Thursday, August 18, 2011

Remember: Good Writing is Learned, not Innate

In just a few weeks, I’ll be working with a new batch of FDENG 101 students at BYU-Idaho, trying to show them that writing can be a fun thing to learn. At the same time, I’ll pick up that internal battle that says writing is innate, that it cannot be learned. I know I’m wrong, because writing certainly can be learned, and has to be learned, because I’m learning all the time how to be a better writer.

I don’t read lots of “how to write” books because, in general, I find them lacking. Not because I’m such a genius writer, but because these books are typically patronizing or stray too far into the “writing is innate, but I will share a bit of my genius with the unwashed masses” territory.

This year, however, I’ve been lucky to read two books on writing that I consider excellent. The first is Robert Newton Peck’s “Secrets of Successful Fiction,” and the other is Richard Rhodes’ blandly-titled “How to Write.”

Rhodes’ approach is especially appealing, as he mixes in the nuts and bolts necessity of a Strunk and White with the lyrical quality that many of us hope to achieve in our writing. It all reminds me of this little bit of Buddy Greene, playing classical music on a harmonica at Carnegie Hall. We each have our own instrument to play, he says, but how well we play it depends on how much we practice and how much we decide we want to be good at our own voice, critics and snobbery be damned.

Says Rhodes:
Understanding writing as the production of virtual realities clarifies why teaking care with craft is so important. There are at least as many elements to manipulate in writing, to get the reality right, as a movie crew has to deal with in shooting a film (in fact, there are many more): dialogue, plot, character development, makeup, lighting, sets, props, camera angles, and montage just for starters (D.W. Griffith, the pioneering filmmaker, said he learned montage by reading Charles Dickens.) Behind those theatrical and cinematographic elements you have to organize words in all their palimpsestal complexity, sentence, rhythm, and structure at every scale from phrase to sentence to paragraph to chapter to book. (Words and sentences are the machine language of writing, if you will; the elements that writing shares with theater and film are already part of the shell program you create.) And you’re only one person, not a whole crew. That sounds like a discouraging burden to bear. It can be when you’re not getting the results you want, but fortunately you don’t have to create and control everything at once: writers develop multiple drafts of a text because they organize the elements of writing successively rather than simultaneously. Fortunately also, the inherent richness and complexity of the writing process makes it continually interesting, far more challenging to attempt and satisfying to achieve than chess or any other game.
So there’s the practice Buddy Green implies, spelled out for the writer. There’s the care for the craft. There’s the order, explicit, to write (Rhodes discusses earlier applying “ass to chair” and just writing, not fretting about the elements of style and structure) and then to rewrite.

Okay, I’m on the right track. And hopefully, I can pass this on to those eager students.

No comments: