What I’ve learned from learning to write

Disclaimer: I didn’t “learn how to write”. We all can write. A writer is someone who writes. Instead, we have the misconception that only good writers, or famous writers, can be “writers”.

For the last three years of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with the work of many wonderful writers. Yes, they are the people that write the ads you see on TV, or the chuckle-worthy social copy that we at IKEA would call “twinkly”. In jobs where I’ve done a lot of doing, and perhaps even some thinking, I admittedly haven’t done a lot of “making” of my own. And so I decided that I should make something myself, or at least give it the ol’ college try.

I signed up for David Bester’s 8 week long “Writers Boot Camp”. David would later tell me that when he first started the boot camp in 2009, there seemed to be posters everywhere in Toronto for Bikini Body Boot Camps and Cooking Boot Camps and what not. He wanted to create one for writers. Our group met weekly in the Annex for stretches of two and half hours, as a small collection of eight contributors, including the group leader. David’s sessions are grounded in the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method which was developed by writer Pat Schneider. The philosophy is that, “every person is a writer, and that every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn and develop craft”.

The AWA method is defined by the following principles:

1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.

2. Everyone is born with creative genius.

3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.

4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.

5. A writer is someone who writes.

In addition to all of the above, the structure of the sessions encourages you to share your work, but doesn’t force you to. You are also encouraged to respond to other writers’ work with something that stood out to you, or that stuck with you. The goal is to be as objective and reflective as possible without sharing sentiment on “good” or “bad” (though admittedly, when I loved pieces, I would usually say that too). This creates an environment where there is no downside to sharing your work, so you just share your work. This in itself is incredibly powerful.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

1. Share fearlessly, with no introduction

In high school, I was a bit of an English nerd. In fact, I took three different English courses in Grade 12, and still somehow ended up at business school the following year. In one of those courses, “Writer’s Craft”, a teacher whose ideas have stuck with me over the years, Ms. Siegel, urged us to never qualify our work or introduce it as “not that good, not finished, not perfect” etc. If you’re thinking about selling an idea to a client in advertising — you wouldn’t come into the room and be like “Hey, we have this shitty thing for you!”. There’s no point in building up a self-deprecating expectation that your work is bad. Instead, at minimum, you should just jump into reading it. At Writers Boot Camp, I shared every single piece I wrote with the group — from the absurd, to the actually OK. I would take a deep breath and go full Nike and just do it. Now if you’re going to sell an ad, you need some actual selling to plant thoughtful seeds and set the bar, but for a short story or a poem, my vote is to come in hot and don’t look back.

2. Sometimes not knowing a lot makes things a lot better

I wrote for 8 weeks with a group of people I knew only through their writing. We never formally introduced ourselves beyond our first names. To me, this was excellent as I’m not a fan of the “so tell me what brought you to the course?” dialogue that comes along with adult extracurriculars (I took a drawing class back in 2016, where we all had to introduce ourselves that way and I’m still traumatized from the experience). David’s point of view was that by not knowing all the details about the group’s lives and bios, we focused on their writing, not mapping their writing to their lives. Also, as a rule we always referred to the characters in the work as “the characters” not “you” and not “your boyfriend you’re fighting with”. This again added a level of anonymity that felt inclusive, comfortable and sharply focused on the work we were doing.

3. Love to try

If you believe a writer is simply someone who writes, then the pressure is off and you have the freedom to really try. To really try to articulate your thoughts, experiment with different styles, and to write some absurd stuff that may never see the light outside your notebook. If you want to make something, or do something, you need to simply make and do. The worst thing that can happen is that it’s shitty, in which case, you’ll make it better, or let go of the feeling of it being shitty, or let go of the friend that called it shitty. My sports knowledge is basically non-existent, but as someone who works in Social Media I do like Phil Kessel’s Twitter Bio, which is: “Nice Guy. Tries Hard. Loves the Game”. That’s me, and I urge you to be unapologetic about loving the game, and loving the process, no matter what your game is.

Over 8 weeks I responded to 35 different prompts and exercises, and listened to 172 stories shared with me. Ultimately, I found that the listening was just as satisfying as the writing. Being surrounded by writers who also loved to try meant that we had a lot of excellent work to listen to. I was fascinated by how different people would interpret the prompts, I got to know the other writers’ styles, and I surprisingly realized that I have a style of my own. I left the course with a notebook of ideas — and no forced plans or ambitions to do too much with them. A wise friend was sharing an article she read, how there’s too much pressure today to elevate hobbies and monetize them into side hustles. For example — we can’t just write for fun anymore, we need to become amazing writers that can write op-eds for the Globe on the weekend and get paid. It’s 2019 and the expectations we’re placing on our hobbies are way too heavy. Please let that go at your earliest convenience.

I wrote without asking anything of it, and in turn, it’s given me freedom by asking nothing from me.

To learn more about David Bester’s workshops, I invite you to visit https://startwriting.ca/.