“Our doubts are traitors…” Measure for Measure (I.iv.77)

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In his collection of journals entitled Confessions of a Barbarian, the twenty-five-year-old Edward Abbey ponders the progress he is making on his first novel:

“The novel, my terrible novel, will drive me to ruin…A frightful labor!

“And the worth of it, the quality—the problem worries me night and day. At times I’m afraid to read what I’ve written, almost superstitiously afraid—and then at other times I do work up enough courage to hastily read snatches chosen at random. The effects are mixed—parts of the book seem hilariously funny, beautifully written, packed and quivering with life. And then I’ll read the same passage again, or another, and it will seem dead as junkyard iron, pretentious and false, weak, thin, spineless, empty and hideous.

“Who is right? The critic or the author? I swing constantly, if erratically, between power and confidence, and antipodal despair; between surges of triumph when I look at myself grinning at me in the mirror and can say, “Abbey, oh Abbey, you monstrously clever fellow,” and dank gloom of dark defeat, convinced of failure, crushed by doubt…”

I think all writers can empathize with these sentiments, regardless of their inherent abilities or levels of success. Writing is a lonely business, and when we are “in the zone” and experiencing the sweet rush of creativity, nothing seems impossible. But of course, those rushes don’t last forever, and at some point we go back and reread what we’ve written and wonder if what we’ve crafted is really any good at all. “I’m a hack!” we say. “A fraud! Why would anybody want to read this?”

On the one hand, it’s comforting to know that a gifted and respected wordsmith like Ed Abbey experienced the same ups and downs the rest of us do. For most of us, it is a natural part of the creative process. Yet this knowledge does little to shake off our self-doubts.

Speaking personally, I’ve found that being part of a writing group does wonders to keep my creative fires burning. Part of this is the accountability it affords, but more importantly, the honest and encouraging feedback my group provides is enormously helpful in pushing me through the “desert moments” of the creative process.

What about you? How do you combat the struggles and doubts that come with writing?

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The Pitfalls of “Originality”

One of the distinguishing features of modern society is our preoccupation with originality. Giving proper credit to the creator of something is the basis of everything from copyright law and patent offices to anti-plagiarism policies in high schools and universities. Much of this stems from an artist’s desire to get noticed in some way (as well as paid). While this desire is certainly not bad, the quest for originality also carries certain temptations.

In the 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande discusses some of the dangers that often plague inexperienced writers:

“When the pitfall of imitation is safely skirted, one often finds that in the effort to be original an author has pulled and jerked and prodded his story into monstrous form. He will plant dynamite at its crisis, turn the conclusion inside out, betray a character by making him act uncharacteristically, all in the service of the God of Originals. His story may be all compact of horror, or, more rarely, good luck may conquer every obstacle hands down; and if the teacher or editor protests that the story has not been made credible, its author will murmur ‘Dracula’ or ‘Kathleen Norris,’ and will be unconvinced if told that the minimum requirement for a good story has not been met: that he has not shown that he, the author, truly and consistently envisages a world in which such events could under any circumstances come to pass.”

I see this all the time when I ask my high school students to write narratives. What starts off as an interesting story suddenly ends with a “surprise” twist: The starving orphan is actually the long-lost child of the city’s wealthiest citizen; the heroine’s disease is miraculously cured with an experimental drug; or worse yet, “I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” When I point out that these sorts of endings are not very convincing, the students counter, “But I wanted my story to stand out.”

Brande reminds writers that the key to originality is not distorting a tale into something unrecognizable. Rather, it is telling a story from your own perspective. “There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original.”

Remember what Agnes Mure MacKenzie says about originality in The Process of Literature: “Your loving and my loving, your anger and my anger, are sufficiently alike for us to be able to call them by the same names: but in our experience and in that of any two people in the world, they will never be quite completely identical.” This principle is true regardless of genre, and when you think about it, isn’t bringing individual experiences to life in an engaging and believable way the basis of all good—and original—art?

Know Thyself

Recently, a person in my writing group lent me Dorothea Brande’s classic guidebook, Becoming a Writer. First published in 1934, this book is packed with solid advice for anyone wishing to become a novelist. One insightful gem is the idea that, if you want to write great stories dealing with life’s “big ideas”, you must first understand your own philosophical convictions.

For example, in her chapter entitled “The Source of Originality,” Brande writes: “If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.”

She elaborates on this idea further by suggesting that writers ask themselves a series of questions. Brande contends that an “author’s conviction underlies all imaginative representation…Since this is so, it behooves you to know what you do believe of most of the major problems which you are going to use in your writing….Here are a few questions for self-examination which may suggest others to you. It is by no means an exhaustive questionnaire, but by following down the other inquiries which occur to you as you consider these, you can come by a very fair idea of your working philosophy.

Do you believe in a God? Under what aspect? (Hardy’s ‘President of the Immortals’ or Wells’ ‘emerging God?’)

Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? (Although the artist-determinist is such a walking paradox that imagination staggers at the notion.)

Do you like men? Women? Children?

What do you think of marriage?

Do you consider romantic love a delusion and a snare?

Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?

What is the greatest happiness you can imagine? The greatest disaster?”

Brande then goes on to note, “If you find you are balking at definite answers to the great questions, then you are not ready to write fiction which involves major issues. You must find subjects on which you are capable of making up your mind, to serve as the groundwork of your writing. The best books emerge from the strongest convictions—and for confirmation see any bookshelf.”

In school, we are taught to “write about what we know,” and this same principle applies not only to the surface details of a story, but also to the philosophical convictions which drive our characters and plots. For it is the honest portrayal of these convictions that often makes a story both meaningful and memorable.

Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose by David Shankbone
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Can creative writing be taught? It’s a loaded question, and one which Francine Prose, the author of the 2006 book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, tackles in the opening passages. Given the popularity of creative writing programs across the country, it would seem heretical to answer “no.” Ms. Prose herself has led plenty of such workshops, and as she notes, “A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that class, as helpful as it is, was not where I learned to write. Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.”

Thus, the central premise of Prose’s book is the notion that writers learn to refine their craft by paying close attention to what good writers do in their work. As she states, “This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.”

Prose examines the subject of good writing by focusing on the following topics: Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gesture. She also includes three additional chapters entitled “Learning from Chekov,” “Reading for Courage,” and “Books to Be Read Immediately.” (After all, how could she write a book about learning from the masters without including a list of illuminating books?)

What I find most useful about Reading Like a Writer is the quality and scope of the examples she draws from to illustrate her points. The passages range from Flannery O’Connor and Katherine Mansfield to Samuel Johnson and Henry Green. This is not a book which will teach the fast track to literary success or how to create a marketable plot, but for people seeking to bolster the quality of their writing, it is well worth a look.

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Books for the Writer

Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing.  Influence is fortunately a broad category.  It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration.  Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’  It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with. 

I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing.  It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to.  I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book.  The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on.  An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.  The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over.  After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed.  I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing.  The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book.  Honesty, applicability, and permission. 

Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for.  Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm?  On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer.  I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer.  That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve. 

The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here.  He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know. 

Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying.  Here’s stuff you can actually use.  This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there).  The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say. 

He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is.  Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples.  Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful .  Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it.  And that’s how it goes really. 

King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it.  It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style.  If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do.  I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available.  Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job.  After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer. 

Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail.  Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle.  He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction.  In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information.  For me not just a must read but a must own.

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