Surgery’s next Wednesday. Good to know there’s only a 3% chance of losing the vision in that eye, though as the person who’s benefitted from its vision (poor as it’s been sometimes) for 69 years, I could wish that % chance was lower. I intend to spend even more time than usual in the next five days looking at things and maybe even photographing them. However, life isn’t all about my eye, or even me…and though I’m in a writing gap right now (not only is it hard not to think about the surgery, but the eye in question is making it very clear its cataract is getting worse) I am thinking about the craft of writing and the many ways writers try to bridge the gap between what we see in our heads, and what you get when you read what we wrote.
One of the reasons I’m thinking about that is the new computer, which allowed me to get back to websites that had become impossible with the old OS and out of date browser. …and one of those is Book Country, run by Penguin. (Or, by Penguin/Random now that they’ve merged.) A lot of people who want to write genre fiction go there looking for helpful hints on how to do it. Because I’m a person with…um…some control issues I try hard to contain, this sometimes results in my wanting to reach through the intervening electronic space, grab someone by the ears, and give a good shake, until all the Wrong Stuff falls out of their head and there’s room for better ideas and quality knowledge. This is arrogant and I know it, but sometimes one is unable to be perfect. As in, oh, 99.9% of the time. Robertson Davies, a Canadian writer I admire (from a distance–I think I’d have been uncomfortable around him) wrote in a book on reading and writing that if someone finds they can’t write, they should be grateful. Writers, he said, are generally not as nice as most people, so if you can’t write, you’re probably nicer than writers, have more friends, and are easier to get along with. I suspect I resemble that remark. Then I ignore it.
So…what about craft? What about talent? Same old same old, in a way. Writing anything is a skill that can be taught up to a point, and a skill set (the set varies a little with the kind of writing the writer wants to do–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and categories within each) that a writer develops by doing and failing and doing some more. Lots more. Lots more than I knew when I started (and I’m glad I didn’t know how much it took!!!) and lots more than most people guess until they’re over the hump of their own ignorance. As the craft develops, a writer can convey more–more accurately, more information–with fewer words, and can convey information that is different–feelings, not just facts.
At the low end, it’s the basic craft of conveying information using written words. This is a western diamondback rattlesnake. Note the diamond shaped markings on the back, the black and white striped tail, and the narrow neck with a typical pit-viper head–wide at the back…(accompanied by a photograph or drawing.) Two cups all-purpose flour, 2/3 cups cold lard or other solid shortening, 1 tablespoon ice-cold water. Cut shortening into flour until lumps are pea-sized, add water drop by drop until it forms loose ball. Too much water makes tough pastry. Turn out on chilled lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/4 inch thick…
To accomplish the transmission of information, the writer must know what it is that needs to be conveyed (field marks of a rattlesnake, a recipe for pie pastry), arrange the ideas in the correct order for the purpose, then use the right words, in the right order. The basic structures for writing a field guide for snakes, or a recipe, or the directions for making a dress from a pattern, have been developed by trial and error, so at the (very important) low end of writing skills, anyone with basic literacy can be taught to write this clearly and accurately. (No, this does not explain “directions” that leave things out. That’s incompetence.) Vocabulary can be taught, basic sentence structure can be taught, linear thinking can be taught, and the specific structure best for conveying the necessary information can be taught. These are all skills; this kind of writing is a craft, which when done well makes life easier for those who read the books in which they occur. Before videos (and especially YouTube) which could literally show how to do X, those who did not have an teacher handy had to get the information from reading, and many people did just that.
But if you don’t happen to know that you would like to know something, you’re unlikely to read the book or article. People who don’t think they need a cookbook don’t read a cookbook…until suddenly they’re caught by an exceptional cookbook writer who is funny, or exciting, or in some other way makes cooking their way unforgettable. I liked to cook as a kid, but found cookbooks generally dull and too rigid. Then I happened onto The Impoverished Student’s Guide to Cookery, Eatery, and Housekeepery. The title caught my eye, as did the cover illustration (and the low price!) and suddenly there was a funny but very useful cookbook that suited my style of cooking (“a meat thing, a starch thing, a vegetable thing…”) and my understanding of student-level housekeeping–from brick-and-board shelving to the use of old bedspreads to cover worn-out upholstery on the only furniture you could afford.
So a step up from the very basic nonfiction “just the facts” level of writing craft is the one that shares personality with the reader. Craft here consists not only of the right thoughts expressed in the right words in the right order, but projecting through the writer’s voice some emotional content that the reader finds a) attractive and b) useful. The (b) part matters from here on out, as we go up the scale of craft towards art…because it’s easy to throw all of the writer’s self (the good, the bad, the ugly) into the work in a way that is not at all useful to the reader. And for beginning writers it can be very hard (I know from experience!) to know when to quit with the personality stuff. At the simpler level, all the writer has to prune away are the bits of knowledge that don’t belong in that form of informational writing (the complete life-cycle of a snake, extraneous to a field guide intended onto for identification, the benefits of a particular surface and rolling pin for pastry.) But once the writer is allowed to put the writer’s own ideas, opinions, feelings into it…well, I’m sure you’ve read some works where this got out of hand, even in nonfiction. I’ve read cookbooks–and seen cooking shows on TV–in which the writer/presenter spent as much time slamming another form of cooking as sharing why he/she loved the way he/she cooked.
For the fiction writer, the storyteller, this problem always exists, because no story is made up of simple factual information imparted to the reader. Beginners tend to err on the side of fact-presentation to start with, although some fall right into revelatory overkill As a child, when I wrote the first sentence of my first book, the fortunately long-gone My Dog Tippy, I made a typical beginner mistake. “Tippy’s mother was named Tippy” and continued in the fact-listing way: “Tippy’s mother was black and white. Tippy was black and white.” Ho, followed by hum. A page and a half of careful printing in pencil later, I’d bored myself and stopped.
The equivalent for an older beginner is often an elaborate character description (and this is not a quote from any beginner’s work I’ve read, but a type of thing): Sylvia had long, waving locks of tawny hair and piercing green eyes; she moved gracefully in her long plum-colored velvet gown. When she smiled she had a dimple on her left check and her small, white, even teeth gleamed… Gerald stood six feet two inches tall and had broad shoulders, and slim hips, curly black hair, sparkling black eyes, and a strong-jawed face that revealed a manly character. He always wore a sword and carried a dagger in his belt… Sometimes this goes on for a page or more. On the other hand (somewhat less common, in the beginner work I’ve seen, but common enough from those with strong political or religious opinions) a work may start with a character description that’s really a rant about what the writer thinks of [choose your group target] that reveals far too much about the writer. Just like every other Noklerian, the scrawny clerk at the passport desk was too lazy to look up with Cliff Mightyman entered. That’s what comes of a political system in which everyone is guaranteed a job no matter how incompetent they are…. That’s author intrusion in a way that doesn’t help the reader–or the story.
Writing fiction requires the writer to both put himself/herself into it (can’t hide out just listing ingredients) but to control the amount of writer personality while at the same time creating characters with personality. And yes, their personality exists only if the writer has some. It is, as the movie Shakespeare in Love allowed characters to say repeatedly, a mystery. So it’s harder to teach. It’s harder to teach, because learning it requires the writer not to just pick up a new tool, but to change…to become a person who can set self aside, while letting self (or some of it) live in characters who then bring the writer’s voice to life. Beginning writers do not expect to have to change themselves…they think of skills as tools you just pick up and start whacking away with. As writers grow in their craft, as they read more and write more, they learn that the more their writing is true to themselves…the more their selves must grow, must change.
To use my own first example, to write a real story, an interesting story, about Tippy, I would have had to grow past what I understood of that dog, and that dog’s place in our family–understand why Tippy became my mother’s dog and not mine, what my mother’s lifelong relationships with various dogs had been, what in her genes made Tippy a ferocious hunter of opossums and other vermin, why she reacted as she did to a particular cat, and then to a particular new dog (who was my dog and not my mother’s) and so on. I would have had to grow out of the six-year-old and into an older writer. To write the stories I tried to write in grade school, high school, and college, I had to grow (and did, though not enough) and expand both my knowledge and my understanding of people, cultures, the world as a whole, literature as whole. All my early stuff was derivative (nearly everyone’s early stuff is derivative and the stuff that isn’t is often unreadable) though I read so much, so widely, that it was difficult to see *exactly* what it was derivative of.
I had to learn to quit pushing stories around, let them go, follow them…not drag them around like a new best friend I hoped would make other people think I was important. But the practice of writing–writing essays, writing long letters to friends, writing poetry and stories and everything that ran through my busy brain–helped along the way. The bottom level of craft–the right words in the right order to convey some information accurately–was growing, providing a gradually wider and stronger foundation for what would come later. The product (in fiction) was mostly worthless, but the practice was invaluable. I understand it’s the same for musicians…and remembering my own attempts at piano, it was certainly true that first I played notes, and only played music later. Same with singing, with dance, with all the crafts that might become art: first you do the exercises, learn the tools that can be taught, try and fail over and over and over…and then, when the tools, the movements, the handling of the skills becomes natural..then, if you’re lucky, if you were born with the right talents and have come in contact with the right masters of the craft and artists…then you may step past the point of craft into art.
Impatience can ruin it. I was not a patient child (there’s a sequence of photographs my mother took when I was around two, of me trying to get the top off one of those little aluminum cans that 35mm rolls of film came in back then…smiling child trying to untwist the top…the glare when it wouldn’t come…the frown, the face clenched into a furious scowl,….and then the bright smile when it finally did come off. But boy…no sign of patience there.) Trying to skip the hard boring parts and get to “the good stuff”….trying to get published (or win awards or gain fame) before the skills are learned, practiced, engrained…leads to bigger failure than the many small failures endured by working through the process. Which, for a writer means writing and writing and writing, preferably (I think) out of the public eye, for sheer love of storytelling, while writing crappy stories and less crappy stories and parts of stories and verse and plays and letters and rants…and while reading more and more and more, and living more and more and more.
So I read the questions over in the various spaces where I appear sometimes as a writer/teacher sort, and try to give responses that will help that person at that stage of his/her journey, and know (from my own background) how unlikely it is that I’ll connect and do them any good. Not for lack of wanting to.