How I Write, or Confessions of a Non-English Major


September 23, 2014 by Julia


I don’t know the technical terms for many basic writing tools, guys. After much practice I usually know how to use them; I just don’t know what they’re called. I should probably research the exact difference between an analogy and a metaphor.

At times I wish I had majored in English (12-16 years ago, when I was in college…wow, that sounds like a long time ago), mostly because I would have enjoyed it – especially the workshop aspect. No doubt I would have learned a lot, and in less time than I have while fumbling around on my own. But I don’t mind taking the “longcut,” as my kids would put it, as opposed to the “shortcut” of learning through instruction.

I wonder if this is part of being naturally inclined toward a vocation – a calling, if you will. (The cheese alerts are going off in my head; also the pomposity alerts, but I’ll ignore them this time to make my point.) If you are called to do something, you long for the moment when your instructor hands over the reigns and you can try it for yourself. Even if you’re not ready, you just have to try, like a toddler making sense of the world through her own mistakes. The impulse to do it for yourself overrides any fear of failure.

Which is to say, I count myself lucky for feeling drawn to do something that IS so accessible. It’s not like I’m required to go back to an expensive school or purchase a bunch of supplies to do this. I just have to write a lot, and read a lot. (When I say “have to,” I mean it in two senses: I have to in order to be happy, and I have to if I want to be any good at it.)

So basically “How I Write” is just to read and write, no matter what, no matter if I post it online or keep it in a journal or read Philip Roth or Stephanie Meyer or am going through a shitty writing streak or an inspired one.

I have learned a few prodding questions to help myself get un-stuck, though. If I can’t write, it’s usually due to one of two reasons – I don’t know how to begin, or I don’t know how to write myself out of a quagmire of half-baked ideas.

I look at what I’m trying create, and ask myself:


Is it true?


Does it interest me?


And last, does it make sense?


Even in fiction, truth comes first. If the core of the most fantastical, sensational story doesn’t ring true, it don’t matter how many sexy vampires and glowing unicorns you shove in there, people won’t give a damn for longer than two seconds.

Ummm…this was the closest thing I could find. Apparently I was mixing mutually exclusive fantasy tropes.

Okay, here’s your vampire, dreaming of zombie unicorns and poorly dressed fairies



If I lose my way, whether it’s in memoir, essay or fiction, I look for the markers of truth first.

One of my favorite parts of writing is the practice of focusing hard enough to see through to the heart of the matter. If we stare at our words hard enough, we learn to peel away the innocent little lies that keep things safe but superficial. Because when was the last time you read something good? Would you describe it as either safe or superficial?

In contrast, when we’re talking to people, we usually don’t have enough time to double-check the veracity or sense of everything we say.


By necessity, we toss around sentences containing a slight exaggeration here, an omission there. Sometimes we discover our own hidden ignorance or even biases by saying something aloud, realizing that we sound like an idiot, and that we don’t agree with ourselves. (Speaking from experience here. I just hope to God that I’ve grown through these humbling experiences.)

Sounds like something I might say and immediately regret


Unless I am having an intimate conversation with a close friend or family member, I am usually more comfortable working out my thoughts through writing. Which can go one of two ways. I could carefully craft an online persona through the written word – so much easier to control than my spoken words – or, preferably, I could concentrate my energy on taking that extra time to find the truthiest truths, in the exact right words.

Oh, how I love the word articulation. The more articulate we become, the more profound our catharsis.

If I don’t pinpoint the exact right words in the first draft of a blog post (which…I mean, USUALLY they come straight to me from the heavens above, but when that fails) I figure it’s time to shake my writing down, shake it until all the loose pieces that were never really attached to me fall off. You know, all the inaccurate ideas about who I’m supposed to be. For example, when I write about being a stay-at-home mom, it’s easy to fall back on clichés of that role – laundry sucks, I wear yoga pants all day, blah blah – and while that stuff may be true sometimes, I know that if I’m getting bored writing about it, then it’s not true enough. Same goes for fictional characters. Clichés spring from lazy thinking and make for dull reading.

Which brings up my next important guideline: does it interest me? For me, and I assume for most people, truth and interest go hand in hand. So when I search for truth in writing, I can usually trust that it will be interesting, too.

But exploring what genuinely interests me in subject matter and/or plot line counts for a lot, too. I love certain themes in fiction: humor, depth, coming-of-age, falling in love, good vs. evil, the complexity of human nature, fearless observation of the darkness coupled with compassion. I like a good psychological thrill, or a twist so weird that I just have to keep reading to find out what the HECK is going on. I like when characters have irresistible chemistry with one another, romantic or friendly. I like when books end on a bittersweet yet hopeful note. But the ones that devastate me at the end are the ones that stick with me the most. So I write fiction with all of these interests in mind.

Here on the blog I am all over the place, because my interests are all over the place. I could never stick with blogging if I confined it to one subject. Each time I begin a post, it has to be on a topic that has captured my attention, or that post is doomed.


A sign that you may be writing about something you don’t care about


And last: does it make sense? This one is a toughie, because you can’t really ask it until you’ve done at least half the writing, and if by then the answer is “No, actually this totally falls apart; it does not hold up in the real world,” then some serious reworking from the ground up must be done, or the whole piece has to be scrapped. Yeah. Tough love. Better to not post or submit anything than to litter the world with more B.S., though.

(Is B.S. supposed to capitalized, or not? See, another thing I might have learned if I’d majored in English.)

I don’t claim to always answer these guiding questions to my own satisfaction. Often enough, I lose patience and just hit the “publish” button here on WordPress in order to get to the gratification of finishing something. I’m a little bit addicted to finishing things. I think I worked extra hard on this one, though, because a badly written blog post on how I write would be pretty embarrassing.

Yep, I am choosing a quotation of R. L. Stine’s (author of the popular young adult horror series Goosebumps, which peaked in the early 1990s) in closing, rather than Hemingway or Neil Gaiman. He unexpectedly hits the nail on the head here, doesn’t he?


2 thoughts on “How I Write, or Confessions of a Non-English Major

  1. Emmie says:

    I must say that glowing vampires do hold my interest for more than 2 seconds, but I probably wouldn’t read it twice if it was poorly written. just saying……. Yummy glowie vampires

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