In my earlier posts on What is Writing, I suggested that we have to attend to two elements of writing to become something like a great writer. Let me qualify that statement. Even if you want to be a good writer, it will happen to the extent that you attend to these two elements. They are drawn from a definition I proposed for writing that goes like this:
Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication
I argued that the first half of this definition is just as crucial as the second half, but that a writing program really can’t deal with the first half. Writing programs teach the craft of writing, not the personal qualities or experiences that make someone a great writer. Picture Hemingway writing without his experiences. It wouldn’t have been him. He wouldn’t have been Hemingway. He might have written what he wrote well, though I question even that, but what he wrote wouldn’t have mattered.
It isn’t enough to learn the craft of writing.
On the other hand, it isn’t enough to have experience either. Plenty of big game hunters have mumbled through sentences around the campfire failing utterly to capture the drama of the charging elephant with its ivories flashing, feet stomp-trampling the brush, mammal-sweat-and-leather scent flooding the hunters flared nostrils, the click of the trigger and the flash in the pan deciding who is god and who mortal because they didn’t know where to put a comma.
The craft of writing teaches the writer how to match the form with the content; “to suit the matter to the word, the word to the matter,” to adapt my master.
You cannot escape the need for practice. I know personally because while I was a fairly talented writer growing up, I didn’t practice the craft as I should have, thinking it was a matter of inspiration, not practice. If I did want to practice, I only knew how based on what my teachers had taught me or what I experienced of story and reading.
Happily I was brought up in a very verbal environment. My brothers and I yelled at each other all the time. My parents read to us a lot. It is to this reading by my parents that I believe I owe 90% of all my love of learning.
Both of my parents loved stories, as do all unmalformed humans. But you can see that this means that they filled up my soul. There’s plenty there to overflow. Lots of Narnia, mythology, Perelandra, folk tales, Proverbs and proverbs, Shakespeare, Dumas, etc. etc. This was a gift, one of the best they gave me.
And all of that made writing easier for me because it gave me a taste for good writing and an impatience for boring, unimaginative, badly formed, mechanical writing. It all made me a little afraid to try writing stories on my own. I’ve always loved imaginative writing, but until recently I’ve been intimidated by it.
Recently I’ve discovered the craft of writing through classical rhetoric. I can’t begin to describe what it meant to me to read Aristotle’s rhetoric as an adult. I know that isn’t about telling stories, though he includes a bit about the “statement of facts.” But he did identify the thought process a rhetorician (speaker or writer) always has to go through to write or speak. Identifying this process makes it possible to consciously and deliberately imitate it. Nobody had done that in writing before Aristotle!
Having his handbook is a help, but it isn’t enough. A writer also needs a coach. I am still an undisciplined writer. I know that. I pay close attention to everything I read about writing, but I will probably never overcome some of the bad habits I’ve developed as a writer. But I’m beginning to surround myself with coaches, especially in the apprenticeship.
I’ve also begun to dream about joining a writer’s workshop, like the one in Iowa. My path is strewn with obstacles and a few pits, but someday I’d love to get that high level of coaching for fiction writing.
Let me return, however, to my point, hopefully illustrated by the foregoing. Writing, the craft, requires coached practice. Students need to learn the tools of the craft (grammar, punctuation, schemes, tropes, etc.). They need to practice using them and to have their exercises assessed. They need to be corrected and instructed by masters.
Then, when they have souls filled with matter, they’ll know how to suit the word to the matter.