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.