Friday, April 6, 2012

Robert Silverberg on learning to write

Another wonderful article from SF Signal is this interview with Robert Silverberg bu . Silverberg talks about specific works (like Lord Valentine's Castle) and that's interesting, but for me the prize was what he says about learning to write. He encapsulates my experience as well:

I never have taken a writing course, and don’t recommend them.  Occasionally I would read a book about writing, like Thomas Uzzell’s Narrative Technique, but usually came away baffled.  I learned my craft by reading an infinite amount of fiction and trying to discover how the authors achieved their effects.  Where to begin a story?  How does one end one?  How much dialog should be mixed with exposition?  I figured it all out by the time I was sixteen or so.  I was a quick learner.   The problem was not so much to learn the craft of telling a story as to learn enough about the real world so that one had stories to tell.

I, on the other hand, am a slow learner, and I'm still working on figuring it out. But knowing how to put down one word after another is only the mechanics of the craft. If I were to give advice to a young writer, I'd say, Don't study writing. Take classes in history, anthropology, religion, astronomy, biology, economics, sculpture, physics. Play a musical instrument, even if badly. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Go hiking in the highest mountains you can find. Learn a new language, preferably one that uses a different alphabet. Talk to people with whom you disagree, and listen to them, to the experiences behind the rhetoric. Study calligraphy and the history of writing. Dance under the stars. Fall in love, and get your heart broken. Learn to ride a horse (or a camel, or an elephant). In other words, Have something to write about. And read. Read widely and exuberantly. Read stuff that makes you furious and exhilarated and bored and sorrowful - and examine the why and how.

It would be a fascinating exercise to read Silverberg's novels in the order they were written, to watch the development of his craft. And besides, he loves museums and dinosaurs, so what more can one want?