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Mar 6, 2020

A Writing Craft Guide for the Perplexed (Under-represented) Writer

By E. L. Diamond.

Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” changed me. She talks about our brain-muscles clamping shut around our psychic wounds, the scar tissue in our creativity that makes us try to be safe, instead of writing dangerously. Amazing stuff. I teach “Shitty First Drafts” in my writing classes. But one thing I’ve noticed over years of creative writing classes, both taken and taught, is that the best books on writing craft that my teachers handed me and that I continue to hand out—Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well—are by white folks. People who’ve made a living as a writer.

Well, okay, we want to listen to the people who’ve made it. Sure.

But the world is different now, both economically and in terms of diversity. Even brilliant books—and Bird by Bird is brilliant—can limit how we understand the writing industry, and our craft, voice, and career. The other day, one of my friends—a very fine writer, who happens to be a white guy—was talking with me about Toni Morrison, both of us grieving her death. This guy, though, offers an opinion about her development as a writer. He teaches writing, and is a published, respected writer, so he does (in a way) know what he’s talking about. “In Beloved,” he goes, “you can tell she’s still learning. Her sentences don’t have the confidence of a Roth, a Pynchon. Even a McCarthy.”

Bullshit, I said. She writes like Toni Morrison. She’s confidently herself.

And that’s when I started thinking about how craft books—the ones I’ve read, the ones he’s read—can start to slant how we view good writing.

In a famous interview in The Paris Review, Morrison talks about how she got up to write at five a.m. every day while raising kids, working full time, and writing Beloved. Today, the writing community on Twitter has a #5amWritersClub.

What I’m talking about here is writing advice that addresses the practice and habits of writers who don’t necessarily have the type of access that costs money (MFA programs,  conferences). Writing advice for those of us who take our writing seriously, but who need a day job. Writing advice for those of us trying to find our voices, but our voices aren’t already well represented by Big 5 publishers, or New York agencies.

Consider the contrast between Morrison’s handy tips—get up before dawn; develop a routine—and Cormac McCarthy’s writing tips, as told to Van Savage in a recent article: remove extra words and commas; find a good editor.

Look, concision is good advice. Doing without commas? Eh, it’s a style choice. Do you. But who are you? And what if, for you, “finding a good editor you can trust” isn’t quite as easy as leaning your head out of your office at the Santa Fe Institute and asking for your Famous Buddy’s help on your syntax?

Here are some suggestions for honing craft and habit that I’ve found helpful as I slog out my journey—with a day job, writing stuff I really believe in but that isn’t necessarily clogging up the shelves at Barnes and Noble:

1.    Find voices like yours. I find #nanowrimo and the #writingcommunity on Twitter really helpful. Find other people doing #DVPit (#PitMad but for own voices work) and partner with them. Can I give a shout-out to CritiqueMatch here? It’s also been a life-saver.
2.    Find your own voice. Write your shit, your way.
3.    Embrace the suck. (#5am, am I right?)
4.    The old adage write drunk, edit sober? I like: write passionately, write the voice in your head, write your heart. Then edit with a view toward publicity and marketing.

I’d love to hear from you! Where did you find your voice? How have you shaped your career?


About the Author: E.L. Diamond
E.L. Diamond is a writer and educator currently living in Omaha, Nebraska. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in journals such as The Pinch, Literary Orphans, and The American Journal of Poetry. She blogs about queer life and love in the Midwest, along with pieces on writing and editing, at