Five things I believe about writing in general:
It is more important to be interesting than brilliant. Before a written work can be uplifting, edifying, important, or remembered, it must first be read by someone. When a reader puts your work down without reading it, it ceases to exist. First, it must entertain.
Note: This laptop dictionary defines entertain first and foremost as to provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment. That’s the word’s most common contemporary use. But the two creaky old ink and paper dictionaries on my shelves define it differently. My old Webster’sCollege Dictionary defines it first as to hold together, to maintain: And The fifteen pound four inch thick Random House Standard Dictionary defines the word “entertain” as to hold the interest of. That’s the way I’m using it here.
According to Janet Burroway in the textbook Writing Fiction, the poet William Stafford used to tell his students to write to their LOWEST standards of literacy. He says the students always corrected: You meant our HIGHEST standards. But he did not. He meant write with coherence, unity, and comprehensiveness in mind. Everything else you have to offer the world will follow. He believed that more new writing failed because of overreaching with pretensions of greatness than by aiming too low and simply writing well. Note: there are no latent geniuses. If you are a genius, it will come to the surface of your writing. If you are not a genius, your attempts to sound like one will also be revealed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take chances. But they should be authentic attempts at writing truly, not attempts at sounding writerly.
Hemingway said to write the truest sentence you can. And although pretentious writing is often rewarded in our society, that doesn’t make it any better. For an interesting essay on this subject Google B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto, published first in part as an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, July 2001, and then as a book of the same title. To give you an idea about the tone of this piece Myers says, “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'--not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”
I don’t agree with everything Meyers says, but I do flee from writing that sounds as he put it, “writerly”on first glance, only to dissolves into nonsense when examined.
There was a good example of this, in my opinion, in a quote I read from an essay in which one of our most famous living writers posits that in writing memoirs or personal essays we act on a longing to revisit parts of our past in the way that rivers, she said, seek to return to their old, former channels, now dry and overgrown with brush and trees. It’s a lovely metaphor, but anyone with a knowledge of riparian hydrology--or for that matter, anyone who ever took earth science in high school--knows that just the opposite is true: as rivers age they leave those oxbows behind because their singular intent (if I may continue the pathetic fallacy of personification and intentionality here) is to run straight to the sea by carving the shortest and most direct route there from their sources.
2.) While I believe in the need to write for readers, holding a reader’s attention is not a license to write poorly. And the popularity of a book is not a measure of its quality. According to Wikipedia, McDonalds sells 54 million hamburgers a day; that doesn’t make it good food. For some of us, that doesn’t even make it food, period. See above, The DaVinci Code.
3.) I believe that the admonition “Write what you know,” is great advice often misunderstood. In undergrad or intro to writing workshops I run into people who say “I want my story to say . . . .” They have some point to make, or some effect they intend to produce in the reader’s mind –they know what it is even before they sit down to write a piece. They see creative writing as a transfer of knowledge or information, or a delivery system for an idea. I see that attitude kill stories and essays all the time; I don’t teach poetry writing, but I’m sure that kind of thematic thinking has slain a few poems as well. I believe that, in all genres, creative writing should be an act of discovery for the artist.
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” (Robert Frost)
Eudora Welty says: “If you haven’t surprised yourself you haven’t yet written.”
My way of saying the same thing is “write what you wonder about; use what you know.”
But my favorite quote on the subject comes from Grace Paley, who says, “Write from what you know into what you don’t yet know.”
4.) At the other end of the spectrum, I believe that as Janet Burroway says, the word creativity has been “devalued to the extent that it has come to mean a random gush of self-expression.” She’s right, the word has been devalued by that new meaning. Unfortunately, admiration for what she calls gushing self-expression has not dwindled in any way. In many circles (and in some writing workshops), creativity and imagination are still vastly over-rated. Noting that a story or a poem is a mess, confusing, poorly written etc, “but that it is a very creative idea” is no compliment. Small children and chimpanzees are creative. Anyone can imagine an idea or a subject for a story or a poem. It takes a writer willing to do the hard work of revision to turn that into something worth reading, something artistic, fresh ---and yes, entertaining. I believe skill will trump imagination every day of the week.
5) I believe as I’ve heard said, that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned. --mostly by example: by teaching students to read like writers, by saying “Look at how this writer did this. Look at the effect and look how it was produced.”
I’m far from the first to say that you will learn more from reading good writers than from writing workshops. But I’ll also add that HOW you read is more important than WHAT you read. There is something to be learned from almost any successful piece of writing. Again, The DaVinci Code might be “horrible,” as my student put it. But the guy knows something about compelling plot writing. Once more, what can be taught is reading like a writer.
On Monday: Five Things I Believe About Fiction in Particular
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