Once, I didn’t have any teachers.
Not for writing, anyway. My first dedicated lessons in the art of writing came from my grandmother, a writer herself, when I was a teenager and had already been writing Rae Masterson’s adventures for about three years. Before that, I was largely self-taught, and in many ways I still am. I read widely and voraciously, and constantly challenge myself to write the best stories I can. I am my first test audience, and I’m quite a nasty one. (Remember, I used to tell my English teachers in school, “Don’t tell me whether my writing’s good work for a twelve-year-old, tell me whether it’s good!”) Most of my techniques are hard-won lessons I taught myself, the fruit of trial and error.
You know that old saw about how conflict is essential to good writing? I actually tried writing a few stories without conflict. (They were incredibly boring, and you will not get to see them.) That’s how I did most of my early learning about writing—through experimentation. I experimented with different kinds of characters and plots, and hammered away at my writing until I figured out how to introduce themes. It was tedious, grueling work, and it’s a good thing I loved it so much, or I might never have persevered.
In Arizona, I got to cheat that process. I got to stand up in front of about 600 kids, all told, and say, “This is how it works. This is what I know.” I broke down the basics of plot—using my own system, the one I developed when I found that “beginning, middle, and end” was the most frustrating way imaginable to describe a story I then had to write—and then helped the kids apply them to their favorite books and movies. I shared the best of the many tricks I’ve learned for characterization—secrets of motivation and worldview that lead you outward to words and actions. I showed them how to build fictional worlds, from gravity up. And I showed them how to find themes in what they read and what they watch, which I believe is the key to putting your own themes into your own work. (For one thing, I’ve found I tend to write them into my own stories without knowing they’re there, and find them only later.) If someone had told me these things when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I could have shaved years off my development as a writer. I am proud to have shared these ideas with those students.
Even so, I hope they didn’t listen too closely.
Because while all those elements are crucial to writing good stories, there is one I can’t teach. The best writers don’t just swallow what their teachers say (even when the teacher is me). They go after the rules with a hammer and bash them until only the stuff that works is left over. They try things, even if they’re told those things can’t possibly work. And they write. They sit down, day after day, with a pen or a pencil or a keyboard or a stick in the dirt, and they write. They find out what works for them. Everything I said in those lectures is what works for me, and for a majority of my students—but I’ve never met a writer who didn’t violate at least one important rule in at least one way. No two brains are exactly alike; no two souls are identical. Every writer has to discover for himself or herself what works for him or her. And the only way to discover that is to try everything in the hope of finding something.
Right now I’m writing a novel that came to life when I heard someone say I couldn’t do something. Specifically, they said that no one could write an adventure story (at least, one in the style of the West) whose hero was committed to nonviolence and making a serious go of it. If the good guy can’t fight the bad guys, I was told, the story doesn’t work, at least for Western audiences.
I’m writing that story now. I’m about halfway done with the first draft, and I’ve passed the first major fight sequence where the hero’s principles are put to the test. The chapter is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written, and consistently exciting (at least to me). There’s action, there’s suspense, there’s a funny bit with a dog and a moment to make you cry a little inside. You could say I cheated a bit, since there are plenty of other characters in the story who have no problem whatsoever with using violence—but the nonviolent hero is the most consistently interesting part, the most difficult to write, and the most satisfying when I finally figure him out. So it turns out it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. And that’s the thing about writers—they’re not afraid of hard. They’re not afraid of time-consuming. They’re not afraid of impossible, because they’re used to making the impossible happen.
I could see a few faces in the audience in Arizona that were thinking hard about what I was saying. I could almost hear wheels turning inside heads—“Can I really do that? Can I make that work? What if …?” Go with those instincts, guys. Try it. Mess around. Find your own voice, your own method. Figure out how you too can do the impossible.
And send me a link afterward, will you? I do so like to see how it’s done …