Writing Lessons

Taking the Plunge

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By David Guterson

January 27, 2014


 

As a young person, I never thought of becoming a writer. Ralph Nader was my hero. I was going to take on the powers that be and clean their clocks.

I was on my way to becoming Nader Jr. when, on a whim, I took a “creative writing” course from Jack Brenner at the University of Washington in Seattle. Jack was easy-going. Before he was a professor, he’d pitched semi-pro. Eventually he became Bulgaria’s first baseball coach. He liked the horse track and, in class, spoke emotionally about fiction.

Jack hadn’t published much, which didn’t seem to bother him. For a week or so he doled out the basics as he saw them, and then he told us to write a short story. There were complaints about this daunting assignment. Someone pointed out that we weren’t fully prepared. Jack said that we would never be fully prepared and that we should just take the plunge.

I took the plunge. What I wrote was surely awful. No matter, said Jack. Plunge in again.

Since then I’ve taken this plunge hundreds of times, always without feeling ready for it, and always with excitement and dread. It takes courage—which is what Jack emphasized.

As a writer, you flail a lot when you’re not treading water. If you can accept both you have a chance to swim beautifully.

 

David Guterson is the author of ten books, including the novels Ed King, East of the Mountains, and Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995. He has also written a collection of poetry, Songs for a Summons, and a story collection, Problems with People.

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