Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
As someone whose full time job is to teach people how to write, and predominantly how to write fiction, I have always had a tendency to freeze up—freak out, might be a better description—when clients and students ask questions I can’t answer. This happens fairly often—all the time, might be a better description—and it can sometimes get a little weird. The reason for this is that there are some questions about creative writing for which there simply is no good answer. Eventually the craft advice falls away and we get into the art of it. And the fact is there’s no way to teach art. We teach craft, whether we’re teaching creative writing or painting or dance… literally any and every artform… but then it falls on the aspiring artist to have something to say, have their own unique voice, have a way with words… that mysterious thing called “talent.”
And boy do some of these less experienced authors freak out at this point. Some people really believe there must be some kind of universal formula that can be followed to produce quality stories, and unfortunately there have been some books on writing—especially writing screenplays—that put forward that very idea.
Charlie Jane Anders touched on this in Never Say You Can’t Survive:
I get why people want to share their own writing rules… we’re all super insecure, and you never really know if anyone’s going to like a particular piece of writing. None of us have that much control over the things we care most about, so we cling to the illusion that we know some universal laws of authordom. Plus, when you find something that works for you, it’s natural to want to share it with everyone else, and to overcompensate by presenting it as more than just a suggestion.
But this is still another way that we internalize our anxieties, and then put them onto everyone else. And you shouldn’t ever feel like a fraud because you’re not following someone else’s rules.
And even someone who caused a bit of a dust-up with his own writing rules, Jonathan Franzen, said in a New York Times interview:
On the one hand, to function well, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and summon enormous confidence from somewhere. On the other hand, to write well, or just to be a good person, you need to be able to doubt yourself—to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong about everything, that you don’t know everything, and to have sympathy with people whose lives and beliefs and perspectives are very different from yours.
We all have to pause from time to time and tell ourselves, “Look, a lot of this is going to be me flailing around trying to make a story happen. I’m making this up as I go along, and so is everyone else, including Jonathan Franzen, Charlie Jane Anders, and that’s just as hard to work through as Rod Serling told me it was going to be:”
This is, if not a lifetime process, awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, more observant, more tempered, much wiser over a period of time passing. It is not something injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and says, “Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!” and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.
Writing fiction well—whatever “well” even means—is not something you take a quick online course to learn then have it mastered in the next couple weeks. It’s not something you absorb by osmosis by reading a bunch of novels, though you will learn in toto a lot by reading a bunch of novels. It’s not something you achieve by clinging white-knuckled to any version of a formula. Writing fiction well means writing your fiction as best you can, and not necessarily suffering over it, but working on it, working to see not just the flaws but the triumphs, large and small, in every sentence. An editor can then take that manuscript and help you see more of the good and the bad, the almost theres and the for the love of all that’s holy keeps…
But secret time… Editors are making some portion of it up as we go, too.
Art can not be perfected. That’s what makes it, along with science, the two things that define the human condition. Start by knowing that you’ll never know everything, because everything keeps expanding. If you take writing advice only from Aristotle you will have no female characters in your writing at all. If you take writing advice from Shakespeare you’ll be left trying to sell a novel written in iambic pentameter to a contemporary editor, and good luck with that. If you take writing advice from Lester Dent you’ll only write 6000-word detective stories. If you take writing advice from me, you’ll still have to make up a solid 90% of the rest of it on your own.
I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from one of my favorite authors of all time, J.G. Ballard, who told the Paris Review:
A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say “good luck”—luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I daresay if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, “All you do is get on and start pedaling…
How do your learn to write? Start writing, and don’t stop for the rest of your life.
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Pay no attention to the “Six Steps” bit the publisher forced on…