Finding a Writing Guru
Learning from a Master is a very Asian way of education. A lot of story time is spent on the student learning valuable lessons, even when they don’t realize they are learning (think “wax-on, wax-off” in Karate Kid). This is not how most people learn to write, however.
Despite this, many writers yearn to find that master writer, that wise guru, that knowledgeable mentor, that unfaltering guide, who will lead them through the mysteries of creation and the lofty heights of authorship.
If you are searching for such a person, good luck.
There are several paths to writing proficiency. People enroll in academic programs, they join writing groups, or they hire writing coaches and editors. Sometimes they select the wrong method of learning for them and sometimes they have absolutely no idea who is teaching them.
I have a degree in Creative Writing, and I started an MFA program in novel writing at USC (why I changed from the MFA to an MBA is another story). I’ve had a lot of experience in academic efforts to teach writing. I learned a lot in these programs about the technical and academic aspects of writing. But I didn’t learn to write.
I was lucky enough to have some very qualified instructors. One taught a young Truman Capote. Another was a well-known screenwriter who was a friend of Ernest Hemingway. Others were well-known novelists, poets, or short story writers. But the truth is that the majority of my instructors, while usually good teachers, were not successful writers. I had one instructor who had never published any fiction or non-fiction, despite 15 years of trying (I dropped his class).
Several classes were workshops where students submit their work for a group critique. Frankly, most of the time this was an exercise in the blind leading the blind. Although occasional insights were voiced, most of the people in the group weren’t gifted with helpful criticism. Unfortunately, too often, the students built up resentments and grudges over the criticism they received. Then the writing comments became about personal conflict, not a sincere effort to help improvement.
If you are seeking a guru, you must seek out a guru that enjoys teaching and developing writers. I once mentored a group of minority high-school writers via the Internet. I thought several showed promise but at the end of my class I didn’t sign up for more. Quite selfishly, I wanted to devote my time and efforts to improving my work, not someone else’s. I hope I gave good guidance to the students, but a good teacher should love teaching.
Also, I have a fear that my work can be influenced by others (either through good writing or bad), This is why I only read fiction when I’m not working on a novel. I read plenty of non-fiction at all times, but fiction is a special treat.
Ideally, a guru has faith in your talent and is interested in helping you achieve your best. I know of a writing coach who has a client who is rich yet hopeless in her ability to improve her writing. The coach has told the client she isn’t improving, but the money is too good to stop. People do what they must to make a living, but I’d have encouraged this student to find a new teacher (hopefully one more skilled at helping her improve) long ago.
So, although finding a guru is a time-honored Asian way to learn, I said it is not the way most people learn to write. Let me tell a story about that.
Several years ago, two young men sought out a famous guru to get advice. There was a long line of people who wanted to talk to the sage, and the two men got talking to each other. They discovered that they both had a similar problem. Both men had entry-level jobs at big companies. They were bored with their work and felt they were not being treated with the proper respect. They were just starting their careers and they already felt trapped; caught on the corporate treadmill and going nowhere. With this exchange of information, the men decided they would present their shared problem to the guru together. It seemed like a waste of time to present the same problem twice.
When they got to the front of the line, they explained this to the guru, who seemed grateful that the men were trying to shorten the time he would have to give advice. The men explained their situation, their frustration, and their dissatisfaction, and the guru closed his eyes and remained deep in thought for several minutes. The men fidgeted with anticipation, and both felt they were very lucky the guru was thinking about their situation deeply.
Finally, the guru opened his eyes and said, “One bowl of rice.”
The men were surprised and puzzled. They asked the guru to repeat his advice. “One bowl of rice,” the guru repeated.
The two men thanked the guru and stopped to discuss the advice before going home.
“Did you understand that?” one man said.
“Not really, but I think it means we are working just to keep food on the table. One bowl of rice. That is all we are getting from the job.”
The other man agreed, and both left for home.
The next morning, one of the men walked into his boss and resigned. Thinking about the guru’s statement, the man realized he was only working for money and not receiving anything else from his work; no satisfaction, enthusiasm, or personal growth. He was selling his life for one bowl of rice.
The man now had to map out a new future for himself. He had always been interested in nature and growing things, but he realized he didn’t have the money or skill to start a commercial farm. He had a brainstorm and went to fancy restaurants and hotels to talk to the chefs. He asked them if there was any herb, vegetable, or fruit that they wanted to use in a dish but that they couldn’t get from the normal wholesale sellers. He soon accumulated a long list of things that the chefs desired.
He moved out of his apartment in the city and he was able to rent a modest house in the country. The house had a large backyard, and this became his “farm.” Using the internet, he found seeds for many of the things on his chef’s list. He researched each plant and carefully bought only those plants that would grow in his climate. He soon had his garden planted and cultivated his plants, some in a small hothouse made out of plastic sheeting and wood.
Soon he had his first crop to sell. Since his products were exotic and not attainable elsewhere, he could charge a high price to the fancy restaurants and hotels that would use them to create unique dishes to tempt their rich clientele. He not only sold his rare produce, but he also got even more suggestions from chefs who wanted to create ethnic and special dishes with unique ingredients.
He worked like this for a couple of years, living a modest life and saving his money. When he was able to put a down payment on his first real farm, his sense of accomplishment and satisfaction soared.
The man built his business up over the years, using overnight delivery and internet orders to expand to other cities that had the high-end restaurants and hotels he specialized in. He soon bought a second farm. Then a third. And he also built a cadre of employees who shared his passion and love for growing things. He found a woman as interested as him in exotic plants and was soon married.
Many years later the man was on a business trip, staying at one of the fancy hotels he supplied produce to. As he walked through the lobby, to his surprise he saw the other man who had visited the guru so many years ago. The two men were happy to see each other. They looked prosperous and content, and they sat down to catch up.
The farmer told his story, remembering the guru’s words that prompted him to quit and find his path in life. When he finished his story, he noticed that the other man had a look of surprise and disbelief.
“What’s wrong?” the farmer asked.
“I took the guru’s words completely differently,” the other man said.
The second man explained that he understood that he was only getting “one bowl of rice” from his job, so it wouldn’t be a tragedy if he lost it. This gave the man an entirely new attitude about work.
Since the job wasn’t all that important, the man spoke up in meetings, suggesting changes and improvements to what they were doing. If he noticed something interesting that needed to be done in the company, he volunteered to do it. He welcomed the novelty of the new project and learned a lot of new things. Since he wasn’t deeply invested in his job, he didn’t react to perceived slights personally. Instead, he treated others with respect but demanded the same from others.
As time passed, the man got frequent promotions. He realized he was getting a lot more than “one bowl of rice” from the corporation, but he worked hard to keep a “one bowl of rice” attitude no matter what job he had. After some time, he found himself running the entire corporation.
“How can we have different lives based on the same advice?” the farmer asked.
The two men discussed the situation but couldn’t come up with an answer about what “one bowl of rice” really meant. They knew the guru was still traveling the country, so they decided they would meet him again and ask him the true meaning of the advice he gave years ago.
The next week the two men were in line to talk to the guru. When their turn came up, the two men introduced themselves and reminded the guru of their first encounter. Then they told the guru of the diverse paths they took based on the same advice. They asked the guru to explain what he meant by his “one bowl of rice” advice.
The guru closed his eyes and thought. Then he opened his eyes and said, “It meant that to live you must follow your own path.”
This was no guru-ish mysticism, but simple and sound advice for life. And also for learning how to write. You follow your path.
For me, it’s embracing the Zen idea that whatever spark of talent you have is already inside you, so you must work to develop it. This means writing. Lots of writing. Tons of writing. You can seek comments from others, but the comments don’t help you improve. It’s more writing that will help you improve.
So, although it may be difficult, you should stand in front of a mirror and accept that the writing guru you crave is looking back at you.