By Lisabet Sarai
I have a
confession to make. I’ve never read any writing how-to book from
beginning to end. Years ago, I started Susie Bright’s How to Write
a Dirty Story, but abandoned it about half way through, partly
because I found the author’s tone patronizing and partly because the
smell of ink from that very early POD volume was giving me a terrible
headache. The other classic writing texts that are supposed to be on
every author’s bookshelf – Stephen King and the rest – I’ve never
even opened. I don’t own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style
or Strunk and White, either, though my paperback Roget’s
Thesaurus is definitely the
worse for wear.
Garce’s post this month, I began to feel rather creepy about my basic
disinterest in studying the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I
recognized the validity of the concepts he explains so succinctly –
the narrative arc and the character arc, the “Coming to Death”
moment. The questions he articulates, the inquiries as to what the
character wants, where a story is going and how it should flower, are
the sort of things I think about when I’m critiquing someone else’s
work. When I’m writing my own stuff, though, nothing could be further
from my mind. Intellectual analysis has little to do with the
process. I write from instinct.
At this point
you’re probably snorting with disgust at my presumption. “She
thinks she’s got so much talent she doesn’t need to study the
masters,” you might be thinking. Or, “Right, she was born
knowing about characterization and conflict, suspense and catharsis.
A regular Mozart of the written word.”
Honestly, I don’t
think that at all. I do believe I’m moderately skilled at the craft
aspects of writing, but that’s not due to some fabulous genetic
endowment. Rather, it’s the product of more than half a century’s
experience, reading and writing – plus a certain amount of early
My life was filled
with words from its very first months. Before I could talk (hard to
believe such a time ever existed!), my parents read to me, both
fiction and poetry. All through my childhood, my father told us
fantastic tales of ghosts and monsters and wrote delightful doggerel
that he set to music. He and my mom taught me to read at four years
old, and almost immediately I began creating my own stories. I was
writing poems by the time I was seven. Nobody ever showed me how. I
guess I must have been emulating what I’d read and heard. It just
seemed a natural thing to do.
Reading was my
absolute favorite occupation throughout my childhood. My mom had to
force me to put my book aside and go out to play. I continued to
write all through elementary school, high school, college and
graduate school. And of course, I continued to read.
I adored the
literature classes I took. There, we undertook the sort of analyses
that Garce writes about, dissecting tales ancient and modern to see
what made them tick. Although I majored in science, I tried to
balance my schedule with at least one humanities course each term. I
still recall the intellectual thrill I derived from the Shakespeare
seminar in which I participated as a freshmen, the high I got from
Russian literature in translation course in my junior year.
I still love to discuss great books. A few months ago I spent more
than an hour Skyping with my brother (who lives half a world away)
about Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. We specifically set
up the call for that purpose, and I enjoyed every minute.
So even though
I’ve never deliberately studied the art of narrative, at least as
applied to my own writing, I seem to have acquired a significant
amount of knowledge by osmosis.
When I sit down to
write, I don’t consciously identify the “MacGuffin” that drives
my story, even though it must be there somewhere. I may or may not
know at the outset when and where my characters will experience that
moment of total despair, when all seems impossible. If I don’t know,
I simply trust that I’ll recognize the crisis when I get there. The
story unrolls in my mind, a journey along a road where some parts
may be foggier than others, but with a structure that seems to shape
itself around the premise, the setting and the characters, without
much deliberate effort on my part.
I do spend a
significant amount of mental and emotional effort on the prose itself, attempting to capture the elusive nuances of experience in mere words.
I’m also focused on the big ideas that underlie the action, struggling
to birth the sort of startling, original tale that transfixes me with
admiration when I am playing the role of reader.
That’s what I find
most difficult about writing. All the craft in the world won’t make
up for a ho-hum concept. All too frequently, I have the
uncomfortable sense that the story I’m working on has been
written a hundred times before – sometimes even by me. I listen to
Garce complain about his so-called lack of talent even as he produces
tales so wild, terrible and beautiful that they bring tears to my
eyes, and I try not to be envious.
no craft book can teach.
as I sometimes am, I don’t stop writing. Through a combination of
nature and nurture, it appears that I’ve absorbed the so-called rules of story
structure. They’re part of me now. I probably couldn’t prevent myself
from following them, any more than the Canada geese could abort their
annual flight south.