I was a pretty bad writer when I first decided to be one. Dumb plots, weak, inconsistent characters, stories too obvious or obscure. I got better with practice. I could see the change from one month to the next, one story to the next. I was evolving, just as species evolve, but Darwin knew that evolution required "deep time" (a whole lot of it) and I didn't have that much. I needed to speed things up. So I went back to school. I took a creative writing course, wrote even more, improved some, and then went back for my MFA. That helped considerably, but I still found it impossible to get my stories published in the best magazines, and my novels came back with sometimes nice comments, but rejections just the same. But I didn't give up. I wrote and wrote, and I got better with each passing year. I published a few stories in decent magazines, but I still wasn't where I wanted to be. Then, a couple of years ago, the college where I teach was generous enough to send me to a two-week writing symposium at Skidmore College. Suddenly, after workshops with Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill I felt inspired again. I wrote new stories, began to make big revisions to old novels, and worked with a new kind of zeal. I even made new writer friends who have been immensely helpful.
A year ago the college granted me a one semester sabbatical to write. All day, every day. Write. I was surprised at how different it was to write full time. I became so immersed in my stories and novels—living all day, every day with my characters—that I became a part of the world I created. I was happy when they were happy, and I suffered when they suffered, and when they suffered too much I rewrote the stories to save them. And me. Because I was with them. All day, every day.
Things began to happen in real life, too. A story was accepted, then I won the Black Warrior Review fiction contest, then another story was accepted, then I won the Glimmer Train fiction contest. Agents began to pay attention to my novels. It became clear that after all those years of writing I had crossed some threshold, that those incremental, evolutionary improvements over time were adding up. I was writing better. The dialogue was more realistic and revealing. The settings took on greater importance. The organization of scenes and chapters became more purposeful and logical. The voice became more consistent and compelling. With all that time, I became more willing to cut scenes, chapters, or characters, to add new ones, to shuffle and reshuffle until everything was as good as I could get it.
What have I learned? What advice might help other writers? Maybe it's back to time, knowing that it takes a lot of it to become a good writer. It takes a million words, thousands of hours, a hundred stories, dozens and dozens of submissions. It takes tenacity. It takes time. Evolution is undeniable, and things that don't improve become extinct. So work at it. And if you want to speed things up, devote all the time and attention you can. Hit that keyboard now!