“My dream is I want to write a memoir,” the student says. “It’s about my grandmother, and a trove of Sicilian meatball recipes that I found one summer vacation. And this trip we took together before she died back to Sicily to reclaim her roots.”
“I see,” says the teacher.
“Oh, and Nazis are also involved. And a twist ending. I think this could have a real audience.” The student smiles.
“Great. So have you ever written a book-length manuscript before?” the teacher asks.
“No, this would be my first.”
The teacher frowns. “OK. So what background do you have? Have you written shorter pieces? Have you got personal essays published? Any success getting your work in newspapers, magazines, literary magazines?”
“No. But I really want to write this book.”
“Aha… Well. I see see. So …” And the teacher fumbles over what to say next.
What’s the teacher’s problem? Shouldn’t the teacher say, “Go for it? Yeah!” Get out the pom-poms? Rah, rah, rah?
Perhaps some might. But to me, what this imaginary scenario demonstrates is a certain kind of naive ambition that drives some beginning writers. Don’t get me wrong. Blind desire can be a force for good. Writers gotta have dreams and goals. But that cord that connects chutzpah and failure is thinner than you think.
More to the point: A beginning painter learns about perspective and the human form and the still life. Then he gets to splash paint around the canvas and experiment. A beginning fiction writer learns about plot, character, and point of view through shorter pieces and exercises. She masters key techniques and makes sure her toolbox is full of goodies. Then she can embark on the novel.
Of course, anyone can embark on abstract painting or a Great American Novel without any training in the fundamentals. But their likelihood for success will be vastly diminished. Frustration will increase. Floundering may be the result.
In the case of my genre, nonfiction, I have worked with students who are determined to write books — memoirs, autobiographies, family histories, long works of narrative nonfiction. But they know little of scene, or summary, or dialogue, or figurative language, or how to create a sense of place, or how to make a narrative jump around in time.
My advice: Yes,be ambitious. Have goals. But understand you have to learn to walk before you can run. Master the basics. Get your ducks in a row. Get short pieces published, then move onto the bigger projects.
Be patient. Keep writing. Then start telling that meatball-making tale of your grandmother. Or whatever.