I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
Life is choices.
When you’re eighteen, the future stretches before you. Your life is a page with no words, a canvas with no paint, a score with no notes. Each choice you make writes the story, colors the portrait, and sings the harmonies.
However, for every door that choice opens, it closes another. At eighteen, I dreamed of many careers, and I was lucky enough to follow several. By the end of my fifth decade, though, I’d still not tried writing fiction. I thought it couldn’t be that hard. I’d written dozens of research papers, a couple of math text books, and I’d read a zillion novels.
So, I set out to write a publishable short story. That was my goal. Six months, tops, and I could cross that off my to-do list. After all, I had lots of stories to tell. I’d just pick one, polish it, and I’d be done. Like Bradbury, I didn’t think I needed anyone to tell me how to write.
Of course, I’m not a natural genius like Ray Bradbury. I’m just a guy who wanted to write fiction.
Hemingway tells us writing is easy: just sit at a keyboard, open a vein, and let the blood flow. How true! Sure, I had lots of stories in my head. But they turned out to be excruciating to write. Characters came alive in my brain. Their anguish became mine, along with their joys and their triumphs. All those strangers stomping around in my skull, clamoring to be heard, scared the crap out of me. I had to get them out, onto the page.
Despite being so real in my head, when they populated my page they turned to ash. Instead of living, breathing people, my pages filled with dust. My mathematics monograph on A Rapidly Convergent Iteration Method and Gateaux Differentiable Operators was a zinger by comparison.
So, I decided to read a book on how to write. In fact, I read a bunch of books, but none of them really helped. Even John Gardner’s marvelous The Art of Fiction didn’t help, although it clearly provided a theoretical basis for effective fiction.
The problem is that good fiction is more than characterization, or plotting, or pacing. It’s more than dramatic structure, or theme, or metaphor and simile. It’s even more than the solid foundation that Gardner teaches. Good fiction is also craft: countless details that work together to produce art.
When I first joined Writing.Com, I was incredibly lucky to have a small group of talented writers take me under their collective wing. I learned simple techniques to make prose more effective. At first, these looked like stylistic idiosyncrasies, like tricks. But then I remembered from my mathematical training the difference between a trick and a technique. A trick is something you do once; a technique is something you can do many times.
If you master the techniques of effective writing, then and only then can you develop your own style. Indeed, it is in mastering those techniques that your style evolves.
Just because you own paints and a brush doesn’t mean you can produce art. Just because you can construct grammatical sentences doesn’t make you an author.
Sometimes, I’ll have a beginning author reject my suggestions about technique, telling me that’s “not their style.” Fine. Everyone has their own style. But pay attention to the Picasso quote at the start of this essay. Contrast it with the Bradbury quote. Unless you’re one of those rare geniuses like Bradbury, it pays to learn the techniques other authors have worked out over the ages. Even Picasso said we are all beginners, learning from each other.
Picasso mastered the techniques of realism as a young man. If you don’t think so, just Google “Picasso realism” and look at the images that come up. In fact, he never totally abandoned realism. Consider his lovingly detailed 1924 painting of his spouse at the top of this blog. While his 1954 portrait of Jacqueline Rocque is a recognizable Picasso, he also penned this delightful and realistic sketch of her in the same year.
Picasso never abandoned realism even as he developed his world-shattering style.
Picasso once said that when he was young, he could have become anything: a doctor, a lawyer, an author. Instead, he said, he became Picasso. But he became Picasso because he first learned the rules like a pro, and then broke them like an artist.
If you are an author, really an author, you have stories in you clamoring to get out. You have no choice. You must write them. But if you want their telling to be effective, you need to master the craft of writing, just as Picasso mastered the craft of drawing.
Effective stories are works of art. Successful authors make their own rules. The artist knows the purpose the rule serves and breaks it with deliberate intent, to achieve an artistic goal.
So is writing art or is it craft? The answer is that it’s both. Craft precedes art, and art transcends craft.
I’ll end this essay with another quote from Ray Bradbury: “You fail only if you stop writing.”