I just finished reading Stephen King's wonderful memoir/manual On Writing. It was a fantastic breeze of a read, being very moving in certain ways. I've always had a very fond respect for Stephen King's work, and have read a great deal of it, because he has always seemed to me like the quintessential writer of the past 25 years who just writes what they like. And doesn't care if you read it or not, really, but knows enough about writing to figure a lot of people will read it anyway. He doesn't convey that exact sentiment in the book, he is much more humble, but in my fictionalized world he's a bit more radical than he appears.
Of course, I haven't been published, ever, and most of my writing I keep to myself or make very little attempt at promoting. I don't think I'm anywhere yet ready to seek publication beyond my own vain internet presence (see: this). Though I love writing, and as King repeats: there is no reason not to write. I sat down at my computer one day in late high school and I spent several hours in deep thought after a very revelatory choice came to my mind: writing or programming, which would I choose to follow as a formal education in college? At the time I was looking squarely at a certain college and it had both a New Media program and a Writing program. I knew that I loved both and I couldn't live without either; the end decision ended up being very practical. I knew that developing things for the web was what I could have a secure future doing. Especially as the eldest son in a slightly patriarchal family, I had in mind that I would be able to make a good living, with perhaps writing as a hobby on the side. Writers, and particularly poets (specifically my choices were New Media or Poetry) have a hard time making steady sums of money solely on writing.
Anyway, here are some brief thoughts on writing, as I have experienced it so far. I like to think that I have somewhat of a unique perspective being someone who writes in many languages; mostly computer languages, as lame as that sounds. When people ask me what I do, I usually tell them I'm a writer, but a writer primarily for computers. I have found, to my surprise, many similarities between the two acts: writing creatively and developing stuff for the web. A lot of those similarities are ones I've created for myself. For instance, when I'm coding well, really in the rhythm of it, I'm in the same mindset as when I'm writing poetry or nonfiction. When I'm debugging my own code (debugging means fixing mistakes) it's a lot like editing drafts of an essay or story. It's got structure, characters, motivations, actions. That's what makes me feel like a developer rather than just an engineer; I spent more time creatively producing work than I do just laying out code I learned in a book. The act is creative.
Conversely, the act of writing poetry or an essay or a short story reminds me of programming. Although it is not so rigid and strict in its syntax, writing creatively for a human reader relies on the understanding of thinking outside oneself and considering your reader. In the case of programming, the reader is simply a computer. Computers don't think like humans, so the rules change, and they only get flimsier when writing for human eyes. Which is both an unmitigated joy and an unmanageable curse. I spend much more time writing and editing for humans than I do for computers, because there is no way for me to get across exactly what I mean for everyone using the english language. There also sometimes exists this problem in programming (not knowing the language's vocabulary) but it's more ethereal when writing for a person to read.
I tend to think very quickly when writing about the person reading the work. Do they understand the character's (or my) motivation? When writing poetry, I may spend an hour letting words tumble from my fingers through my keyboard, but that outside force still nags and tries to check against me. Why am I writing this line that way? Most of the time, I can push back that instinct and simply write out what my muse wants me to, before editing. That "pushing back" is perhaps the most glaring difference between the two worlds for me; when I am coding, I can't push that back, because I know that the reader (a computer interpreter) wants what is exactly clear and nothing else. Only humans really would be able to love the wiggle room of ambiguity.
I've learned that the actual writing part isn't the hardest step, mostly from programming; editing is the hard part, as I feel it rightly should be. For you to be an effective writer, you must do two things (as King himself asserts): read a lot and write a lot. You need to be comfortable with just writing, however you can find a way to be. I still struggle with it, but I know I'm on the right path. For most aspiring writers, being able to write involves waiting around for some magic intuition; and that's not an altogether wrong approach, merely an incomplete one. Sometimes you do need to wait for that muse. But you also need to start understanding that the muse never really leaves; she just goes away and sleeps for a time. Your job as a "serious" writer is to learn how to gently wake her, make her a nice cup of tea, and ask that muse to join you by the fire for a nice round of inspiration. You basically need to learn how to grasp your inherent intuition for writing and make it work for you. This seems contradictory, but it really isn't, as I've found out, and you can easily convince yourself of that. For most of those "serious" writers, this means establishing some kind of routine or ritual for writing. Stephen King wakes up early and doesn't leave his office for three hours, just to fill that time with writing something, and he spends most of his afternoon reading.
Being able to sit down at a blank screen (as I do, I like OmmWriter a lot) or a pad of paper and just fucking write something is an important skill. Honestly, it's not a lesson I learned from writing creatively. I learned it from having to develop stuff. It was as simple as "here's a problem, I need to find a creative way to solve it, from nothingness to realized". The same way I would start with a blank page when writing poetry, I would start a blank page when writing code, and I would have to will the words from my mind. Any experienced programmer knows that this is somewhat untrue since most developers go out to the web and borrow code from other people, so you rarely start on an entirely blank slate, but for me that "steal/borrow" mentality is even more relevant to writing creatively.
That's why Stephen King and myself agree on both conditions: writing a lot and reading a lot. By reading a lot, whether it's another author or another programmer, you expand your own understanding of the possibilities of writing. Not through direct copying (though you can do that) but by imitation and consideration. I learned the most about poetry by reading a lot of certain poets, and for a time I was writing poetry that was a lot like theirs. Later on I was able to go back and take out pieces where my own style began to form from theirs, but even if all of it was unusable T.S. Eliot-like diction, it would still be a worthwhile exercise because it helps just to write, no matter what it is.
Which brings me to the second half of what writing is to me, and pertains to both sides of my life. Time, and its manifestation in drafts. Editing your own work. No one has ever written something and immediately published it after that first act of creation. A lot of young writers in high school and college think that what they first put down on paper was goddamn magic (I know I was) and it can never be altered because it's some kind of sacred gift, but really it's not. To everyone else, your text is most likely just neat-sounding nonsense. If you get that for feedback, consider it really really good from a first draft. If in the first draft you can at least make a couple people interested in whatever the hell it is you're writing, then you've got the toughest part down.
Editing your own work is the life-breath of a good writer. Stephen King puts it as "writing with the door open versus the door closed", kind of. In the first draft, you write with the door closed, or entirely concerned with yourself and what you want to write. And that's how it should be; you should let creation and selfishness in doing so be the first priority, without a mind for larger things like Theme and Plot and other Capitalized Words. After you've gotten down what you need, you can open the door and start thinking about larger questions like whether someone will understand whatever you just wrote. Time is a very important factor in this. There are poems that I knock out, some as short as one stanza, sometimes as long as ten pages, but regardless of their length or my attachment to them, the next step is most often putting it away. Close the file, put a date in the filename, and don't touch it for at least a few days. Do something else, and if you have to write at all, write something completely different. When you come back to it, you should have a fresh mind; as King expertly put it, you should be reading your own work but not really be reading it as if you wrote it. It should be like reading the work of a "soul-twin". Not so crazy that you can't remember what you wrote, but rather that it's like remembering a vivid dream.
Being able to sit down with something I wrote and edit it is often the most comfortable thing I do, and I like it that way. Sometimes I read it and think, "aw fuck I didn't even begin to get to the point after even 500 words", and sometimes the edits are so obvious and clear that I have no idea how I didn't automatically write it correctly. This is the benefit of experience, because sometimes you might not get back to a work until months or years later. In programming it's simply called "making version 2.0", which is delightful and strange, because you read your own code with the new knowledge of how to do it better. The same applies to writing creatively. I regularly go back to certain poems that have been in a folder for over four years, and they still aren't right, even after the seventh or twentieth draft. Some of them are not worth returning to, because I still don't have the understanding of how to make them speak the way they need to. I'm confident that some day I will find out, but maybe not.
Some pieces can be turned out really easily in three or four drafts, and might be in-and-out of your consciousness within a week. Usually I don't trust this, and leave it alone for a week, go back to it, and if it really is ready I'll let it go. That's usually what happens on here, for instance. When I'm writing nonfiction (like this), I write it, come back to it in a day or two, and then post it. Sometimes it's not that easy, and I really have to work at editing for it to come out right and still some people won't take it the right way. The process of editing is one you have to largely figure out for yourself, and any programmer knows it well. Debugging code is often the most frustrating part, but it's the aspect of the job you have to make the most productive. Hammer out the problems, whether it's in syntax or vocabulary or execution, to make the whole thing stronger. It's always worth it.
It always frustrated me in those college poetry classes that there were so many students who were uncompromising in their work. They had Draft One and it was as good as gold to them, even if nobody in the class liked it. And yet few in those classes ever had a means to communicate any real criticism - because they themselves were afraid of killing their darling poems. I'm not saying I knew how to either, but at least I was open to the idea. Any creative process - poetry or film or whatever - requires revision to make it better. There was always a class full of anti-revisionists, but thankfully I typically found one or two who were open to it, and tried hard to figure out how to make lines 3 and 4 of their first stanza feel right (whatever that means) and they're going on to be great writers.
It never really mattered, I think, whether I went with New Media or Poetry for college, now that I look back. Either way I would've ended up with the same thing, just emphasized differently, neither better or worse. However, I can easily tell you that being a developer is definitely more profitable, though you don't gain the same kind of prolific status or high cultural value as writers sometimes do. For now, at least.