Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting Started In Writing

Writing a story -- say it's your first -- has some fundamental differences with beginning other creative endeavors. At least, that's been my experience. I've never assumed that because I've seen an oil painting, I should automatically know how to paint one, or because I've heard a symphony, I can just sit down and compose one of my own. Yet just about all of us carry the expectation that we already know how to write a story.

After all, we're taught to "write" in school, so by the time the idea of putting our own stories down on paper occurs to us, we've had years of practice, or so we have been led to believe. We've learned to put pencil to paper and end up with something resembling recognizable words. We've put down sentence after sentence on such stimulating topics as "What I Did For My Summer Vacation," not to mention book reports, history reports, science reports, essays on current events, and so forth.

We get exposed to visual art -- painting, sculpture, graphic design and the like -- music, and storytelling from an early age. Even if we are not fortunate enough to experience these in live forms, we get bombarded by their images in television, films, and the internet. I suspect the difference between writing (prose narrative) and other art forms is that we also use the same motions for other purposes. Going out on a limb here -- I'd propose that if we sculpted or scored our grocery lists for full orchestra, we might approach chiseling marble statues or composing a concerto for bassoon and orchestra with the same expectations of facility that we do when embarking upon our first novel. We've also most likely read -- or had read to us -- many, many stories. We've turned in all those school papers. How hard can it be to write a story?

Once we've got that question engraved in our minds, we fall prey to a number of fallacies. One is that we ought to be able to write a story without learning how. If it's easy, then any semi-literate primate can do it, and if we have difficulty, there must be something seriously wrong with us. Second, and more crippling, is that we compare our internal experience of attempting to write a story with the finished products we read. Or, worse yet, with our memory of those finished products. It's been pointed out that "derivative" or "copy-cat" fiction (as an example, all the riffs on The Lord of the Rings) feels flat and gray because we can consciously recall only a portion of what's in the original. The rest contributes to the vitality of the work, but doesn't stick in that part of our memory that allows us to reproduce what we read. So we try to create a story based on the fragmented, incomplete, and biased memory of a work that has been through the editorial and publishing process. This is a recipe for frustration and failure.

Instead, a more helpful approach might be to first acknowledge that we don't know exactly how we're going to go about making this story. We need to learn some stuff, and we need to experiment and see what works and what doesn't. We need to find out how we write, as distinct from how anyone else writes. We also need to know what we want to achieve, which is a fancy way of clarifying what it is we love when we read stories by other people and what we love about our own story ideas. This leads us to another crucial concept, which is that effective story-telling is not the same thing as transcribing that amazing movie showing within our own skulls on to paper. It's evoking a similar (but not necessarily identical) experience in the mind of the reader. That's how we get to where we want to go.

Now we're ready to ask, what skills do I need? How do the writers I love do this? How will I know when I'm on track? We've become teachable, if only by our own experience. We're on our way.

The illustration is by Czech artist Oldřich Hlavsa (1889-1936)


  1. I wonder how many of us will honestly say there was a time when we read something and said to ourselves, "I can write better than that", or "How hard can it be?" And found out to our ego's dismay just how hard it was.

  2. @widdershins - I'm betting it's close to 100%!