Writer Chats, Part VIII: Training Wheels

The number of days I have spent with Joanna in person, you could count on two hands—but sometimes, like when she writes me an email full of wisdom or, like a few weeks ago, when she passes two hours like nothing (!!) with me on the phone, I think how this woman is one of the best friends I’ve ever been given. She is a breath of fresh air, a kind of big-time magazine editor, and, also, a gifted thinker and writer. We’re so happy to be sharing her helpful and inspiring thoughts, in part eight of our Writer Chats series.


With almost everything in me, I want to write a novel. I want to tell stories that reveal truth, that change hearts, that make readers feel something.

But yet, I haven’t ever finished a single story. I have a dozen or more beginnings in a folder on my laptop, and a running list of at least a dozen more ideas on my phone. But no middles and no ends.

I don’t write because I fear failure (that cancer to so many dreams).

I fear trying to write something big and not being able to finish it. I’m scared of casting obvious, one-dimensional characters. I’m doubtful I could drum up a compelling plot. I’m afraid of writing crap.

Last night, I opened a New Email box addressed to both my parents. The day before, I finally finished reading the first volume of C. S. Lewis’ letters and I couldn’t wait to share some choice quotes with them. (My parents are probably two of the only people on the planet who would enjoy this type of email.)

As I retyped the quotes, gleaned from 1,000 pages of letters, I noticed a few things about how Lewis wrote. He made liberal use of parentheses. He took time to set up a joke and had confidence in his punch line. Most of the time, he didn’t say something in the fanciest way, he just said it.

About 30 minutes later, I hit Send and went to bed.

This morning, I was still thinking about typing in those quotes. I remembered my mom having us copy classic writings (think: The Declaration of Independence, or excerpts from Hawthorne) to practice handwriting when we were kids. Why did I stop doing that? Think of what I could absorb about word choice, grammar, style, and rhythm by taking the time to copy out what someone else—someone better than me—wrote. Like last night: Use fewer commas, Joanna.

Now I can’t shake the idea. Typing out passages I admire is like training wheels. At first, I’m only riding on the strength of the authors’ push, but soon, maybe without me realizing it, I’ll leave their push behind and pedal on my own.

And I need to do it now. The sooner I ignore my fears and start trying to write, the sooner I figure out if I’m failing or not. And once I fail, I can figure out why and fix it.

But first, I’ll borrow another writer’s confidence by writing out what they’ve already written. Then I’ll pedal hard.

Editor’s Note: Man, we love Joanna. So thankful to share her thoughts here! For the rest of you, we are still accepting submissions for this series. You don’t need to be a blogger to contribute; you just need to have something to say about what it means to write or what the writing process looks like for you. Email us at WritingSeries [at] FoodLovesWriting [dot] com.

16 Comment

  1. Oh I just love this. Sometimes I feel like after being out of school for so long, I’ve completely forgotten everything I once knew about writing and grammar and just learning from the greats. I like your idea of trying out passages of writers you admire– feels like a way to learn something new again (or re-learn something you’ve now forgotten).

    1. I totally agree!

  2. Love this series!! I am new to your blog and love it so much! The fear of the writer (or any creator) is so ironic: The harder we dream of making people feel and revealing truths, the harder it is to write words from our hearts without anything getting lost in translation. I love what Joanna says about borrowing confidence from another writer. I think the most important thing is to do what we love as we breathe–deeply, and for life! 🙂

    1. You’re right, Anna. It’s a fine line between writing something meaningful and writing something *we think other people think* to be meaningful. I’ll probably wrestle with that for a long time. Thanks for your comment!

  3. well this is a revelation for me. my grandmother used to have me copy text from really old textbooks from the 50s & 60s that she picked up somewhere, probably the church she went to to learn english, to practice my handwriting. the authors weren’t the classics like hawthorne or wordsworth or keats, but now that i think about it, i learned so much more than cursive, like: sentence structure, spelling, ideas and vocabulary. i still remember random quotes and to this day, i keep a running list of quotes that i like.

    anyway, very much enjoying this series.

    1. So interesting!

  4. I love this (and the Writers Chat series!). I used to keep a Draft email of quotes I loved that I’d find in books or music or just around the internet. It was a huge inspiration re-reading those, so I don’t know why I stopped doing it. Reading this has made me want to keep at it but maybe paint or collage the quotes to let them really sit in. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. I know just what you mean, Kelly. I used to keep a journal where I copied down quotes that resonated with me, and I’ve fallen out of the habit, too.

  5. Such wise words and something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I used to sometimes fear that if I read too much, if I analysed what other people wrote and why it moved me, I’d end up writing something derivative. I realised know how wrong I was – I love the idea of training wheels, so good.

    1. Kathryn, Your post today made me think of exactly this idea!

  6. I can’t tell you how inspiring these Writer Chat posts have been to me–giving me the confidence to just start writing–nothing has to be great, but I do have to do it. I love Joanna’s metaphor of training wheels “Typing out passages I admire is like training wheels. At first, I’m only riding on the strength of the authors’ push, but soon, maybe without me realizing it, I’ll leave their push behind and pedal on my own.”–so much wisdom here!

    1. This makes me happy. Thanks, Lindsey!

  7. Hi joanna! nice to meet you! Loved the part where you said it was an email only your parents would appreciate. I get that. Sometimes I read a book and fall in love with the sentence structure or the way it makes me heart skip a beat, and I think of one of my best friends and how much she would enjoy it. It’s lovely to know others appreciate the same things we do. And, thanks for the encouragement about training wheels! I definitely need to practice – and typing out passages I admire will definitely help me write better!

    cheers from Buenos Aires

    1. : ) I loved that line, too!

  8. Joanna says: Reply

    Thank you, everyone! I’m so encouraged and inspired by your thoughts and ideas. I keep a word doc of quotes about writing, about faith, about movie lines, about stupid things, too, but I haven’t gone back to it in a while. I better.

    Thanks, Shanna, for hosting us in this space. 🙂

  9. […] tours around the countryside (so British!). And for this quote. And for countless quiet lessons on how to write. Basically I adore everything he writes and I don’t care who knows […]

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