Vincent Kazer, Assistant Professor of English and Writing at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), talks about challenges that beginner writers might face, especially if English is a second language.
People say you don’t need any talent to learn a language but persistence, of course. Is it necessary to have any specific characteristics to start writing?
I think people use it as a cop-out. Starting with your example, a lot of people say, “I can’t learn another language, I am not good at languages.” In fact, some people are very good at languages: they have a natural aptitude, they can pick up a new language and be fluent in a couple of months. However, anybody can learn a new language. If you get dropped into a village with a language that you have never heard before, most likely, you will learn it. Maybe, you will never become fluent, but you will improve.
Such a thing is true for writing. Some people say, “I can’t write.” Some people are naturally better writers. They have an aptitude for putting words in paragraphs together. For example, from a young age, I was told that I am talented in writing, and that is why I am teaching it now, but I was not good at math and science. My mind was more suited to writing, but I could study math and I could improve even if I never was going to be great at math.
So, back to the question, everybody can get better at writing. You can definitely improve in your writing – whatever level you are at. It is just a willingness to engage with it. It is a difficult skill to learn. It is not like, “I can speak, so I can write.”
Googling on how to become a good writer, one of the pieces of advice is “write every day.” I think it is valuable advice, but it is challenging to write every day. It kind of makes you burn out. That is what I feel. Is it possible to entertain yourself somehow and not to be bored with this routine?
Have you seen the movie Whiplash? Check it out! There is a kid who wants to be a drummer in a very prestigious music academy. So, it depends on how far you are willing to go in becoming great at something. There are a couple of things. One is a kind of cliché, but a lot of things in life are about balance. If you push yourself too far, you actually might burn out. If you want to get better at something, you have to do it, right? If you practice an hour or even 20 minutes every day, you learn faster. Ideally, you practice several hours a day.
What is the other thing?
For writing, you have to decide. Do you want to get better at it? What is your goal in writing? I mean, do you want to write a novel, an essay to go from a C student to a B student? Or from a C to an A? Are you trying just to pass the class or to win the Pulitzer Prize? Establish what is important for you, why you are learning to do it. That is what will sustain you through those difficult mornings when you get up and say, “I am supposed to practice, but I do not want to. I just do not want to sit and write.” If you do not have a larger purpose or a larger reason why you are doing it, then it is going to be extremely hard to force yourself to do that. It is going to be hard, no matter what, but if you don’t have the larger purpose to guide you it might not be helpful.
There is another book by Viktor Frankl Men’s Search for Meaning. It is a great book. He was in a concentration camp during World War II. He was a Jewish doctor from Vienna talking about the difference between the people who had survived the camp and who didn’t, and the idea of meaning and purpose that is essential, even though I am oversimplifying the idea of the book.
However, if you hate writing every day, I think it is time to do some soul searching and realize: do you want to be a writer? Maybe, you might realize that you can fulfill what you thought you wanted to get from writing, with something else that you are enjoying more… If you do love writing, you can create a strategy to get through those rough writing mornings.
You noted that it is crucial to understand what you want to write, whether it is novels, reportages, or interviews, etc. Does it mean that you need to master something specific, or do you need to diversify your writing somehow and escape from one narrow field?
It is a good question! I offer another book for you Range by David Epstein. He uses a case example where he looks at Tiger Woods and Rodger Federer, two of the greatest athletes in golf and tennis respectively. Tiger started playing golf when he was three or two years old, and he just practiced golf consistently while Rodger Federer came to tennis quite late and played all other sports when he was younger before he settled down on tennis.
He makes compelling cases. The diversity in trying out a lot of different things can set our brain for learning things, and it is more like clarifying for yourself what you are interested in, what you would like to focus on. It is different for different people, you might hyper-focus on one thing, but I would not do it obsessively. [If you think] that you cannot waste hours doing these other things. “Wasted time” may not be wasted. It might help you to develop a beneficial experience.
Again, as long as you are engaged in trying things out and you are not just sitting back and waiting for inspiration to strike, thinking you need to decide what your passion is. Just start acting, start doing things, and see what strikes you. Most of the time, such an experience is beneficial even if it shows to you what it is that you do not want to do.
I have talked to some AUBG alumni who told me that the English level of JMC students differs from the American JMC students, because for most AUBGers English is a second language. Do you see the differences? And does it mean, that even experience of studying in English does not guarantee the required level?
I might not be the best person to ask because I have only been at AUBG for a year, and I teach first-year students primarily and second year students. I do not know exactly what level [of English] seniors are graduating with. I would just say, before AUBG, I taught at UCLA, in the U.S. We had some international students, but the majority of the students were native-born English speakers. And I would say that most of the mistakes they made in terms of the things that they needed to learn and in terms of paragraphs, structure, syntax, diction, and putting an essay together, writing an effective introduction and conclusion… These things are very similar for UCLA students and AUBG students.
Personally, I do not see a huge difference. So, I think most AUBG students are very capable English speakers, and their challenges with writing are the same challenges that most native English speakers also face with writing. It is not so much a question of being the first or the second language for a speaker as going from speaking to writing in a language.
However, Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel prize in literature… After years of immigration, he was not writing in English as well as in Russian.
I guess it goes to the question of what level are you asking me about. There is a huge difference between writing a great American novel and writing a good essay for a university, or a business report, or e-mail. Those things are on a much lower level than writing a revolutionary novel.
When you are a beginner writer, it is so easy to face critique. Sometimes, there are periods in life when you hear it constantly. You understand that you need to keep going to become better and better, but at some point, you just start thinking yourself that you are not a good writer in general. Are there any ways to cope with this feeling, because critique may be as beneficial as it is destructive?
It is not simple to answer that. It is a cliché about writing that you have to develop “thick skin,” especially if you want to be a professional writer because you will be criticized a lot. One thing that I find helpful is to look at criticism of great writers and novelists from the past. When Moby-Dick as published by Herman Melville, critics did not like it. They said it was a mildly interesting whale story. Now it is considered one of the greatest American novels.
But you never know if you are a genius.
[Of course], you don’t want to get inflated by the idea that you are a genius, and people simply do not understand [you], but at the same time [you should] recognize that you know when people criticize something, it is just their opinion. That leads me to the second point that I was going to say. It is important to separate yourself from the material and not to look at yourself like critics of your work… very often, we take criticism as an assault of our value as a human being. Remember that you have inherent worth as a person, and your worth [does not depend on] whether you write a successful story or not.
Also, keep in mind that failure is a part of growth and learning. You have to fail and go through it. It comes back to the thing I have said before. Just check in with yourself and what you are doing because you might get to the point that you hate it, and it is so painful to say every time, “I am going to do it.” It does not mean that you are weak because you gave up, it means that you have realized that it is not right for you or the time is not right and you [might] come back to it later. So, I think it is just a question about awareness and trying not to let yourself get caught up with one of those stories about value, and worth, and societal expectations.
My next question is related to editing. Should we ask someone to proofread what we write most of the time? Or is it better to write for yourself, using the principle: the more I write, the better?
Not exactly, I think it is a balance. Both types of writing are effective and even necessary to do. It is great to write things that you do not show to anybody else. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, because if you have a critical eye constantly, that will paralyze you. Then, on the other hand, if you want to improve in writing, you absolutely need to get outside eyes on your paper.
And it is better to get as many people to read your screenplay, or your story, or your novel chapter… Whether it is experts, professors, or whether it is just friends, family. Just getting those kinds of feedback is always valuable.
What books would you recommend beginners to read, both fiction books and specialized?
I would say just for reading it is whatever interests you, whatever you like. Do not stay too narrowly… [Because] You observe the way [good writers] put together language. Even if you are not consistently aware of it, some of that will slip into your subconscious. It will influence the way you write. Also, challenge yourself to read higher-level writing, don’t just read short news articles. [For example], read philosophy and complex texts. And if it is too overwhelming, then pull back a little bit.
You can also get into specific writing guides, something like The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. You can certainly look at the books about writing, which I think are valuable as well, as long as you are not just reading about writing but putting it into practice. Those two things, literature in general and then books about writing can be very effective.
Is it fine to imitate other authors when you write?
We all borrow from each other, and I think there is the same with painting when painters spend time copying the masters and going to galleries to copy great artworks. Even some screenwriters advise typing out and transcribing great screenplays, because there is something different in writing it yourself, as opposed to just reading it. There is a lot of value in doing that. You just have to be careful with plagiarism. You are using it as a learning tool rather than trying to sneak in somebody’s writing with your own.
How to get rid of clichés? Where to find those words to explain obvious things?
Again, it goes to reading more and expanding your vocabulary. Dictionaries are all online now, which is great. It is an important thing to be constantly looking for other ways. English, like any language, is rich in vocabulary. Especially, when getting to those higher levels that we were talking about earlier, you will start using words that the average person won’t know, if you are writing for a higher-level literary audience.
And it is a part of the re-reading process. When you write the first draft – just write it out. When I go back and read my first drafts, there are so many clichés in them. I naturally write tons of clichés, so it is a normal thing. You catch it in the editing process when you read them. Usually, you recognize them immediately and you [see] that it is an obvious cliché. And then you say: “okay, how else can I say this idea?” If we want to keep that sentence, how could you rewrite that?
Editing for clichés happens more in rewriting than in the writing process. It will just freeze you up when you are trying actively to avoid clichés. Give yourself permission to be a cliché when you are writing the first draft, but then when you edit it, you are going to edit very closely for clichés.
Oh, now I see that it is fine! This thing was scary to me, honestly.
And the last question! What is one thing, if we can distinguish just one thing, that a person who is starting his or her writing path should know?
There are a lot of different things to say, but I guess the main thing that came to my mind is just write and don’t look for a magic bullet – just start. If you want to be a writer start writing as much as you can and as often as you can. That is the best way to learn and the best way to discover for yourself of how much you actually enjoy it, and if you want to continue with it.
This is a cliché, but this is a cliché for a reason. Don’t read books about writing, just sit down and start writing stuff. American writer David Brooks once said, “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.” If you start putting hours at the beginning, like you are going to sit down and write for 8 hours, you set yourself up for failure now. But it is okay to start from 30 minutes every day or one hour every day and build up [in the future].
It is just like you would do an exercise. You do not start bench pressing four hundred pounds. You start bench pressing forty pounds, right? Just start whenever you can and keep pushing yourself to improve at least a little bit. And I think this is the most important thing.