Thursday, October 11, 2012

Writing adages I've misinterpreted

Writing has been my thing for the last five years. I like it so much I got a degree, started going to conferences, started writing lots of stories and blogs, and started teaching other people to write. But I recently hit such a formidable block, I almost gave up on writing. That's what having a narrow point of view gets you. It makes a block look like a wall, when all a block actually is, is a step.

The obstacle forced a re-evaluation of most everything I've come to believe about my skills and goals. It forced me to deconstruct my personal writing doctrine, to rethink the popular writing adages I've made a part of my writerly belief system, to step back and take a long look at what I'd built. I do that--I gather neat rules together to give myself a nice firm place to stand, only to find out later that rules are sort of silly when it comes to creation.

1. Write at least a little every day. This is a common writing rule that misses the point. Let's say I bake a cake every day, but it always goes flat, tastes like poop, and gets hard before it's cool. Now let's say you bake a cake every day too, but it's a beautiful cheesecake with strawberries layered in the middle and blueberries prettily placed on top and fancy chocolate drizzle designs around the platter. I'm an awful cook and you're a one-trick pony. But we're similar. In both cases, we're stagnant. We've learned nothing from our mistakes or strengths and added nothing to our knowledge bases. Writing every day isn't getting us anywhere. But practicing every day will. Recognizing something doesn't work, figuring out why, and fixing it will. Reading exceptional literature will. Living life, meeting people, loving people, leaving people, seeing sandstorms, hearing rainfall, smelling turned earth, feeling a warm hand in yours for a brief moment you'll never get back--doing those things will.

2. Write what you know. I heard this early on and assumed it meant that to write well, I'd need to write about my own experiences and the places and people I knew. Firstly, it annoys people when you write about them, especially people who are still living. Secondly, there's tons of stuff I don't know, but that doesn't mean I can't learn it. There are infinite places that don't exist. Doesn't mean I can't imagine them into existence. There are countless feelings I've never felt. That doesn't mean I can't daydream my way into a situation, learn how others have felt in the same situation, and go on to write in such depths you'd think the story was my own. Did Lewis really ride a lion? Did Barrie actually fly to Neverland? Did Rowling ever catch the snitch? No. But did Lewis ever seek a savior? Did Barrie ever wish for escape? Did Rowling ever want to be the hero? Oh, yes. Haven't we all? Don't write what you know. Live, learn, imagine, and feel; make what you know; then write about that.

3. Write what you like to read. This has been the most harmful for me and the hardest to overcome. It leads to doubt, discouragement, and giving up. The fact is, I can't just write anything, at least not for long. I can try anything, sure. But I can't sustain what doesn't fit my talents or passions. Most writers have a niche or two. They're good at writing certain kinds of things, sometimes over a broad area. Rarely is someone good at everything. I've tried, for instance, to write critical articles on children's literature. Unfortunately, though I teach people to write critical essays, I simply suck at doing them myself. I'm not being modest. I'm not being lazy. I really and truly suck. I can correct and advise essays all day long. But writing critical articles for journals on the academic scale I'm talking about--it's just not happening. Any idea how long I've beaten myself up about this? Too long.

(It's possible you expected point 3 to be about trying to write just like someone, in their voice I mean. That's fan fiction and can be lots of fun (I assume). It can also be like when you're in the car with a friend or family member, and your favorite song comes on the radio, and that friend starts singing along, genuinely trying to sound exactly like the artist even though she doesn't have an Irish accent at all, and she ruins your song, and you find yourself thinking, I could easily drive off the road and end this.)

4. Good writers are naturally good storytellers. Not true. Simply not true. The ability to write well and the ability to tell a story well are not the same skills and aren't cultivated in the same way. I'd love to tell you what good storytelling is and how it's learned. Unfortunately I have no idea. Good writing, on the other hand, I can say a few things about. Good writing has no extraneous words, no extraneous points. Every word, every thought is on purpose. Good drama and poetry and prose accomplish what they set out to accomplish, whether it's describing the fall of a leaf or recounting the fall of man. One piece of good writing looks different from another. And good writing may be different to you than it is to me. (Note: Being a snob about popular fiction just makes you look like a jerk, even if that popular fiction is essentially poop cake. Some people love that kind of crap.) The point is, just because I can write a good sentence doesn't mean I can write a good story. But just because I can't write a good story doesn't mean I can't write a good something.


"If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway." Stephen King