Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Writing while Young

This is a blog for readers. But out of any group of readers, you will find a few--or more than a few--who aren’t content to just read, who want to try out the craft themselves and become writers.

Writers burn slowly. Writing takes a long time to master and very few writers get off to a quick start when they are very young. More often they are heavy chunks of coal at the center of the fire, the ones that took forever to light but then crackled on through the night and were still glowing just a little the next morning. Why writers are so slow to mature compared to, say, musicians or mathematicians or chess players (fields in which prodigy is virtually a requirement) is an area for speculation. Where sheer passion and brilliance can fuel a musician or chess genius, good writing, it seems, requires more emotional experience behind it.

Which isn't to say a writer can't write a lot of great stuff while young, and some have launched careers even in their teens. Just be forewarned. These writers are the exception rather than the rule. If you are a young writer looking to make a mark in the world, look to these examples as inspiration, but not as a goal to mark your progress against.

Still, there's something to say for the power of youthful energy. In the world of contemporary fantasy, one of the most successful writers working, Christopher Paolini, wrote his first book, Eragon, at the age of sixteen. The book is a long and elaborate work of high fantasy that reflects a lot of youthful exuberance with the elements of fantasy. Paolini, home schooled by parents who worked in the publishing industry, generated this lengthy manuscript—he had to cut it significantly for publication—as his first project after. I have a complete review here. Paolini, still only in his twenties, has now published three volumes which follow up on the story begun in Eragon. A fourth is expected soon.

One of the most famous young prodigies in all of literature is the nineteenth century French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. In his teens he ran away from his Catholic upbringing and set off to experience the world as a bohemian poet, as heavily involved in drinking, drugs and sex as in producing great literature. Eventually he hooked up with an older poet, Paul Verlaine, and though the two had a relationship that in the modern parlance would be deemed "inappropriate" and which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the hand, Rimbaud was both mentored and inspired by Verlaine and because of their association produced some of the great work of his time, much of it rapturous meditations on the sufferings of his youth like the passage below:

I have just swallowed a terrific mouthful of poison. - Blessed, blessed, blessed the advice I was given! - My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry. This is Hell, eternal torment! See how the flames rise! I burn as I ought to. Go on, Devil!


That's from Rimbaud's poem, “A Night in Hell” collected in his book "A Season in Hell." While this is great stuff, there are several reasons not to model your literary career after Arthur Rimbaud's. There's the twisted limbs thing, for instance, and the fact that Rimbaud died shortly after having a leg amputated, at the age of 37.

I've just read a short book, Metamorphosis, from Subterranean press, which is a collaboration of the writer James P. Blaylock and three of his high school students. The stories are all well done, with very similar themes of a character finding a connection to the past that is at once metaphorical and real. While it’s impossible to tell how much of the work belongs to the students and how much is Blaylock’s, what is clear both from the care given to the stories and from the essays that open and close the book, is how much Blaylock and fellow writing teacher Tim Powers respect the youthful talent of their students, and how dedicated they are to growing it.

That is what, it turns out, all of these prodigies have in common: they all have great teachers and mentors. Paolini has his parents, Rimbaud has Verlaine and the students published in Metamorphosis have James Blaylock and Tim Powers. While it always seems that young prodigies come “out of nowhere,” in reality they all have help.

So if you dream of becoming a successful writer, whether while still in your teens or at the more leisurely pace most of us maintain, you need to find yourself some good teachers. Meet and work with writers whenever you have the chance. If you don’t often get the chance then establish some literary heroes and learn as much as you possibly can from what they’ve published. Read everything by a writer you admire and then read it again. See how they do it and then try it yourself.


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1 comment:

Jess said...

Great post! I had dreams of being published before I turned 20, but that milestone passed several years ago, and I'm just now revising my novel. I am glad it has taken me this long, though, as it has given me ample time to grow as a person and as a writer, and I have found many excellent mentors along the way.