- Books, Literature, and Writing
Writing in the real world- Where training must bow to experience
For some reason, writing is still taught as some sort of mystic art. The most basic teaching includes technicalities and anachronisms which if quaint have nothing much to do with practical writing. No mention is made of the sheer physical and mental stamina required to be a book author, while whole books are written on storyline problems and syntax. The challenges and joys of creative writing are virtually ignored, but you can read thousands of thundering denunciations of passive voice.
The theory of training writers seems to be that writers presumably want to be writers, so all they need to know are the technicalities. These technicalities are virtually irrelevant to actual writing, particularly innovative writing. Most of the great writers in English would have failed dismally in the technical areas. They weren’t trained in the nitpicking which goes with modern literature. Shakespeare wasn’t famous for his minutiae. Dickens didn’t use the weak expressions and feeble bridging sentences which cram every line of “correct” modern writing.
I have to laugh when I see ads for writers demanding “tertiary qualifications”. Formal education will give you exposure to useful information about writing. You will learn something. The question is whether what you learn will help you write actual materials when it’s you doing the writing, particularly for a living. Learning how to write can only go so far.
My major gripe against the far-too-pristine sanctity of theoretical writing training is that it obviously doesn’t tell people a damn thing about the realities of writing. It doesn’t tell you what it feels like to do 3800 words of commercial copy in four hours. (Like sprinting up a vertical cliff.) It doesn’t tell you how to manage an exciting new story line which runs like a wild horse or how to add that extra word or so which turns an innocent-looking line into a jagged edge for the readers.
The excuse for this almost total lack of information is that the writer’s talent will naturally provide these fires of inspiration. Rubbish. Writing is a skill which has to evolve for some time before the mental sparks even start to ignite a few sentences. Talent, when applied to any sort of writing is a very fluid thing- It can flow (some might say “ooze”) in different directions. It can get lost in a single sentence or paragraph and spend hours trying to find the way out.
A new writer’s talent also usually lacks the ruthlessness required to manage these situations. Theory doesn’t cover the sheer “fire and slaughter” element in writing. Instead of a vicious but efficient deletion of utter drivel, the new writer may dote on an expression or turn of phrase. This festering collection of useless words will sit there being admired and the new writer won’t even begin to suspect that the entire thing has to go and is actually creating problems. Instead of enforcing a demand upon oneself for results, the blue sky intrudes like some sort of drug.
This is the most basic element of real writing. Writers have to learn self-criticism and the values of expression, and they really aren’t taught that. It’s easy to see a phrase in any kind of new writer’s writing which sits there like a flower arrangement. This literary ornamentation, sadly, is also often mistaken for the actual talent. The theory of mysticism in writing includes reverence for the most appallingly off key passages, regardless of their out of character appearance. Imagine wearing a business suit and a floral hat. Unless you're being sarcastic, it's an own goal.
New writers please note- This ephemeral excrescence serves no purpose but décor, and that’s the problem. It may be the highlight of some of the more turgid types of article or an uncharacteristic sign of life in technical or commercial writing. The article about drainage may suddenly include a poetic description of the wonderful environment. A joke may find its way into an otherwise barren text. The nagging fictional storyline about verbose, non-existent rich people being stupid may randomly include a description of a fabulous, enchanting place. Then it’s back to the dreary but correct in theory pick and shovel work of writing the story, pointless as it may be.
Yes, of course all this is leading up to a typical writer’s perspective backhand-
If you can write good stuff, why in the name of God are you writing pedantic tripe that just waddles along doing nothing much for reader or writer?
Talking about storylines in the context of not boring writer or reader to death- Which is the more valuable material? The material that inspires reader interest, or the mechanical and apparently sometimes mindless writing of a “they went and did something” storyline? You could be forgiven for thinking that writing is based on a payload factor of about 10%, with the rest as narrative and painstakingly pedantic descriptions. It's ludicrous. New writers have to learn this themselves.
Much the same applies to character writing. A good character is worth a thousand pictures. That person has an implied meaning. Readers may actually visualize a strong character without a description. The mention of the character’s name has a significance. The unforgettable characters are also usually the most vividly remembered and most importantly the best understood. (After note- Talking about expression... "unforgettable.... vividly remembered....My God! My sole excuse for that excursion into syntax suicide is for emphasis, but this is an example of writing without reading, too, so it's still in the text.) Without the strong characters in literature, you’d completely miss the broader context and meanings, which often go far beyond the literal text meanings and into daily expressions. Can you be taught to write a classic character? I doubt it.
Talent is a reliable vehicle; it’s steering that’s difficult. Even the most talented writers have to learn what works and hopefully what doesn’t for themselves. New writers can trip over more than trivial contradictions in storylines and syntax. Even understanding your own writing can be a challenge. A new writer can actually miss their own points and fail to develop them just as easily as the brave but equally lost reader who thought they saw something but it disappeared as the text scurried off elsewhere.
The best teachers don’t confine talent. They allow exploration and discovery. The worst bury it under tonnages of procedures that can actually remove all freedom of action when writing. Those given space become good writers largely because they’re able to write freely. Those given nothing but a rulebook may die of despair when confronted with a world which doesn’t care about rules and just wants something good and interesting to read.
To survive the writing experience, talent needs to breathe fresh air and a lot of it. Writing can be like flying a very high performance fighter. The mind races, the text seems to explode on its subjects. You can see a lot all at the same time. You’re fully aware of your written environment, and eating up the distance finding new things. This can go on for decades, when you’re writing well.
Important note- When you’re writing badly, every sentence is a grinding ordeal. If you’ve been taught to make your writing an ordeal of horrific slow moving suffering and obsessive pedantry, you’ve been taught very badly. You can’t be productive, and your flow can be blocked at virtually every word. Throw away the rules and write the stuff you like. You’ll heal naturally.
There’s an irony in learning to write, too. Your writing will show you opportunities and absurdities. It will show you false logic and inspired leaps of logic. When you’re writing for a living is when you really become a reader. Remember that, and you’ll do well. Most importantly, you'll love your writing, which is the optimum mental state where your talent will be able to operate at full power.