BY DR. Agonson
The following is the body of a letter I sent…
I pray a lot when I’m writing. I do this because more and more I believe what Socrates said, that—I think he used the term poets, but I’ll say artists—artists are something of a medium. Ideas, great ideas, come from some other source than the physical world. They are inspiration, and so I am praying for new ideas constantly.
That said, when I have an idea I cannot immediately write it down. When such is the case, I’ll often follow a piece of advice from my father. He told me, “If it is worth writing, it is worth writing poorly.” So, I have an inarticulate idea I cannot write, I force myself to write, and it’s terrible. I read what I wrote, write it again, and it’s a little better. Eventually, I try to reach the point where writing becomes something like dreaming. Through all this, I am still praying.
When I am not actually writing there are still things I do to improve my ability to write. Part of this came from a good education. Having a firm grasp of the rules of grammar is invaluable. Thinking, thinking deeply and critically, cannot be overly stressed. Even a mundane point can be a source of hours of intense thought. Practice articulating arguments with others, you’ll realize you’re not as clear spoken as you think, and you’ll learn how to communicate.
As regards reading, do it, but challenge yourself. I’m working on reading all of Shakespeare, and this just about brings me to the edge of my reading level, very often past it. Think of it this way, your writing level will never surpass your reading level, and so you should try to raise your reading level to give your writing level room to grow.
I also suggest familiarizing yourself with the book of Genesis. It is one of the deepest books in the Bible. Don’t just read it, learn about it. I think Jordan Peterson can help you here with his YouTube lectures. This is important to writing as a source of inspiration, but also as a foundation of thought. In general, be a student of the Bible.
Be able to make allusions to the Bible, mythology, history, and literature. If you understand what you are doing, you can condense information by citing any of these. Instead of spending paragraphs of exposition explaining your characters’ animosity towards each other, know enough of Les Misérables to compare one to Jean Valjean. In the same vein, you can set a tone by an allusion, foreshadow future events, or simply enrich your writing.
Don’t become intimidated by the abundance of sources here, no one knows everything. Find the stories that interest you, and if it seems natural, make a quick reference to them to give your writing a touch more complexity. Allusions are a ticket into another world, your writing becomes part of a tradition spreading back further than any of us know. Be careful not to overdo this.
Everyone will say, “Show, don’t tell,” but they often only tell you to show, never showing you how. On a basic level, if you have a character and you want to say he is happy, don’t say, “Edward was happy,” say, “Edward smiled to himself,” or go a step deeper, “The corners of Edward’s lips, though he fought to keep them in line, curled upward a moment.” Transform information into action, or inaction, whenever possible.
A trick an English teacher passed on to me, I didn’t like it at first, was that immediacy can be expressed by inserting the “ing” suffix whenever possible. This can be overdone at times, but it holds true. Basically, if you can have a word ending in “ing” your writing will probably be more interesting. I have been experimenting with writing in present tense to achieve the same end, but the drawback is that it’s harder to form complex sentences in present tense.
If you can at all, have someone read what you wrote out loud. I find this can be very helpful in seeing how others perceive your work.
This final bit of advice I’ll give to you. I didn’t want to be a writer, but, like Jeremiah, it was a fire in my bones. There is something driving me to write, keeping me from sleep or comfort until I scribble down a passing thought. Yesterday was the last class before a final, and the teacher was reviewing the major thing I needed help on. As he talked, I realized how to kill of a telekinetic in one of my stories.
The problem was, I had given this character god-like powers and needed the protagonist to kill him. I realized the telekinetic would have to die by hubris. He’ll try to force the cosmos, being misled by the protagonist, into giving the same heavenly gift that empowered him and others.
By the time I had written all my thoughts down, the teacher had moved on to the next subject. The final is tomorrow, and I doubt I’ll do very well. So, be ready to sacrifice. I have found writing is like a passionate lover that enjoys testing your resolve. It is wonderful and terrifying all at once.
Listen to my beautiful voice: