An essay on Writing by James Bonner

Crafting Wordsmithery: A Guide to Becoming the Writer You Imagine You Already Are

I have been writing my entire life, and I have been offered writing opportunities frequently, and every one of them I took for granted. I was in my very early twenties when Idaho Falls Magazine gave me my first opportunity to develop a career writing, in my mid-twenties when TED granted me an opportunity, and in my mid-thirties when The Hill Country Weekly newspaper offered me another. I took every opportunity; I wasted it by not becoming the best writer I could be. I approached opportunities with a latitude of indifference without having earned the right to do so. I have always had a strong writing voice and a talent for prose, but I never studied writing. I didn’t know the rules of writing, I couldn’t articulate or defend the basis of my grammar and sentence structure; my process was limited to feeling, and even whether a sentence looked aesthetically appealing. For as long as I can remember I have felt uncomfortable calling myself a writer.

A year ago, I got it in my head to start learning the fundamentals of writing, to explore my strengths and weaknesses (and not just as a writer), and to develop as a real writer. I would imagine sitting with my favorite authors, and talking about writing, not about the stories or the ideas, but the process—and I don’t mean, asking them dreary questions, like, “What time do you write?” “Do you write freehand, with a typewriter, or with a computer?” “Do you outline your writing or are you a “panster?”—I would imagine talking about writing as if there were nothing else to talk about. I would hand them a piece of my writing and acknowledge those fears bubbling up as they read. I wouldn’t care whether they liked what I had written, personal preference is a far cry from learned expertise, I cared only about how I felt about someone like them, someone who was able to write a thing so well imagined and matured, and to write so beautifully, and then to repeat that again and again, reading something that I had written. Would I be embarrassed? What would embarrass me about my writing if someone like David Foster Wallace read it? I thought about that because whatever those weaknesses might be, they were what I needed to work on.

There was a time when, as I was writing something, if I lost interest in or realized that the piece that I was writing was crap, I would toss it, delete it, be done with it, and forget about it. This was a practice of mine for years. Until I recognized the failed practice of disregarding writing as an opportunity for growth. I found a piece that was, in effect, complete, and yet I felt that it had completely missed the mark; rereading this piece was like exploring every part of myself that I might recoil from, standing in front of a mirror thoughtlessly and then coming to only to see my grimacing reflection in a way that, for a moment, I was concerned might set, and seal. I thought instead, I’m going to make this piece work. I tackled every word and every sentence, and I used the piece as a reference to help me understand punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure beyond the scope of my detached grad school self, who was unwilling to acknowledge that I might not already know everything, at least everything that I firmly believed I needed to know. Once I was finished, not only had I developed a greater understanding of the fundamentals of writing—and of my weaknesses, and how to improve upon them—I also had a piece of writing that I felt comfortable—eager even—to place in front of any revered author in my admired repertoire.

I started to read books on writing, the classic books on writing: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, The Artist’s Way and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Zen In the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury—among others. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. has become a pocket reference guide for me, once I read it—and then again—I now flip through it, and directly to pages in particular, so that I might teach myself how to bend and obscure the rules of writing rightly, and not just aesthetically. I would read a book on writing and follow it with a short novel: Tinkers by Paul Harding, Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Lemur by John Banville (under the pseudonym Benjamin Black), The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, and others, for example. I would be exploring—intellectually, creatively, artistically, scientifically, and practically—both what, and why I have always been compelled to write, and in the process, I would learn a great deal about myself, and what it is about writing that I am unable to resist.

How we understand writing is remarkably subjective, what I learned about writing, by reading what other writers had to say about writing, is to: write what you hate, write in the moment, write to write, write what you love, write for the fantasy, write to the point, write honestly, write to excavate, write what you fear, and then, of course, to write what you know. It quickly became obvious that we can’t even agree on what it means to “be a writer,” let alone a “good” writer. Is there a correlation between good writing and good storytelling? Does anyone pay attention to or care about sentence structure, grammar, or punctuation anymore if a story is good? Stephen King is a great storyteller and a not-so-great author/writer. David Foster Wallace is a phenomenal writer and a less than phenomenal storyteller, and each of them illustrates a different understanding of the written language, and just how fun writing can be if you take the time to understand the written word, and how to craft it.

People often mistake style for rules, sacrifice convention for narrative, and associate method with intelligence, but writing, just like everything else in life, is about the process; the most enjoyable part of writing for me is exploring a sentence until I have squeezed every last ounce of essence from it without sacrificing my intention in the obscurity of unbridled narrative. I am just as excited, and probably even more so, about how a single sentence comes together as I am about the completed work, and the more I refined my understanding of the elements of writing, the more I enjoyed the process.

A lot of people ask some variation of, “How do I become a [good] writer?” Mainstream publishing often suggests that the answer, unfortunately, is that once you have a story to tell, start writing and hope that your story intrigues a segment of the population enough to warrant publication, and then wait to get lucky. The best answer is that you do the work. You learn the rules, style, and discover your voice and develop the fundamentals of writing. If you’re a writer, you’re already perfectly aware that you’re a writer (even though you may sometimes doubt it), because you have to write, and, in which case, you’ll eventually realize that if you want to be taken seriously, you’ll explore your strengths and weaknesses, and develop them until you feel completely comfortable calling yourself a writer. We recognize our passion when the process—whatever process you might have (e.g., the writing process)—no longer feels tedious, and prosaic, a quick note on writing ideas. Don’t overcomplicate writing ideas, the problem is not with your lack of an idea, there is an idea in every object, every conversation, and even every sound, your problem is the angle at which you approach your ideas.

            One thing that every book on writing has in common is that each begs the requisite of self-exposure, of being fiercely expressive. In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg compares writing to therapy, and then quickly challenges her comparison. “Writing is deeper than therapy…” Goldberg says, “You write through your pain…you don’t discover that you write because of lack of love and then quit, as you might in therapy…seeing the reason, [and then] stop.” When writing, once you reveal something vulnerable or stirring about yourself, you’ve made your breakthrough, and you continue writing. As a writer, you are constantly exploring, challenging, developing, challenging, understanding, and again challenging what you think you know about yourself, your perspective, and the universe. Through writing, you are going to experience constant emotional, physical, and spiritual growth; at the center of your being, the place that feels as though it is always filling and demanding to erupt in your fulmination of lust and fear and power, that place is where we are writing from. You cannot be an arrogant piece of shit and be a great writer (a commercial success, perhaps, and maybe only twenty-five years ago, and more), emotional growth and evolution are in the job description for being an honest and successful writer, especially today.

Every writer—every professional, regardless of their profession—will reach a point in their career, when they acknowledge the need—and desire, really—to master the principles of their work (if they haven’t already). Learn the rules of writing! So that you can know how to manipulate, bend, obscure, and ignore the rules, rightly. I didn’t learn, practice, or develop my passion for writing in my youth. I sacrificed many great opportunities along with my confidence and continued to for decades. Becoming an expert on your passions is the second prerequisite for developing a successful career. The first is to explore who you are. Strip away everything you think you know about yourself. Acknowledge the voice that narrates your identity, and go further, don’t stop where uncertainty meets reason.

Sift through the self-image, and the politics, and the doctrine, and the routine, and everything that you think you know about yourself. Now let it all go. And when you’re alone, deep in your subconscious, where there is only the voice in the light (or the darkness, whatever the conditions of your subconscious maybe) you can begin to reconstruct yourself as you have always imagined yourself to be, and from the inside out. Only then will you know exactly who you are, you will recognize your passion and how to share it with the world. The last and most obvious prerequisite for developing your passions is persistence (never give up). This process will bring success, not the resulting opus. You love the work because you love the process.

            “And when he came back, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”[1]


[1] Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston, Massachusetts, Little, Brown and Company, 1996.

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