you can’t screw it up. (If wanted to be a taxidermist, for example, I wouldn’t have any expectations. Rest easy. I’m only saying.)
They may just want to get something off their chests: memories, losses, scary stuff, secrets. And that’s a bad thing? If it makes anyone feel better to write their experiences (like the NYSWNTW,) and in the doing discover something deeper that with care can lift into story, isn’t that growth? I ask you, where does fiction come from anyway?
The newcomer may move on without latching on to a project and if so, I don’t mind because for sure I know they leave better readers with respect for the layers that inhabit any creative effort.
Then there are the times when someone new to writing finds that spinning a tale can be much like flying a kite. You run into the wind, let out the string and once up, your job is to hang on to the wonderful flying thing in the sky.
(Forgive me for becoming all rainbow-ish, but the analogy was irresistible.)
Art is not an esoteric remote ideal, it is grounded in ordinary, lived lives and imagination. The bottom line is, novice or professional, the imagination is a muscle and gets stronger with use.
P.S. I’ll take an excited newbie any day over “I’ve got a book in me, I just know it. Everyone says so.” Shoot me.