Thursday, October 11, 2012

When All Else Fails, Read More

Writing. Oh, the drama. Oh, the angst.

When I read Prozac Nation, I wondered how it was possible that the author could have any friends at all who retained any patience with her. I would have given up on such a drama queen long before. I'm now in a position to wonder why others aren't giving up on me.

I don't mean to be cryptic, but believe me, you don't want to hear the drama. It's so lame to be tempestuous about your writing and to see that you're doing it even as you're doing it and to press on anyway. SO lame.

Here's the news I can talk about: thanks to a recommendation I'll talk about later I ordered Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway et al., and it arrived yesterday. I flipped through it and read some bits and pieces during Balcony Time yesterday. Awesome book, y'all. It's a textbook so it was absurdly priced, but I think it'll be worth it.

I was reading about how detail interacts with the reader's perception to create character, which is a preferred and more skillful way to create character than to just set forth traits, and it dawned on me that this was the first time I had read or heard about this in a non-oblique way. Sure, I'd known that showing was preferable to telling, and I'd known that writers I liked gave me concrete reasons to like their characters rather than just saying "Lucy was brave", but no one had explicated the technique of it at length in paragraph form for me until now. And I hadn't understood that "show, don't tell" is a flexible statement that applies to more than one mechanic.

Writing suddenly seemed like carpentry. Like using a bunch of skills to build a table, rather than creating art per an unpredictable muse. There's artistry in a nice table, fo' sho, but I'd thought it was all mysterious and weird and woo-woo when you're creating something beyond The Da Vinci Code. I'm just not sure anymore that's true. Even high-literary writers and wacked-out experimental writers seem to have a grasp on such techniques, I realize, and I'd somehow thought it was stuff that couldn't be taught, at which you just had to have talent.

Later on I read about story form, plot, structure and the opposite thing happened: I just couldn't knock this shit down to size in my head. It all seemed abstract. Power? Conflict + connection? I couldn't make it into a framework; it seemed like the writer was saying many disconnected things with similar terms. This gave me cause to make noises of frustration aloud (quietly, so the neighbors wouldn't call the police), and to wish desperately that I could do my undergraduate degree over again and take half a dozen writing classes instead of anthropology and politics. I wanted a teacher to knead through this material class by class over the course of a semester and answer my questions and grade my papers.

Instead, what faces me is self-education. Weeks and weeks of reading this book and taking notes and doing exercises on my own. I'm going to really set down some effort on this, try and make it a self-taught class in writing fiction, and I expect to marvel during the process about as much as I despair.

I have been thinking lately about trying to take a couple of writing classes at Cal State Northridge, which is not the finest university in California but which is only a couple of blocks away. Not a bad place to start, at least. I'm not sure I can afford it and I have no idea what the protocol is for enrolling someone like me who already has a B.A., but I'm seriously frustrated about feeling like I'm at square one every time a question of mechanics or technique comes up. I need a better toolbox. And you know what Hermione does every time she's stuck and doesn't know what to do? She goes to the library. This is what I was taught to do, too.

That's how I got my hands on Writing Fiction, in fact. Some weeks ago, after getting a rejection, I asked an English professor I happen to know what she thought I should do about feeling inadequately educated in writing. She was very much against an MFA, but she suggested looking at syllabi for MFA programs and reading those books instead. I thought that was a terrific idea, and she did me one better by asking a colleague of hers, a writing professor whose name I know because she won an O. Henry a few years back and I read that story, whether she could recommend any books for this purpose. She did, and that led me to yesterday's grrring on the balcony.

And that brings us


DeAnna said...

Eh, don't take writing classes. Take screenwriting classes. Most writing classes are really either workshopping classes (the blind leading the blind) or professor-in-training classes (critical analysis). Screenwriters don't muck about.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I like critical analysis! But screenwriting certainly abounds here in L.A., so I'll think about it.