Two weeks ago we talked about the writing business as a microcosm of today’s economy. Like nearly everyone else in the modern world, writers have to deal with a barrage of advice—no, let’s be honest and call it propaganda—that’s meant to lure them into choices that benefit the corporate system at their expense. Like nearly everyone else in the modern world, in turn, writers have options that the glossy magazines and the glossy websites don’t mention, and those options are by and large a much better deal than the ones being pushed by the propagandists.
In writing as elsewhere, however, there’s another factor that has to be taken into account. To make use of the options just mentioned, you have to have certain skills, and the entire system of education in the industrial world today is designed to make sure you don’t develop those skills. Once again, we’ll use writing as a microcosm, as it’s the business I know best, and so we need to talk about how and why so many people have been convinced that they can’t write.
You can, you know. If you can read one of my blog posts and take part in a conversation about a subject you’re interested in, you know the language well enough to write professionally. The late Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say that anyone who can write a literate English sentence can make a living writing genre fiction. She was right, too, and proved it in her own life; as a single mother with two children to support, she started off writing for the true-confessions magazines, the bottom of the barrel in the mid-20th century writing business, and clawed her way up from there to establish herself as an influential and well-paid writer of science fiction and fantasy.
(Yes, I’m aware that Bradley has been assigned the posthumous status of a nonperson because of her abuse of her children. Not all writers are nice people. The points she made in her writing workshops, which were responsible for launching a number of successful careers in genre fiction, are still worth remembering.)
You can write. If you’re like most people, however, you’re convinced that you can’t write well enough to get published. You were taught to think that, and it’s worth understanding why.
Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, education in the industrial nations was reshaped from top to bottom using the factory as a model. Before then, education was less rigid and more successful. Here in the United States, for example, the classic one-room schoolhouse was common. You had one teacher, who supervised the process; a half dozen or so older students, who served as assistant teachers and who might go on to teach schools of their own someday; and a gallimaufry of children between the ages of seven and fifteen, who worked at their lessons alone or in little groups and got help from the teacher and her assistants as needed. It followed the familiar model of group work on harvests and quilting bees; it was busy, disorderly, and remarkably effective, and it made literacy, numeracy, and a solid stock of general knowledge about the world all but universal in mid-19th century America.
That was replaced by the current scheme, where children are separated by age into different classrooms and drilled in endless repetitive lessons. The reason for the change was quite simple: the goal of the new education was to manufacture interchangeable parts for the economy out of the utterly non-interchangeable raw material of young human beings. That’s why schooling is as dreary as it is. The boredom is an essential part of the process of getting children used to the stunning monotony of labor in a modern industrial economy, so that they won’t get foolish ideas about doing something less deadening with their lives.
An essential feature of the same process is lowering the standard level of education to whatever minimum the business world needs. Each child has distinct strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning, and one of the ways these function is that children become ready to learn different things at different ages. The great thrust of education for the last century and a half has therefore been a matter of finding ways to force children down to the lowest common denominator of learning so they can all be made to learn at the same pace.
Reading is a great example. Some children—I was one of them—are ready and eager to start reading at the age of two and a half. Others aren’t ready for the same task until they’re seven or eight years old. Children in the second group aren’t stupid, or developmentally disabled, or any such nonsense: their growth has simply taken a different route, and they may be able to do things at two and a half that I couldn’t do until I was eight or so, like tie my shoes so they wouldn’t come untied after a few steps. An approach to education that takes each child’s needs into account can deal with this factor easily by adapting lesson plans to each child’s readiness to learn. Modern industrial schooling can’t do that—or, more precisely, won’t do that.
That’s why most schools here in the US forbid the use of phonics—the simple, natural process of learning to read by sounding out unfamiliar words a letter at a time. A child taught phonics can figure out how to read a word he or she has never encountered before in print. Since we all learn spoken language earlier and faster than reading, a bright child taught phonics will quite often end up reading at an adult level by the age of twelve. That’s a problem from the point of view of the industrial schooling system, which again is meant to produce interchangeable parts. So in American schools, children are taught reading using methods that force them to treat each word as an abstract squiggle. That way the children all learn the same words at the same time, and nothing beyond the approved word list, so that those who might otherwise be reading faster and better than their classmates are held back to the same pace as everyone else.
Writing, finally, is subject to the same constraints. Most employees in a modern industrial society don’t need to write. Of those who do, most only need to be able to write a business letter or an interoffice memo. What’s more, a nation full of people who can use written language freely, to express whatever they want to express, is a danger to the status quo. It’s not just that they might write things the bosses don’t like, and that other people might read those things and agree with them. It’s that the bosses might read it themselves and be forced to confront the reality of what their preferred policies are doing to the people affected by them. (Good writing can do that.)
Thus it may not be an accident that the entire way in which writing is taught in American schools is set up to make children hate and fear the act of putting down their thoughts in words on paper. Every time a child picks up a pencil or a pen to trudge through one more writing assignment, the threat of a bad grade hovers over every word. If you’re not wary enough to recognize that the whole business is not in your best interests, and angry enough to write other things your own way, on your own time, out of sheer spite, the whole thing becomes such an exercise in misery that once your schooling is over, writing is very nearly the last thing you want to do. In this way the education machine succeeds in its purpose.
Oh, and may the gods help you if you’re tricked into going to college to get a degree in creative writing. I have yet to meet anyone who’s been through that experience and came out of it able to write well. There, the problem isn’t the burden of misery you find in the schools. The problem is academicism. That’s a good old word for the mental fossilization that happens when writing takes place in a bubble, where every word you write is criticized by your teachers and peers in terms of how well it fits the currently fashionable theory of writing, and the perceptions of people outside the bubble are despised and dismissed. It’s a constant problem whenever writing, or any other creative practice, is restricted to a self-proclaimed elite.
Here’s a story to keep in mind when you get told, as of course you will, that real writers go to creative writing programs to learn how to write. Eleven hundred years ago in Japan, men of the wealthy classes got an extensive academic education in how to write. Meanwhile, the women of the same classes, who were excluded from higher education, shrugged and wrote stories and poems of their own, relying on the unfashionable guidance of their own taste and what their readers liked. That’s why the masterpieces that define the first great age of Japanese literature were all—every single one of them—written by women. What the men wrote was promptly forgotten because, like all academic literature, it was unutterably dreary. What our current academically trained authors write is just as bad, and will be forgotten just as quickly.
Between the raw misery of the schools and the academicism of the universities, very few people come through their schooling without having their ability to write stunted. That stunting, in writing and in all the other creative arts, is what makes it possible for our society to pretend that there’s a thing called “talent,” which a few special people have and the rest of us don’t. The rhetoric that surrounds talent in our society is so familiar to those who know their way around a certain heavily marketed fantasy fiction franchise that I’ve come to sum up that rhetoric as the Harry Potter Principle. What the Harry Potter Principle claims is that only the special, talented people, the Harry Potters of the world, can enjoy the magic of creativity. Everyone else is just a Muggle, a faceless presence in the background whose sole job is to cough up applause and cash on cue, and to take whatever mockery and abuse their soi-disant betters decide to dish out.
It’s a lie, and a vicious lie at that. Writing is not something that only born writers can do. It’s a set of skills that, to cite Bradley again, anyone can learn if they can write a literate English sentence. If you have no natural gift for writing, you may not achieve greatness, but if you work at it you can learn how to tell stories, write poems, or craft nonfiction that people will enjoy reading.
How? Gather ‘round your Druid uncle, children, and he’ll explain.
Step One: You need to learn how to read the way a writer does. I imagine all of us have, and cherish, the experience of getting lost in a story, losing track of our surroundings because we’re so caught up in the experiences of a character in a book. Now and again, however, you’ll have to set that aside and pay close attention to how the book is helping you have that experience.
Choose a familiar book that delights you. Find a passage in it that you like—say, half a page or so. Read it once, just to enjoy it. Now read it again, paying attention to each word. Notice the rhythm and pace of the words, the length and structure of the sentences, the presence or absence of repeating letter sounds. Go over it again and make a mental note of every verb in the passage. Now do the same with every noun. Pay special attention to the diction—that’s a fancy word for the kind of language the writer uses. (Diction is what you look up in a dictionary.) Diction’s an essential tool and these days it’s a neglected one. Consider this bit of description:
“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess; it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.”
Now compare it with this one:
“Thunder was crackling in the foothills now and the sky above them was purple-black. It was going to rain hard. The air had the damp foretaste of rain. I put the top up on my convertible before I started downtown.”
Both of these were written by Englishmen in the 1930s, and in both of them a character is looking eastward toward mountains, but Frodo Baggins and Philip Marlowe are clearly very different people in very different places, and you couldn’t swap the diction of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Big Sleep without making hash of both books. J.R.R. Tolkien and Raymond Chandler each knew the diction they wanted and used it precisely. How did they learn that? By reading voraciously, noticing how other writers used diction, and then creating a narrative style and diction of their own that nobody has ever really been able to imitate.
You can read to learn diction. You can read to learn how to handle the mechanics of prose—for example, how to describe two characters having a conversation and make it work, whether they’re deep in love and murmuring endearments over the top of a little round table in a quiet café or battling to the death with broadswords and snarling insults at each other over the top of their shields. You can read to learn how to plot—not just the grand overall structure, but how each scene begins and proceeds and ends, how the pace picks up and relaxes, how the reader gets sucked from one scene to the next without hamfisted gimmicks like cliffhanger endings, and the rest of it. If you want to write, you’ll learn to read in all these ways and more, because it’s by this kind of reading that you learn the techniques of the art.
You’re not doing this to learn the right way to do things. There is no right way to do things. You’re doing it to figure out how the books you enjoy do what they do, so you can do the same things if you want to. While you’re at it, now and then, pick up a book you really dislike and pick it apart, so you can figure out why it’s so lousy and avoid the things that make it lousy. Giggle at the medieval characters who talk like stockbrokers, or the stockbrokers who talk like medieval characters; shake your head over the clumsy dialogue, the awkward descriptions, the endlessly rehashed clichés. That’ll immunize you against putting them into your own work.
Step Two: You need to write every single day. If all you can spare is fifteen minutes for writing, write for those fifteen minutes. If you can spare more, write longer. It doesn’t matter what you write about, and for heaven’s sake, turn off the spell checker and the grammar checker if you’re doing this on keyboard. Your goal is to pick up the habit of putting your thoughts down on paper. If you can’t think of anything to write about, write about how boring it is to have to write when you have nothing to write about. Or find some other theme. Just write.
When you’re writing, there’s one absolute, ironclad, essential rule: never edit while you’re writing. Brain researchers have found that the part of your brain that creates and the part of your brain that edits interfere with each other; if you try to use both at the same time, they both jam up. That’s called writer’s block. All those miserable writing assignments you stumbled through in school, sweating over every word to try to avoid a bad grade, might as well have been designed to give you writer’s block. Your mission, if you should choose to accept it, is to break out of that bad habit. One easy way to do it is just keep writing—don’t let your pen stop moving over the paper or your fingers over the keyboard, even if all you can write is gibberish or the repetition of some word. Keep the flow going. You can edit later.
In fact, editing later is a good habit to cultivate, right from the start. At first, it’s usually a good idea to do it at a different time of day, so you can build the habit of treating writing and editing as two separate activities. Take what you’ve written and read through it. Your goal at this stage isn’t to find faults, it’s to figure out how you can improve what you’ve written. If a sentence you’ve written looks awkward, that’s fine—you got the idea down. Now play with it, rewrite it in several different ways, and see if you can make it work better.
Later on, when you have some experience with editing, you can have fun at this stage: try rewriting one of your passages so it sounds like something in The Fellowship of the Ring, and then rewrite the same passage so it sounds like something in The Big Sleep—or pick two books you like, which use very different diction and style, and do the same thing. That’s for later, though. Start with simple editing, cleaning things up, having fun with different ways of saying things. Keep it playful, and remember nobody has to like it but you.
Those are your first two steps: first, learn to read like a writer; second, make it a habit to write every single day, and save editing for some later time. There’s more to it, and we’ll get to the next steps as we proceed, but I want to stop here for the moment and take a broader look at the macrocosm of modern society.
The same pressures that taught you that you can’t write were also used just as systematically to teach you that you can’t do plenty of other things, too. The interchangeable parts that come out of a factory can’t do anything by themselves; all they can do is carry out some prearranged function in a machine somewhere. The goal of schooling as it’s practiced in today’s industrial societies is to make sure you can’t do anything by yourself, either, so that you’ll accept being plugged into a machine somewhere to carry out a prearranged function there. Maybe that sounds like the kind of life you want. It never interested me, which is why I did something else—and if it doesn’t interest you, why, you too can do something else.
Every human being without exception has the capacity for magnificence. We are not condemned to a life of lurching through prearranged functions by anything but the lies we’ve been taught and the capacities we haven’t yet learned to use. Your potential for magnificence may well not be the same as mine—that’s the reality behind all that pretentious babble about talent—but you have the potential. If you want to do something with it, why, you now know how to get started, because the same principles noted above apply to most human activities:
- Pay close attention to how other people do the thing you want to do, and learn from their successes and their failures.
- Practice the thing you want to do every single day, without burdening yourself with stress about doing it right—you can sort out the details later.
Do these things and a door will open for you. As for what lies beyond that door—why, we’ll talk about that in three weeks.
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There are five Wednesdays in this month, and by a longstanding tradition on this blog, that means the readers get to vote on a topic for the fifth Wednesday post. What would you like to hear me chatter about?