Writing stories; how do we learn to do it?
For me the urge to write came as soon as I could hold a pen. Those first tender forays onto paper resembled ant-tracks and squiggly lines, but the intent was there. It just needed some training.
First I learned to write in Dutch, this is by no means a prerequisite for others, but it seemed to serve my journey, particularly as I was growing up in the Netherlands. English did figure in my life on a variety of levels, from children’s books to undubbed TV programs, and songs on the radio. My family had spent 12 years in the US and English was spoken with ease among my much older siblings.
I learned how to construct and deconstruct sentences and paragraphs and soon whole swaths of prose in Dutch. I learned to use the right words or expressions (there are many of those in Dutch) for maximum effect.
Then, through a series of unfortunate circumstances I found myself living in the US at the tender age of 22. No matter, I was resourceful. However, what I had previously viewed as a culture fairly similar to Dutch culture, I now started to see as quite different; right down to the language! (aside from the obvious, that is)
My, just beyond, basic English no longer sufficed as I navigated the ups and downs of my first job, which included writing business letters. Imagine my surprise and frustration when my boss had me do them over and over and over again. Of course she never actually pointed out what was wrong with them, just said ‘It’s still not quite what I want’.
I switched from writing short stories in Dutch to writing them in English. I even had the audacity to submit them, not realizing my use of language was not anywhere close to what it should be. My sentence structure was creative to put it nicely and my vocabulary still on the limited side of good.
It dawned on me that perhaps I should work harder on this, particularly when on rare occasions people would take enough of an interest to, painfully, point out my failings. A budding writer walks a path strewn with broken glass.
My first source of learning was books. I read and read and read. Then I added a magazine subscription, The New Yorker. Mind you most of the writing left me slightly lost as the sentences were so much longer and more complex than what I was used to. I used to be able to deal with those in Dutch just fine, but the first year of my subscription to the magazine was very challenging and at times disheartening. However, I persevered and trusted in the power of osmosis, my favorite method of learning.
Slowly but surely I could see where I would go wrong. I could spot the Dutch construction in my English. That didn’t mean I could always fix it, but at least I was able to see it.
Rejections meanwhile steadily continued.