If you remember, last week I blogged about a lesson I learned about writing from my old Aikido instructor, and part of that lesson entailed leading with your strengths. Writer friend and person who lives in Wyoming, the lucky bum, Summer Ross commented that she wished she knew what her strengths as a writer are.
I think this is a common predicament that writers have. I know I really struggled with understanding that for a long time myself. These days, I feel much more confident in knowing my strengths and more secure in embracing those and working from them as my base. I thought I might share my own experience in case something in my own path helps others.
There are two key components to learning your strength in any endeavor, including writing: (1) self-awareness, (2) trusted appraisers.
Trusted appraisers do not need to be critique partners. They need to people who understand your writing, understand what you want to accomplish with your writing, and give you honest feedback about the craft itself. In my case, most of the influential, trusted appraisers didn't even necessarily know that's what they were doing -- and I think that's part of why I trusted them.
Sometimes it's really simple and casual. If good readers laugh when you want them to laugh and cry when you want them to cry, you know you're hitting a strong point. In my case, barely a handful of people laugh when I want them to. Some people cry when I want them to laugh. But a lot of people cried when I wanted them to cry, including some quality readers. That was an early clue, especially during college, about the kind of content and presentation that I excelled at. Using language to make people weep.
I for years, though, without getting any further help. There were odds and ends of feedback, but not the same thing. It was really a handful of experiences brought about by the internet that really helped me start to understand -- some of them recently.
I began posting regularly at Flashy Fiction. Met a lot of great people there, and got plenty of good feedback, but Deb Markanton was especially helpful in helping me embrace my strengths. She gave me plenty of general, positive feedback, but her most enthusiastic feedback was also for things that showed me she got what I was trying to do, and felt what I wanted her to feel. When your best reception is in-line with your intentions: that's a strong point.
Not all your strengths are going to be obvious, but that doesn't make them any less of strengths. Most of my writing has, for a while, begun with a really abstract philosophical question or conundrum. Both stories that were published in Genre Wars began with very intentionally existentialist philosophy. My current book, Sublimation, is based on a Hegelian dialectic. Another short story of mine that I'm submitting for publication is based on a different Hegelian dialectic. A different short story revolves around the idea of rationalization-by-Divine-affirmation. My next book, Ennui and Malaise, will deal with with the philosophical and psychological question of boredom. So philosophy runneth amok. But, in large part, it's obscured by scary stuff and richly voiced crazy people. Imagine how shocked I was when author Domey Malasarn actually commented to me one day that part of what he liked about my stories in Genre Wars was the philosophical digressions.
Woah, he got it! And he liked it!
The point is: pay attention to your feedback. Look for patterns in specific comments. Look for how your responses line up with what you wanted your responses to be. Watch what specific elements trigger the most passionate responses.
But none of that is helpful without the first ingredient: self-awareness. You have to know what it is you're trying to do. You have to be aware of what you like to write. What you want your readers to feel or think or do in response to your writing. What writing flows and what writing is labored. You have to learn to pay attention to yourself.
And that, my friends, takes little more than practice. Writing. A lot. And doing so with open eyes. Do a ton of flash writing prompts if you can. Free write pages that you never do anything with. Just write. And learn how you write and what your expectations are. Sometimes, your strengths are what you write most quickly, but sometimes they're what gives me the most satisfaction to struggle through.
All you can do is pay attention.
Walk by putting one foot in front of the other, and remember to breath.
When you want to turn? Turn head, body follows. :)