You know I’ve enrolled in a writing course at the Visual Arts Center in my neighborhood. I’d been looking for an art class but inadvertently stumbled on their writing program. The first meeting was good, the second, not so much, but the third? Well, awesome. We critiqued each other’s first drafts of a short story and although the range of expertise varied (okay, I’m going with THE RULES here) the enthusiasm and creativity knocked me over. Listening to each writer express their passion for their story, writing without restraint, energized and enlightened me. They didn’t worry about dialogue tags or formatting (both easy to fix), they wrote with their hearts and imagination.
But that’s not even the best part! The instructor handed out an essay written by Flannery O’Connor. I admit I’ve never read any of her stuff and she did die in 1964 when I was thirteen and had no inkling that writing, or literature, would play any part in my life. What did Ms. O’Connor talk about? The aesthetic qualities of writing, or fiction as art. I would have hugged her if I could. (Ms. O’Connor, not the instructor.)
Ms. O’Connor spoke at a course entitled “How the Writer Writes,” where each week a guest author addressed the class. The essay, titled, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is a summary of her remarks and worth a read. It’s apparent that Ms. O’Connor is not a fan of formal writing education and that puts her in the company of many other iconic authors. Ernest Hemingway was vehement in this regard and yet it’s well known that he had “private tutoring” from both Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, pretty great crit partners by my estimation.
As beginning writers we want a set of rules on what to do and what not to do when crafting fiction. But the search for aesthetic absolutes is dangerous. Every true work of art should be judged primarily by it own rules. I’ve researched the words “art” and “artist” and cobbled together my own interpretation. The Greek word “techne” is often translated as meaning art, but it actually implies mastery of any sort of craft, thus, I believe an artist is a follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study or practice through experience not necessarily in the classroom.
I believe the most important trait for a writer, a narrative artist, or any artist, is a talent for telling the truth. Ignorance makes for bad writing. The Grapes of Wrath, although considered a classic, has one huge flaw. It is one-dimensional because Mr. Steinbeck, although knowledgeable about the Okies and their drive to find work in California, never bothered to research or understand the plight of the ranchers who employed and exploited them. No objectivity, no fair-mindedness. He oversimplified and didn’t tell the “whole truth.”*
If you think about it, by the age of four you’ve experienced everything you need as a writer: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. Life experiences are more valuable than time spent in any classroom. You need to understand human values, emotions and beliefs. A good piece of fiction has a lot to do with the character and personality of the artist who created it, their truth, their beliefs, their experiences. But in order for that work to be unique, the artist must also master the art of breaking the rules. Everyone knows about Chekov’s gun. Don’t put a loaded gun on the wall if you’re not going to use it. But there’s also the Red Herring, throwing your reader off the trail by tricking them. It is important to justify the journey your reader takes with you, so you must tie up loose ends and plot your story effectively and truthfully. Your reader will abandon you if you don’t. But do it your own way, not according to a formula that’s been imparted to you by seeming experts.
As writers we generally accept that often there may not be anything new to say: the old adage that there really is only one story—but there is always a new way of saying it. Having an eye for what works, coupled with mastery of the craft by writing over and over again, creates the habit of writing. But when the artist sees his work with no rules, no limits, no restrictions, he is free to create anything he can imagine. Take the Sistine Chapel, a seemingly impossible task on so many levels, but Michaelangelo had the ability to dream something that no one else could and after fighting at length with papal architects as well as the reigning pope, was finally permitted to “do as he liked.” And the result takes your breath away.
The scientist has the habit of science, the artist the habit of art. I consider writing a narrative art, which relies heavily on the idea of drama, the novel being a dramatic unit. To the great artist, anything is possible, invention paramount. We must write to express ourselves, not to fill our pocketbooks. We need truth, imagination and mastery, not cataloging the rules, in order for our creations to become true art.
Next: There’s Only One Story: Where is the beginning writer to begin?