The Purposeful Mind – Does a writer need an education?

Writers are an intelligent lot.  The act of thinking, of seeking meaning in ideas, and using language to texture and color these ideas in a written form is an intellectual pastime.  Fed by streams of inspiration and the emotional urge for expression writers seek to inform themselves about the world they see, and in the process of writing inform others of their conclusions.  The two primary rules of the game, that writers must read and writers must write, are the cornerstones of a writer’s education, and by engaging in these two things any writer can advance in her craft without the addition of a formal classroom setting.  This is not to say that there is no benefit to going to school, however, and whether a writer chooses college or self-teaching, there are pros and cons to both options.

The Purposeful Mind

By approaching the craft of writing with single-minded determination, a person intent on mastering the language and mechanics of writing is already equipped with the fundamentals of the craft.  Broad and constant reading, of the kind one might do in college, in addition to those works within the writer’s genre, also increases the writer’s knowledge and development.  Additionally, by collecting a small circle of beta-readers the independent learner gains some of the aspects that a writing workshop would grant in college.  Though absent of many of the formal subjects of a degree program (science, math, history) the self-designed program can benefit this sort of student so long as the individual has massive self-discipline and the confidence to keep going in the face of a void (the void being silence, mostly, and the internal critic who says the writer is slowing falling into the void).

The negatives of independent learning, however, are substantial.  To begin with there is no replacing the guidance of peers and experienced instructors with the one-sided lecture of a book.  In the classroom there is a dialogue, and one’s peers and mentors offer critical insights that might otherwise be missed by independent study.  Furthermore the few peers the writer has are likely to be inexperienced at proper criticism and unable to be of the kind of help a serious writer needs.  And even if the independent learner has assembled the most effective library at their disposal, and gathered around them a number of reasonably qualified peers, there is still the question of confidence – the root of a healthy writer.  The slightest doubt for a writer, in either the structure of their self-made curriculum or in the end-result of their work, can derail even the most persistent artist.  Furthermore, what the classroom offers is a multifaceted competitiveness that cannot be duplicated in private.  By sitting with other students and exposing one’s talents to strangers, the young writer immediately gets a sense of where they rank on a relatively accurate scale.  This awareness can be used as inspiration to improve and to create work worthy of the praise heaped on other students.  The conscientious student of writing is also benefited, whether they are at the top or bottom of the scale, by having access to an instructor who, if worth their salt as a teacher, can give them guidance and criticism that is helpful and encouraging when the internal voices of negativity begin to chant.

The Formal Education

For most of us the days of writing apprenticeship are long gone.  Unless you have the good fortune of being adopted by a professional writer willing to put their energy into making you into the next big thing, you’re better off looking into  the offerings of an accredited college.  The benefits of formal education are indeed many.  The structure of a set schedule and assignment deadlines engenders discipline – one of the keys to success of any kind.  College also exposes one to new ideas, information from areas outside of the individual’s interests and familiarity, thereby rounding out the intellect and knowledge that all writers use for their creative purposes.  College bestows on the active student mentors and peers who help shape the burgeoning writer, and it gives one a place to compose a large portion of their one million words.  Furthermore, it is not necessary to attend an expensive school such as Stanford or Iowa, but because of the nature of the writer’s mind any proper college, including junior and community college, is a good place to start.  It is the writer’s job to observe and learn – the information in most cases is all the same, and any good instructor will be able to teach the important details regardless of the geographic location and name of the school.

Still, the dangers of the college environment, although different, are just as substantial as those of the independent learner.  Academic environments are often stilted, with faculty who are busy trying to publish their own material in order to keep their jobs, or who, having their own favorite heroes of literature, may miss the particular genius of a given student working in a different style.  College writing students may also find themselves ensnared in trying to please their professors.  The pressure to earn a grade forces many students to write what they believe the instructor wants to read, and in some cases a bad instructor will demand it.  In addition, there is often an abundance of time spent reading various published writers, little time dedicated to actual writing, and even less to revision.  Without substantial time to revise students fail to learn the key to creating truly successful works.

To the question “does a writer need an education?” the short answer is “yes.”  Whether through independent study or formal classroom experience, writers must study their craft.  All writers should take courses, even if they choose not to pursue a degree.  The environment, if tempered with an understanding of the pitfalls, will save the student writer time through exposure to new writing styles, story ideas, peer review, mentoring, and by providing structure and discipline.

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Fiction Is the Devil (One more reason you feel like a failure but are not)

I once had an acquaintance who was a very good poet.  Supposedly whenever he needed a little money he would write up a few poems, publish them, and get paid.  Just like that.  Good morning, how ya doing, and thanks for the cash.

I read his stuff and I have to tell you, it was pretty good.  I was not surprised at all that he had this ability to write impacting, emotionally strong poems that publishers were happy to buy.  One day I enthusiastically said to him, “Hey, your work is really good.  You should write fiction, too.”  His reply?  “No way!  Fiction is way too hard . . .”

Now, let’s get one thing clear.  No form of writing is easy.  Every type of writing requires one to engage the mind, exercise the faculties, stretch the vocabulary to make an end product that readers can appreciate.  Poetry lives and dies by image, specificity, and rhythm.  Creative non-fiction relies on the detail of poetry and the pace of narrative to enhance the factual details as they (allegedly) happened.  We are dealing with language after all, and language is slippery, evasive, challenging.  No, it’s not at all that other writing is easy, it’s that fiction is just so especially difficult.

What I posit here is an arguable position.  Narrative is, in many ways, narrative.  One thing happens and then another.  Cause and effect.  Characters behave accordingly by making choices and acting those choices out.  Challenges rise up, tension builds, all the basics of an engaging story are there and each form has its own demands.

Yet, writing fiction is like learning a foreign language.  You’ve got a whole history of the language at your disposal – words you’ve never heard of with meanings for things you perhaps didn’t even know were defined.  You’ve got slang, idiom, sentence structure, an accent.  Each component means something.  In short fiction each component means everything.  Compare this to an essay in which you may well be telling a story, but it’s your story, as you experienced (or researched) it, and even if you have the skill to add the details that make it come alive and become an enriched and engaging piece of writing, the details, some of them, were given to you without your having to invent them.  The same cannot be said of the poet, because the poet is capturing something entirely different.  But the poetic mind is alive with the music of emotion.  In poetry there is a moment, with jade vines and lemon mists wafting through sunlight.  There are passing glances with promises of romance, the sponge of a bitten lip, the echoes of a yowling dog interrupting the serenity of a still night.  Fifteen lines of poetry is a sprint into the senses and then it is done.

And then there’s fiction.  The great, smirking Cheshire Cat of composition.  The wisecracking, oddball of everything that written language can be, encompassed in a form that is as narrowly missed as it is narrowly gained.  The details have to be the right details.  The sentiments must be correct.  The dialogue must sound true.  The story must arrive at its natural conclusion or all is lost.

I once read somewhere (and I paraphrase) that “no story is so good that it can’t be ruined in the telling.”  This is the daunting reality fiction writers face.

But whether we accept that fiction is the most difficult form to write in or that it is merely as difficult as any writing is, it is worth remembering that our struggles with writing stories in no way makes us a failure.  It is true, I suppose, that there are failed writers.  I suppose as well that this definition of failure is subjective, as I imagine that there are published writers who feel their final output was a failure, and there are unpublished writers who simply quit the endeavor without reaching their million words or, because of some other distraction, walked away from the page and never returned.  For me this latter failure is the only failure.  Even as I stare at the blank page in search of a story, or the middle of a draft lost at sea, or finally at the complete first draft in desperate need of revising, and I feel all of the bitterness that this work engenders, I know I will not quit.

Nothing is more rewarding than completing a difficult task.  When I’ve had a good writing session I know at the end of it that I have earned my keep.  I have satisfied my job as a writer and as a soul that needs replenishing.  When I do my work I am happy.  I love all types of writing – even grant writing.  But fiction, ah, fiction.  This is where I am most challenged, and with that challenge comes the promise of the highest reward.

To defeat the bogeyman of fiction one must only wrestle with it until it is exhausted.

And we have infinite stamina.

What Do We Mean by “Writer”?

“What do you write?”

You know the question.  Someone at a gathering mentions to someone else that you’re a writer and the invariable question comes.  Oh, we love this question, don’t we?  It’s a chance to share, perhaps with a modicum of modesty, that we write fiction or poetry or essays . . . And yet, there’s a guilty feeling inside.  Am I really a writer?  I have sixteen stories that have never seen the light beyond my room.  Fifty two poems.  A drawer full of rejection letters.  The question depresses us.  We feel inadequate and go home later either vowing to write better or maybe thinking we’ll give up on this business about being a writer.  No more questions, no more inadequacy.

But you don’t give up, you just drag yourself to the writer’s whipping post and pluck halfheartedly at the vision of your story.  All because you want to be a writer.

I didn’t use to call myself a writer during the years of real inconsistency.  I would have spurts and fits, and sometimes I would complete a story, particularly when I was in college and could make it part of my curriculum.  But then there would be long summers of suffering the call to go outside against the call to stay in and write.  There were events to attend, obligations to fulfill, gatherings.  And then the question came – what do you write?

Eh, fiction.

Nothing published, nothing to prove I was a writer.  Just my word.

I failed to realize, in those days, that I wrote volumes of quality business documents.  Memos to bosses, reports on conference events, letters to students, and though these weren’t stories and no one was giving me awards, I put a lot of thoughtful energy into those things to the point that when it came time for my colleagues to write memos they would ask for my help, ask me to review their work because I was “the word guy.”  Meanwhile I would write a poem here or there, about anything that inspired me, and these poems would end up in the hands of friends who wanted to keep them, or as gifts, and people took pleasure in reading them.  I never sent a single one out for publication because I was a fiction writer.  Fiction writers don’t write poems and nice, well-crafted memos.  And there were journals, too, at various points.  I kept records of some of my thoughts, stacks of papers with ideas and musings and daydreams.

What do you write?

Eh

All of my confidence as a writer was based on writing in one form.  If I wasn’t blowing through fiction and publishing across the planet then I still was not a writer.  I made the mistake of thinking that to qualify as a writer I had to be making progress on the one thing I wanted most.  I didn’t recognize the truth of what I was told by one of my earliest instructors: “Writers write – one word at a time.”  He did not say “writers write fiction – one word at a time” or “writers write poetry, memoir, essays.”

Writers write.

As I continue to work with others who have a love of writing I hear over and over how they despair about being any good.  Many of these people are fiction writers, and they complain that their stories are boring, uninteresting, that they don’t have what it takes. But writers write.  They do it every day.  They write on scraps of paper or they try to make a boring old memo exquisite.  They draw pictures on their meeting agendas and dream up stories about them.  In quiet moments they put down a few words, grab an inspired moment out of the air and pin it to the paper so they can come back and examine it later.

If you are putting in the effort to write then you are a writer.  We are what we do.  Words are as interesting to us as color, as music, as the smell of our favorite food.  They are a flash of naked skin, a sound we can’t pinpoint until we investigate.  We read them, think about them, and write them down.  We may want to make them into stories or poems or essays that someone else will love, and perhaps we will if we don’t quit.  But as long as we write we are writers.  This is as noble a calling as any because writing is hard, and when we get it right and can share it well with others we connect with our world and our world connects with us.

Many people want to be writers but they don’t write.  Perhaps they don’t read.  They just want, and wish they had the initiative to do what they imagine.  Writers do it, in every form they can, as often as they can.  Writers write.

Writing takes the same dedication as plumbing, law, medicine, teaching, managing.  Anything you can imagine takes as much effort as it takes to be a writer.  You can no more expect to be an expert carpenter the first day on the job than you can expect to publish your first writing a week after you finish it.  You start by carrying materials, rolling hoses, shoveling dirt.  With enough time and effort you move up to hammering nails, setting walls – you get the idea.

So next time someone asks what you write remember that writing is not one-dimensional.  If you write, you are a writer.

Afraid to Tell the Truth

There is a concept in writing that ranks for me among the most difficult.  You may not think so in reading my blog – I tend to be “confessional,” as one reader put it, and I’m glad to hear that said about my writing because the truth of the matter, if truth be told, is that Truth is among the most difficult aspects of writing to master.

Most of us have heard somewhere that Art consists, at least  in part, of Truth and Beauty, and that these concepts suggest universal characteristics of the human condition which largely cannot be argued.  In considering the values of these concepts, however, I continue to find myself challenged to achieve an expression of truth which satisfies not only me as the writer, but satisfies more importantly (or at least as importantly) the reader.

So, what is this truth we speak of?

I don’t mean to open the worm-can of relevance, I am not seeking to answer the question of “whose truth?”  I only desire to better understand the goal of truth inasmuch as achieving it leads to better writing – especially in fiction.  There is a reason the concept of truth must be mastered, and that is because in truth is believability, and without believability there is no trust between writer and reader.

Truth in creative writing means getting the details right, portraying the events of the story honestly.  When we infuse our writing with euphemisms and cliches we are avoiding the truth: the truth of detail, the truth of an original experience, and the truth of our unique perspectives.  Why do we avoid capturing the truth of our story if it means so much?  Two reasons: Fear and Laziness.

Fear

Perhaps the most insidious of our challenges, fear is the thing that stops us cold from putting down that phrase which will expose us as something other than what our friends and family thought we were.  Fear stops us from facing the things that make us uncomfortable.  Violence, sex, desire, ecstasy, pain, the more fearful we are of controversial things in our personal lives perhaps the more fearful we are in our writing. No one wants to be judged negatively, and artists are especially subject, and sensitive, to judgement.  If fear rules our writing then we automatically fail to reach our potential.  We believe it better to say nice things, avoid the nasty, gritty details, live and let live, etc.

Here’s something to think about, though: nice is boring.

Yes writing the truth is hard, and yes, one must go deep to get at the ore of truth to put it on the page.  Sometimes the experience is upsetting, or arousing, as we get in touch with what is real about being human.  But these emotions are the energy of good writing, and the fact that we feel them means we have found something to say.

Laziness

One of the best ways to approach first draft writing is head long and mindless.  Get it out there, as fast as you can, and worry about corrections, spelling, maybe even punctuation later (I am not this free-wheeling, but I still write first drafts pretty fast).  At some point, however, if you want your writing to sizzle and pop, you’re going to have to go back and make things better.  When you come to a passage in the revision that reads “she stood by the water and watched the orange sunset as it sank over the horizon” don’t leave it like that!  Make the disc of the sun extinguish in the glittering locks of a black stream or something reasonably original before moving on.  Better yet, dig deeper and find a way to connect the setting sun with something meaningful to the story.  Tie the black stream to the protagonist’s sister’s hair, the setting sun to the end of her life due to illness, murder, suicide, disappearance, or the end of the sibling relationship.  I don’t know, it’s your story, just write it so I can appreciate it.  Whatever you do don’t let the hard work of writing go by the wayside because of laziness.  Find the truth of the moment.  Get the details, the emotion, the sentiments right.

Avoiding the truth happens at the moment of conception.  As soon as the writer begins filling the page there are choices to make: stop before saying something too real, edit it right away, or let all of the scary, ugly stuff out and deal with how you feel about it in revision.

I believe it is far easier to edit down than to edit up.  If I write an overly descriptive scene of a powerful and perhaps disturbing moment in the story, without censoring it, without worrying about it, I am more likely to get the right feel and the right detail to make it work appropriate to the story via later revisions.  This may not be true for you, but I still recommend writing much more than you’ll keep.  You’ll likely end up with plenty of material and room to revise without having to do the extra lifting of adding filler.

Lastly, recognize that your writer persona is at least a little separate from who you are in-person.  A friend of mine mentioned to me this weekend that my writing “doesn’t even sound like you” by which she meant that I don’t exactly talk like I write.  Certainly this is true of most of us.  When we communicate in-person there’s not much editing and revision going on.  Our body language, our tone of voice, the casual way we talk about subjects forgotten ten minutes later all create a dynamic much different from what is on the page.

Writing is where we get a chance to revise our thoughts before we share them with company.  Of course, once we’ve written things down and then released them into the wild we can’t take them back.  But this is not a reason to fear the truth in our writing, it is the precise reason we must write the truth.  Writing has a permanence that speaking does not.  We don’t have much opportunity to make our truth as beautiful when speaking as we do when writing.

So write freely, before anyone else sees it, and don’t fear what you have to say.  The truth, after all, is ours, and we have a right – as writers perhaps an obligation – to speak it.

We can always change the names later to protect the guilty.