The Cliff and the Staircase: A Writing Journey (Or a sum of every bit of writing advice I know how to give.)

I used to see the prospect of being a “real writer” as a giant cliff, looming before me. Somehow I hoped to get to the top of that cliff, and look down over the not-as-lucky populace, and know that I, Emily Sara Smucker, was a real author.

How would I get there? I wasn’t sure. Those who stood on the cliff always seemed to dole out dubious advice on how to follow in their footsteps. “Read more and write more,” they always said, as though that alone would allow us to sprout wings and join them on the elevated plane where they resided.

I didn’t buy it.

I viewed myself as already on a higher plane than my peers when it came to writing. An in-between cliff of potential writers. After all, strangers were reading my blog, and my writing teachers praised my work. How had I gotten to this point? By reading more and writing more? No. It had just happened to me, like magic.

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I figured when it was time for me to reach the cliff of real writers, it would happen in much the same way. Magically. Boom. And I would live up there and publish books and drink sun tea for the rest of my days.

Everything worked out exactly as I’d imagined it. When I was 17 I sent my writing samples to a woman who was looking for teenage memoirists, and was chosen to write and publish a book. A real book, published by a real publisher. I had made it. I was on top of the cliff.

Now what?

Something happened which I had never anticipated. Now that I had this new identity, now that I was a “real writer,” I had to live up it. I had to write real things. Silly blog posts weren’t going to cut it anymore. The prospect of falling from that cliff, of letting this little memoir be the peak of my writing career, terrified me. Especially because, when I started researching other young authors, this seemed to be a trend.

I discovered The Outsiders during that obscure in-between time of life when my book was written but not yet published, and I was just beginning to grapple with the identity issues that came along with the process. I was living in Colorado at the time, and I used to ride my blue scooter up Main Street and visit the cute little shops that constantly popped up and disappeared overnight. My favorite was a used bookstore that was so crammed full of books that they were stacked up in walls and barriers, and I could slip into a corner where no one would see me and read for hours.

It was there that I discovered, and subsequently bought, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I sat on my porch reading it for hours, engrossed in the story.

I became even more fascinated when I googled the author. It turns out that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was still in high school. A teenage author, just like me. How did she handle reaching “real author” status at such a young age?

Not too, well, it turns out. S.E. Hinton’s early success led to a huge case of writer’s block that lasted three years. It only ended when her boyfriend, tired of her depression, “made her write two pages a day if she wanted to go anywhere.” That seemed to help her, but she never became a terribly prolific writer. Today she is 66 and has only written about seven books, of which The Outsiders is still the most popular.

“When are you going to publish another book?”

One small success, and everyone seemed to want more from me than they’d ever wanted before. I was on the cliff, right? I ought to be writing more books, because that’s what real writers do, right?

I started to realize what nobody else seemed to notice; being on the giant cliff of published writers got me nowhere. It didn’t make novels magically flow from my pen. I still was the same Emily, with roughly the same level of talent as before. I could have easily written another book in the vein of my first book, but the books I really wanted to write were just as far out of reach as they’d always been.

I still wrote prolifically. I wrote a novel, but it wasn’t good enough. I blogged. When I started college I had less time to write, but I took classes exploring journalism and short story writing. And still, people wanted to know, “when are you going to publish again?”

Novel beginnings popped up with great excitement and then disappeared quietly overnight, the way the cute little shops on Main Street used to. My dreams of sprouting wings and nimbly flying up to another level of talent began to seem more and more far-fetched. I didn’t know what to tell people. I didn’t know how long it would take.

Even more depressing than the story of S.E. Hinton was the story of Zoe Trope. I found Trope’s memoir, titled Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, in a thrift store several years ago. I didn’t purchase it. I perused it a bit in the store and wasn’t impressed. However, I was quite interested in the author, who, like me, published a memoir while still a teenager.

At first I was somewhat jealous. Trope, it turns out, is from Portland, Oregon, and apparently received a six-figure book deal when she was fourteen. Her book was much more popular and widely read than mine.

Although I was able to dig up extensive coverage about Trope from 2004, when the book came out, I couldn’t find much about where she’s at today. That’s what I really wanted to know. Has she published more books? Does she still own a residence upon the cliff of real authors?

No, it turns out. She is a librarian at a community college.

Maybe she’s perfectly happy being a librarian. Maybe she never even wanted to publish another book. I have no idea. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a real writer, not a one-hit-wonder(ish).

I just had to accept the reality that publishing my memoir had not been a magic gateway into anywhere. If I wanted to write a novel, it was going to take a span of time. I had to be okay with that.

Reading about Veronica Roth derailed me a bit, though.

Veronica Roth wrote a New York Times bestselling dystopian novel called Divergent. I bought it for my brother for Christmas, and of course, read it first (that’s why books make the best presents). I thought it was interesting enough, though not particularly remarkable.

Then I read the author bio and my jaw dropped. Veronica Roth was only 22 when she wrote Divergent. 22! Being 23 at the time, I was jealous. How did she magically have the talent to do this, when I couldn’t even write a novel without plot holes?

Divergent turned into a three-book series, sold extremely well, and got made into a movie. However, when the third and final book was published, something happened that completely altered my beliefs about the magical cliff where real writers live.

It started when I noticed that Allegiant, the conclusion to the series, had a very low rating on Amazon compared to the first two books. 20% of Amazon reviewers had given it 1 star, as opposed to 1% and 2% for the first two books. Curious, I began reading the most helpful negative reviews, and what I read surprised me.

According to the reviewers, Roth set up the interesting world and wrote the first book without really knowing where the story was going. In order to wrap things up, Roth wrote gaping plot holes, had her characters act in odd out-of-character ways, and “explained” the dystopian world with strange reasoning that scientifically made no sense. The book was written from the point of view of two different people, but their voices were so similar that reviewer after reviewer reported getting constantly confused and having to flip to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking.

The reviews completely de-bunked my notions of who Veronica Roth was. I was jealous that she had this magical writing ability that I couldn’t seem to grasp, but that wasn’t a complete picture. Yes, she had the talent to begin a fantastic New York Times bestselling series, but she still didn’t have the talent to finish it well.

What would have happened if she had waited? What if she had taken her time world-building, and working out the kinks, so that when she published she could present a satisfactory story with a workable ending?

It’s okay to wait, I realized. It’s profitable to wait. And it’s entirely plausible to be a young writer with the talent to write one thing, but not another thing.

That’s when I decided that being a real writer is not a cliff, it’s a staircase.

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Publishing was a wonderful opportunity, but it didn’t make me a better writer in any way. I still had to become a better writer, one step at a time.

It was somewhat saddening to realize that inborn writing talent would never give me wings to magically fly to a new level of talent. Being born with talent was like being born with strong calves. As a teen I was able to climb up the stairs faster than my peers, but I still had to climb them. Every writer has to climb them.

Even L. M. Montgomery had to climb the staircase.

My mom used to read A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery, and just marvel at the sheer talent displayed in the book. “It just doesn’t seem possible that I could ever write like that,” she used to lament to me.

I was re-reading Anne of Green Gables one day when it struck me that Anne of Green Gables, despite its charm and worldwide fame, is not nearly as well-written as A Tangled Web.

Anne of Green Gables is almost more a collection of short stories than it is a fleshed-out novel with a perfect rising action and climax and all that. Yes, there is an overarching story in which Anne moves to Green Gables, and Matthew and Marilla learn to love her dearly. However, the novel is made up of many small stories. The story of Anne dyeing her hair green. The story of Anne sinking her boat in Barrys’ pond and being rescued by Gilbert. The story of Anne and Diana jumping on Aunt Josephine in the spare room bed.

L.M. Montgomery didn’t roll out of bed one day suddenly able to craft the intricate masterpiece that was A Tangled Web. She began much, much smaller, publishing short stories and poems in magazines. Eventually, when she was about 34, she published Anne of Green Gables, her first novel.

As far as I can gather, L.M. Montgomery used this “collection of short stories” approach for most of her novels, and didn’t write a fleshed-out novel with a beginning-to-end plot until she was 52 and wrote The Blue Castle. A Tangled Web, which stylistically was her masterpiece, was written when she was 57.

She had to climb the staircase too.

 I don’t know if you want writing advice from me. But if you do, this is what I’ll say: kill the myth of the cliff.

You can’t accomplish anything by looking at the far-off things that seem impossible to achieve. Get your eyes off the cliff, and focus on the staircase.

What can you do right now?

Can you write a mediocre blog post? Write a mediocre blog post. Then try to write a better blog post. After that, try your hand a writing a good blog post.

Can you compose a good story in your head? Write it down. If it is horrible, who cares? No one has to see it, and you can move on to the next step of the staircase.

Remember this, though: You don’t have to be very high on the staircase in order to bless people with your writing. When L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, it didn’t matter that she didn’t yet have the talent to write A Tangled Web. People loved that book. Whatever you can write, right now, be it an article or a blog post or a letter to your grandmother, it can be a blessing to someone’s life.

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13 responses to “The Cliff and the Staircase: A Writing Journey (Or a sum of every bit of writing advice I know how to give.)

  1. I have no idea where on the staircase you may be, but I always enjoy your writing. 🙂 I think sometimes the seemingly “big” authors have agents and expectations and deadlines, etc., that create writer’s block. Then they have to throw something together to meet the deadline, and it just doesn’t work well.

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  2. I probably couldn’t fill a blog with writing advice. I do think there is something to be said for discipline and writing every day. However, I do also believe that some people have a gifting and others do not. But again, even a great athlete will benefit from constant exercise and training. A mediocre athlete may actually surpass those who are more naturally talented if they are disciplined. Still, each can have a different path, some of us will be at one level and not all will continue up the ladder. Artists come in many shapes and sizes.

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    • Emily Sara Smucker

      I agree that some people have a gifting and others don’t as much, but what I had to realize is there was nothing magical in that. As I said earlier, having a gifting is like having strong calves–it makes climbing the staircase easier, but you still have to climb the staircase.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the encouragement! Your illustrations work very well, and your personal story addresses well the myth of talent working alone.

    This is a very small thing. I haven’t done as much research as you on Montgomery’s life, but I’ve always thought Jane of Lantern Hill was her last book (and definitely one of my favorite). Do you know anything about it?

    I also thought you might be interested to know that her journals are published. Not many copies are in print, but it is findable. 🙂 They’re a fascinating and often terrible read.

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    • Emily Sara Smucker

      It is her last book, but I didn’t mention that in the blog post because I’ve never read it! I think my mom owns every L.M. Montgomery book in existence EXCEPT that one. Maybe I’ll get it for her for Christmas and read it first. 🙂

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  4. Caritabk, Jane of Lantern Hill is one of my favorite Montgomery books as well, and I’m pretty sure you’re right that it was her last one. Interestingly, though, she said for years that she considered Emily of New Moon to be her “best” book – and The Story Girl was her favorite.

    If you’re looking for the journals, they’re easier to find in Canada than they are on this side of the border. You *can* find any LMM book you’re looking for on Prince Edward Island, including collected letters, a book of her poetry and a book of her favorite recipes. If that’s too far away, though, which it is for most of us, chapters.indigo.ca or amazon.ca still carry many of them, including all the journals. Which are interesting but sad.

    Sorry for the threadjack!

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    • I loved the beginning of the “Emily of New Moon” series, but I despise the end! It’s like she gave up–said time passed, without specifying how much– and then boom! the story is over. It was an emotional let down.

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  5. This is encouraging advice Emily and I think it applies to almost every area of our lives- not just writing. One step at a time is the best (and only way) to go. =)

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  6. Emily of New Moon and Rilla of Ingleside would have to be my favorites. I loved the beginning and hated the end of the Emily series too. =(

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  7. Pingback: 10 Blogs Worth Following (and why you should) - Asher Witmer

  8. I loved this post. I would not say I am a writer, although when I was around 18-22 I would have wanted to be, and wrote out those first little scribbles, but alas my mother found them and ridiculed them that they were senseless and just fluff. A year ago at 32 , God and my husband and some circumstances laid on my heart a book for wives. One of these days I need to stop saying I am not a writer. When I opened my book to start writing, there were no words that flowed. And so through much prayer, God has given me words. And a year later, words come easier, and when I reread what I have written a year ago to now there is a difference. I believe it is because of what comes with practice. And now to figure out a publisher… seems almost overwhelming. But your post was an encouragement to me. And I so agree that when blogger start getting bigger audiences… their blogs change like they have to be someone smart… and I don’t like it. I have unfollowed many blogs over the yrs that did that.
    +found you through Asher Witmer’s blog+

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