Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tasteless Writing

Despite the title, this isn’t a post about tacky writers. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about Kelly’s post about the intuitiveness of writing. I think he’s hit on something that is really key to a person’s success or failure as a writer.

No one teaches us how to write.

Doctors and lawyers and nearly every other profession you can think of have regimented, structured ways to teach a person how to do their job – usually involving many years of school and thousands of dollars in tuition. Writers (as well as other artists) don’t have that. Okay, technically Mrs. Knutson taught me English grammar and how to diagram sentences and that kind of basic structure of “writing.” But the way most of us learn to tell stories is by listening to them. We learn to write by reading. The more you read, the better you write.

Reading is how a writer develops their “ear” or, for Kelly, their “sense of taste” for how words make a mood or a plot or a character. Kelly (and all of us) has developed an intuitive sense of storytelling based on the cumulative experience he’s gathered in a lifetime of reading (and writing.)

However, just as I wouldn’t expect Mason to pick out the individual instruments that make up an orchestra the first time he hears a symphony, I wouldn’t expect the beginning writer to intuitively grasp the complex art of storytelling – an art form, I dare say, I happily continue to struggle to comprehend every day.

Because much of writing is counter-intuitive, I think. Like the epiphany I had the other day about endings. You’d assume that when a story is finished, it’s over. However, I think I make a pretty good case that that’s not always true. I also strongly remember the day that I realized that lingering on an important event or moment in a story doesn’t slow the pace, it actually increases it. Two pages of description of a pivotal scene can be riveting stuff (and if not done properly, readers say they “missed the clue.”). On the other hand, it’s when I spent “time” (words on page) on details that weren’t important that I made the pacing drag.

Are these things intuitive? Well, maybe. Perhaps they are if you’ve been enough of a voracious reader in the past that sort of thing soaked in at an early age. Admittedly, in my misspent youth, I didn’t read nearly enough actual books (comic books, yes; books, not so much.) For me, at least, the craft of writing is still an act of discovery.

I think this phenomenon is also why there are so many writers (including myself) hungry for “advice on writing.” So many of us haven’t ever had to articulate how it is that we do what we do that words fail us (us!) when we are asked how we accomplished a particular writing trick. It’s like asking a reader who’s never leared to critique to tell you why a particular book is good. “Uhm, because it just... was.” Their answer is right, of course. Not very helpful, but right.


Anonymous said...

I want to both agree and disagree, Lyda. I think writers gain skill from reading, sure, but most importantly, they do it from writing. Practice, over and over, that reveals issues and creates opportunities to exapnd those skills, correct problems, etc.

I think learning to write is very much like learning to walk; both are experiential in nature, and when you fall down, you get up again and keep going. You develop a sense of balance and learn how to use it, how to interpret the information that it's giving you, untik you stand upright with only minimal effort. I think there is a lot of "taste" or "feel" to what we sense--though I'm sure there are writers who intellectualize every analysis of their text.

Writing is counter-intuitive in some ways, as you note, and that's why I think that it isn't so much from reading that we gather our skills, but from writing, and writing again.

Douglas Hulick said...

I'll take it one step further than Sean and say that feedback (be it writer's groups, readers, editors, etc.) also play a vital - sometimes pivotal - role in growing as a writer. It's easy to fall in love with our words at times. Like a parent with their first child, that story can be brilliant, smart, talented and wonderful to us. I mean, it's obvious, right? Who could not love this flawless child of our mind?

Well, um, lots of people, it turns out.

Getting that outside perspective, having someone tell you, "This doesn't make sense", "Why would he do that?" and "It just doesn't feel right" is crucial. It forces us to step away from what we are seeing in our own head and perceive the story from another vantage point. Honest feedback exposes the flaws, warts and uneven eyebrows on our creation. Some of those flaws end up adding character and flavor, but some are just that - flaws. And it is through seeing and fixing those flaws that we grow and expand our skill, too.

So while reading and writing are important, I would also add that "being read" is an important part of the equation as well.

Kelly Swails said...

I agree with all three of you. Doug especially made a good point about "being read." I have to say here that, just like not every one can be a lawyer or a doctor or a pro ball player, not every one can be a writer. Some people just plain cannot tell a story. Period. Those of us that can can always improve their craft, of course, but it's important to remember there are some folks out there that can practice all they want and they won't. Get. Better. And those people aren't writers.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I'm impressed at how much I learn from rereading. Now that I have a fair chunk of writing under my belt, it's educational to return to my favorite books and see how the trick was done. It's also humbling to see how much is still opaque to me.

lydamorehouse said...

I should note, too, that this question haunted me long before I read Kelly's post about "taste." As someone who regularly teaches writing (and who generally believes that even the worst writer CAN improve with good teaching -- keeping in mind that a lot of that attitude comes from the fact tha I'm a PK, a Professor's Kid) -- I've often struggled with the question of why some people's writing comes off FLAT, even when they've employed all the "tricks" of writing they've learned from writing and being read and writing more. What I do now is ask that student: how much do you read? The answer, invaribly is a sheepish, "Well, I want to read more, but I don't really have time to read."

Similarly, there are students I have had that are really surprisingly good right out of the gate, without ever having written much or having been read/critiqued. They're usually the ones I catch reading in the lounge during break, because, well, they're ALWAYS reading

Just a thought, Mr. Fox.

Anonymous said...

In his book "About Writing," Samuel Delany says your latest novel can only be as good as the last novels you read recently, because reading is how you internalize the deep structure of novels.

In learning to write short stories, which I never paid much attention to before, I find this seems to be true. Reading stories helps me get back to the bones of story, and is especially helpful in the rewriting stage for me. This is doubly true for screenplays, which are all about dramatic structure.

Practice and feedback are key, no doubt, but IMO there is also something useful about frequent exposure to other people's really good writing - to get, stay, or get back on track.