The Art Form:

On Teaching Writing – April 23, 2017

Midnight writer

I can’t teach another person how to write. I don’t think anyone can. This is not to disparage those who teach writing courses and run workshops and retreats for beginning writers. Some of the basic skills are necessary and teachable. New writers also believe that the art includes structures they need to learn and professional secrets that can be taught. And I am not ungrateful to the excellent English composition teachers I had in high school and college who did teach me a thing or three. Finally, every new writer needs someone in a position to know something about writing who will read their work and give them both positive and negative feedback, because that builds confidence. But the art itself, the essence of writing—that can’t be taught, because it grows from inside a person.

Every new writer needs to know the basics. Becoming a writer is impossible without knowing the language in which you will write. For English, and for most other Indo-European languages, that means understanding its grammar, the parts of speech, verb tenses, slippery concepts like mood and, in English, the subjunctive, as well as sentence structure and diagramming, the rules and the malleability of syntax, a focus on words with vocabulary and spelling drills, the difference between a word’s denotations and its connotations, and on and on. It also helps immensely to study other languages that have contributed to your native tongue—as I did with French, Latin, and Greek—as well as one or more parallel languages—as I did with Russian and Portuguese—in order to recognize cognates and word borrowings, and to puzzle out the meaning of new words and gain a taste for their flavor.

The art of writing also has some broader structures that the novice can learn by rote. In the nonfiction world, the writer can study the organization of an argument: going from specific to general, or general to specific, and the logical fallacies that invalidate an argument in the eyes of any educated reader. A journalist learns the inverted pyramid structure, where the most important facts of the news story—the Five W’s of who, what, where, when, and why or how—occupy the lead, while other details and analysis necessarily follow. An essayist learns to find a hook in everyday experience—such as a common question or problem—that will draw the reader into the thread of the argument. A technical writer learns to break down processes into discrete steps and to address each one, with all its variables, separately and usually in chronological order.

In the fiction world, there are fewer formal structures to observe. Short stories are usually more compressed in time and space, and involve fewer characters, than novels.1 Most stories of any length are structured around some kind of loss, struggle, journey, or other contrivance that serves to keep the action moving forward. Most of them arrive at some kind of climax, where all the characters, plot lines, and problems come together and are addressed or resolved. And most also have a denouement, which tidies up any last unresolved plots and suggests how the characters will spend the rest of their lives. A playwright learns how to frame a story into separate acts, and how to move the action toward and break it—or appear to resolve at least some of it—at the end of each one. A playwright also learns to convey character and action through dialogue, where excursive histories and graphic action are not possible on a closed stage. A screenwriter must also learn a more formal writing structure, which involves placing the margins of action and dialog separately, so that one page of script roughly equals one minute of screen time, and to put certain words associated with sound or visual cues in all caps, so that they be noticed and given proper treatment in production. To be successful, the screenwriter also must obey current conventions about act structure and timing.

But aside from these generalities, the art of writing is something that either takes you into its confidence—or it doesn’t. Your mindset, daylight dreams, life experiences, and past reading either prepare you to tell stories, paint with words, and sing cantos to your readers—or they don’t.

Two years ago, I decided to make a formal study of music because, while I have always loved listening to music both popular and classical, my knowledge of it remained rudimentary. I wanted to be able to make music as well.2 I also want to keep my brain active and alive as I enter my later years, and learning new skills and tackling new challenges seem like a good idea. I began taking lessons on the keyboard—generic for pianos, organs, and synthesizers—and bought myself a Hammond drawbar organ with two keyboards, presets, vibrato and chorus, the Leslie function—don’t ask—and a set of pedals.3 I chose to learn the keyboard because it would teach me about chords and voicings in the way a single-note instrument like the trombone could not, and it had a fixed sound the way a stringed instrument—which needs to be constantly tuned—does not.

My teacher, who is a lifelong musician himself, had me learn scales and taught me the Circle of Fifths, which unlocked for me the structure of music. I already had some sense of how notes are represented on the staff, what the timing intervals are, and other parts of musical notation. I now learned how chords are structured, with all their variations, as well as chord progressions, which appeal to the ear and are the basis for most popular songs. This was like learning grammar and sentence structure as a prelude to writing.

My teacher has also taught me to differentiate harmony from melody, how to break down a new piece of music into its chords and their roots, to play them solo at first, and only then to work on the melody. This prepares me both to play the song and to accompany a singer or other band members. I also learned to blend the two functions of harmony and melody through voice leading. I learned to keep time in the bass and to do bass walks—although my timing is still faulty. I am now learning blues scales and their progressions. This is all like learning the various structures of nonfiction writing formats, or the differences between a short story and a play.

But … after two years, I am still at the stage of analyzing and interpreting, of working the thing out intellectually rather than emotionally. I am working my left hand to form chords or walk the bass, my right hand to play melody or voice lead, but the two are not yet coming together. I approach each new song as an exercise in deconstruction. A song is an intellectual challenge, not an act of personal expression. I can make music, but I don’t yet make it sing.

This is the essence of art. In music, you can learn notes, scales, chords, and progressions—but something inside you must open up and sing. In writing, you can learn grammar, vocabulary, and rudimentary structures—but something inside you must catch fire with story. A teacher cannot tell you how to light that fire. Oh, he or she can light matches and flip them at your head. A teacher can spot the small sparks that sometimes appear in your writing, point them out to you, praise them, and try to nurture them. But if the student’s mind is—figuratively—damp wood, then nothing will catch.

Armed with the basics of language and structure, any writer still must eventually teach him- or herself how to make a story come alive. In part, we do this by reading widely and observing what other writers have done and how they do it. For this, I love to study how a tale is formed in a short story or novel and then remade into a movie. Between one form and the other, the essence of storytelling emerges, stripped away and rebuilt, like a butterfly from a caterpillar’s chrysalis. As writers, we can also ask questions of the stories and novels we read: How did the author do that? What was he or she trying to achieve? Why does this feel right (or wrong)? We also absorb, as if by osmosis, what constitutes good taste in storytelling and what leaves a dull thud. And, of course, we learn by doing, by trying out new approaches, by seeing what works for us in our own personal style, how to create and move characters, by alighting on the forms and structures that work, by discarding the techniques and tropes that seem awkward and excessive.4

Writers learn by writing and adapting stories to their own personal taste and style, just as musicians learn by playing and adapting songs to the rhythms and harmonies that personally move them.

Ultimately, anyone with a sense for language and logic can learn to write an adequate newspaper article or a technical manual. These are about facts and only need an awareness of the reader and what he or she wants—or needs—to know in order for the writing to work. But stories involve something more, the dimension of emotions, of aspirations, desires, fears, and disgusts. Storytelling must look inside the writer’s own self and his or her own experiences to find the expression of ideas and emotions that will touch a similar chord in another human mind. Stories are as much about being human as they are a collection of words, imagined conversations, described actions, and resolved plot lines.

This is why I believe machine intelligences may one day write adequate newspaper articles and technical manuals, but they will never excel at writing fiction. Not, that is, until machines become so complex and involuted themselves that their programs resemble the human mind. Humans live in a shadow world: part of our daily life revolves around the facts and consequences we glean from the external world, and part lies in the interpretations we place upon them. And these interpretations, our attractions, aversions, and distractions—the push and pull of hot and cold feelings, towards and away from various thoughts and objects—are shaped by all of our mind’s unexpressed desires, hidden agendas, disguised hatreds, and other emotion influencers which lie buried in the subconscious and only come out in random thoughts and in our dreams.

If the writer of fiction does not touch this subconscious level,5 then the story will remain a mechanical exercise, a study of forms. It may involve extremely well-crafted characters carved from clues written on bits of paper drawn out of a hat. It may involve an intricate plot filled with actions traced on an Etch-a-Sketch. But it won’t make the reader glow with recognition, or identify with the situation, or even much care. That kind of story comes from within, and it’s nothing that one human being can teach another how to create.

1. Some fiction classes might also go into technical details that—for me—are esoteric to the point of disappearing into the aether, such as the differences between the novelette and novella and the novel. Aside from placing limits on length, I don’t know how these forms differ, other than being longer and more complex than a short story. How long should any piece of fiction be? Long enough to tell the story and satisfy the reader. Any other consideration is the business of publishers, such as how much paper and ink they will need to buy.

2. When I was in fourth grade, I started playing the trombone, along with dozens of other students who were being introduced to the school band with their own instruments. I could read music to the extent of linking notes on the staff with positions on the slide. I understood the timing of notes and tempo. I grasped that flats were a half-tone down, while sharps were a half-tone up. But I never understood the structure of our Western, twelve-tone music which makes the white and black keys of a piano a physical necessity. I never associated all those sharps and flats written on the staff at the start of a piece of music with anything other than the composer’s prefacing remarks; so I did not understand how they changed the playing of notes that appeared halfway down the page. The idea that music had different scales and keys, and that they were all part of a greater structure, was never fully explained to me. Naturally, I was terrible at playing the trombone.
       Nevertheless, my hunger to make music persisted through the years. I tried at various times to teach myself the violin, the guitar, the Chapman Stick®, and the French horn—all without success. Then, two years ago, I finally got serious and began studying music as a thing in itself, and I started taking lessons on the keyboard.

3. When I was growing up, my Dad bought a Hammond organ with rotary tone wheels and learned to play it. I never actually played the thing, but I did goof around on it, fiddled with the drawbars, and listened as the various pipe lengths and their voices came together to make a sound. So this instrument was more familiar to me than a piano and less bizarre than a synthesizer.

4. Early in my writing career, I heard an interview with Marilyn Durham about her novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, where she mentioned the problem of getting a character to walk through a door. This is harder than it sounds, because any writer grapples—as I was grappling at the time—with how much to show and tell in every action. Do you describe the door? Do you show the character twisting the doorknob? Do you use the sweep of the opening door to describe the room inside? My epiphany then and my practice ever since is that, unless the door is important and hides something tantalizing, ignore it. Start the action inside the room. Doors are for playwrights who have to get their characters onto a stage.

5. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.