How Not to Do It

It is odd to say that the book on writing by a famous writer is a curious beast; there are, after all, so many of them, how odd could they be?   But they occupy a very strange niche in the literary world. They’re something akin to a Lifetime Achievement Award, a special prize given to someone who has simply managed to stick around long enough and still have attention paid to them; at a certain point, we reckon, they must know what they’re talking about, or they wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Unfortunately, that is rarely if ever the case.  The whole question of whether writing can be taught at all, let alone who is qualified to teach it and how it should be taught, is a thorny one.  Just being a successful writer no more equips you to produce a useful work on writing than being a great athlete makes you a good coach, or being a successful businessman makes you an expert on handling money.  And, of course, some of the best advice on writing can come from people who never had any particular success at it; indeed, failure can be the best teacher.  What we often fail to recognize is that teaching is itself an art, distinct from the subject being taught; and while being a bad writer doesn’t make you a good writing teacher, neither does being a good one.

Writing is, after all, an intensely personal sort of work, and one that encompasses a vast range of creative expression.  Beyond a basic vocabulary and the ability to teach specific frameworks and structures — none of which should be minimized, as these are the rules that must be not only learned but understood before they can be successfully broken — the teaching of writing is largely a crapshoot. It would be nice to think that one could learn writing the way that one learns mathematics or chemistry or engineering, but those are fields with steadfast and inescapable laws.  Writing is a lot of things — a calling, an art, a career, an obsession — but it is certainly not something that is subject to any sort of law. Any attempt to teach it must primarily be understood as not so much the illumination of rules and techniques as it is the dispensing of advice, often bad.

Stephen King, as he provides us with so many concrete examples of things, being the best-selling writer since Jesus Handsome Christ, gives a good account of this rule.  The fact that he wrote a book on writing (called, with Kingly precision, On Writing) at all is proof that he’s been elevated to that rare level where such things are not just possible but actually expected; it’s a tendency also manifested in the always-to-be-avoided urge to insert yourself, or a fictionalized version of yourself, into your fiction, which King has also done.  That King, an author whose flaws are neither few in number nor difficult to discern, would write a book on how to write well, is simultaneously shocking and completely expected, as is the fact that it is full of terrible advice.  King praises the value of editing, which he clearly has not done (or had done to him) in the last 20 years; he valorizes story over plot while never making a clear distinction between the two; and he somehow manages to lecture the reader about not lecturing the reader.

Elmore Leonard, too, was a man who put out good and occasionally great work but came by his credentials as a teacher of writing by dint of combining success with longevity. His own legendary “Ten Rules for Good Writing” show the inherent folly of such exercises:  any well-read person with a lively sense of curiosity could answer practically every one of his ‘rules’ with an indisputably great novel that did exactly what it says not to, from opening with a description of the weather to describing a character in great detail to using the word “suddenly”.  These rules are written in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, but what they primarily serve to illustrate is that Leonard does what pretty much all writers do when concocting such lists:  they’re simply creating a bunch of rules that apply to them, to their audience — a process that has exactly no value or currency unless you’re the exact same kind of writer going after the exact same kind of audience.  It’s no coincidence that these men both craft intensely plot-driven genre fiction; one shudders to think of the development of a literary writer bound by such conventions.

Which isn’t to say that similar books by literary lions have not produced equally dismal results.  Many great writers less dedicated to make themselves equally unpretentious, from Kurt Vonnegut to Maya Angelou, have produced works on writing that are full of vague affirmations, highfalutin nonsense, and things that sound intelligent but lack any practical application.  Pseudo-reference worms through these books like holes in Swiss cheese.  One reason for this is that great writers are not always great critics, and the teaching of writing is far closer to an act of criticism than it is an act of creation.  So, too, are many textbooks on writing little more than the application of specific formulae, along with a few perfunctory assignments that are likely to produce writers that will never wander near an original thought or a surprising sentence.  It is this sort of thing that makes me think that the greatest advice on writing ever given was when Flannery O’Connor lamented that, far from stifling too many writers, universities didn’t stifle enough of them.

But really, this is also a bad rule.  There are many great books on writing, and more than a few that I consider not only hugely influential and important in my own life but also excellent books in and of themselves, great works of art that should be more widely read by everyone. Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is filled with excellent observations despite coming from an author whose work I don’t particularly enjoy; and Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft is that rare set of writing exercises that are useful and interesting rather than dull and rote.  George Orwell’s rules from “Politics and the English Language” are a good tonic to Elmore Leonard’s, if only because he recognizes that all of them can be violated in service of writing something elegant. Two books by European authors that ought to have far greater traction in the English language are Towards a New Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet and S/Z by Roland Barthes, which not only changed the way I write but the way I read.  And the Oulipu writers were amongst the first to realize that by engaging in writing exercises that introduced severe constraints, they did not limit themselves, but discovered a new world of freedom and liberation.

Still, even that shows that I have gravitated towards writing instruction that happens to suit my conception of what good writing looks like.  In the end, the truest advice is that of the author of The Razor’s Edge:  “There are three rules for writing a novel,” Maugham revealed.  “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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