by Jeffrey J. Michaels
I was a poor student. I was inattentive and distracted. I did not see the point in much of what was being taught. This does not mean I was not an excellent student in my own self-directed studies. It just means my concern for grades and high marks was never a priority and the report card displayed my errant scholastic attention. My “permanent record” during matriculation is likely abysmal. I am unsure of the truth of that last statement because I am unsure of where exactly my permanent record is being stored. Also, I don’t care.
I suspect many creatives have a similar lament when it comes to their own school experience. We probably looked the same as one another, nose in a book (non-required and possibly forbidden), scribbling in notebooks (weird thoughts and observations about Those Others), volumes of stories and poems that were unassigned and unappreciated by the legions of grammarians who existed to inflict the proper use of sentence diagrams and enforce punctuation marks and bring to abrupt halt anything that might look like a run-on sentence, rather than assist in crafting artistically creative communications.
Ah yes! Grammar; that “set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics,” as that great scholarly democratizer Wikipedia puts it.
As writers we do not often sit down and write a story by first thinking, “How will I utilize the syntax of each sentence to clearly express the morphology of each character’s meaning in the dialogue to enhance the allegory and symbolism of my epic retelling of Moby Dick?” Well maybe some of us do, but personally I just sit down and start to write a tale or an article that interests me and hopefully will capture an audience’s attention. I never ever diagram a sentence.
The rules, as they are, can be interesting, but the creative spirit is not often fed by structure. Most of us learn storytelling by reading and watching stories. Everything from Citizen Kane to Bewitched, from Gilgamesh to the Twilight series, informs us of styles and substance, or lack thereof. We may not even understand that we are learning the craft, but subconsciously we engage mentally and emotionally with the words and images and the order, the structure, in which they are presented. When we sit down to tell our own tale it often will sound similar to the type of story we personally enjoy.
The Early Works
Our first (likely wretched) efforts at communicating a story further instruct us. In all probability we receive enthusiastic but, as we age, fading criticism from busy mom and dad. What is a literary or artistic triumph to a five year old is not deemed worthy when we turn fifteen. Besides, the refrigerator door is reserved for primal, Crayola explorations, not double-spaced typed themes of five hundred words on what it means to be a good citizen or why Melville is important to the modern age.
Our early creations are generally some permutation of existing narratives shared at bedtime (books our parents recall from their childhood) or in Storytime at the local library (books deemed worthy by a committee and included in a list published in a peer reviewed journal). These youthful inventions are an amalgamation of fairy tales and television commercials processed deep in our tiny minds and regurgitated out of our energetic little guts in an effort to make sense out of our world. This process changes little as we get older, by the way. It is only that we become more sophisticated in our skill set. And also in what we feed our brains upon.
Show Don’t Tell. Or Do You?
We learn lessons in the telling of the tale, or “showing” if you are following popular trends in writing instruction. Note: I am not. And neither are a lot of other authors, though we give lip service to the maxim. Please don’t tell them I told you.
Life experience is often more important in creative endeavor than formal training. This is not meant to say that formal training is useless. Far from it. Only, if you learn what has been done before and have those lessons reinforced as The Absolute, Entirely Correct, This-Is-What-the-Manual-Says way you will likely write to please the past.
It might be heresy to say that Charles Dickens, if writing to a modern day audience, is in need of an editor, so I won’t say that. I will say that styles shift and change. No one in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries would conceive of such a thing as flash fiction and any attempt would quickly have been relegated to the category of poetry and forced into a rhyming cadence. Limericks are the original flash fiction. These days the internet has altered our perceptions of storytelling beyond the craziest of ideas imagined by Lord Dunsany or H.P. Lovecraft. And they of course learned from those who went before. But they did not duplicate.
If you get a crazy idea and don’t know any better, you might, in your blissful ignorance, just try something that has not been attempted before. Children do this. They sit down and just draw and they do not naturally insist that all trees be green, or all fish remain in the water. The raw, unfiltered stories I see from newbie writers, the so-called uneducated, are frequently full of errors, true, but fueled with high concepts and fresh approach. Once that pure creative expression exists, it can always be shaped into a Grade A, First Class book. And we do that by then applying the lessons that matter, therefore not dampening the creative spirit.
School. Hide bound it may be, but the rules are there for a reason, much like traffic signs. Still, the road less taken leads places not often seen. It can be lonely to be the rule breaker, the weird kid on the bus, and it may never lead to great success monetarily, but the critics tend to trash the tropes and formula of those who learned to write by the book. As it were.
It is said that we should write the story we ourselves desire to read. Do you really want to read the same story someone else wrote? If that is the case, why write?
Your assignment for Monday is five hundred words on why you want to be a writer.
Jeffrey J. Michaels is a Gemini. As such he is deeply involved in whatever interests him at the moment. His describes his book A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions as “metaphyictional,” combining fantasy and humor with metaphysical elements. He is currently polishing a sweeping fantasy series of interconnected tales collectively known as The Mystical Histories. It is varied enough that he says he may even finish most of the stories. In his real life he is a well-respected creative and spiritual consultant. He does not like to talk about his award winning horror story. www.jeffreyjmichaels.com