Teaching Writers

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.

Grammar Rules

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.

Fresh Ideas

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, Author

Jeffrey J Michaels, Author

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


3 thoughts on “Teaching Writers

  1. Ahhh, your words need to be directed to agents’s and publishers’s ears! Your writing is lovely, humorous, and intelligent. I know, I know, I probably just cursed you with an image that will be scoffed by the publishing world. But you are my kind of writer!! I believe that the gatekeepers of publishing are a series of MFA students who have been indoctrinated by wanna-be writer professors who have a theory of writing rather than a practical knowledge of writing. Yes, I dare say that. As you pointed out, subtly, there is a trend that is permeating the publishing industry, and if you dare not be “in” you are thrown into the rejection pile. “You need to show more…” Or, “Your dialogue is too wordy…less is more.” (This would invalidate most of the great 20th Century writers.) Then, there is my favorite, “Don’t use so many adverbs.” Really? This is like having a beautiful suit and not adorning it with a tie; a gorgeous dress without great shoes! But I digress at the simple simile. The industry has become “pedestrian” dictated by a sorority of like minded people who can’t see past their own little world of literate elitism…or so they think. The creativity of writing has gone to the wayside in lieu of formulas and “standards” that some arbitrary group has deemed literature. I realize that all eras of artists have had these issues: stagnation. Hence the great painters, musicians, and writers that have emerged over time giving us revolutions of the arts. And we are going through the same thing now. I do believe an article like yours helps writers of your ilk…the creatives who want to give the world individuality and something “new” or what I like to refer to as real art, the next revolution to transform the publishing world. If we don’t, I fear we will continue on with mediocrity. (And really bad books!) I have dared to write something that isn’t out there…filling a gap in the marketplace that is needed. Eeeeek, I just described a business term! Shame on me for my capitalism thought of writing to a marketplace that is under represented. I know I am forging a path not taken by the people who hold the power. But damn if I will try, and stand firm in my belief that “our” time will come when the creative process will find its way back to publishing.

  2. Gotta disagree.
    But first, agree. I agree that the first draft or two should throw out all the “must do’s,” including grammar and structure and any random craft rules, so that the fetterless muse drives the words and ideas with utter abandon.
    But when the early drafts have cooled enough that they become alluring again to the writer, now’s the time to let the rules seep into the writing. To polish a clumsy base description into a shining metaphor. To make that three-paragraph run-on sentence into a masterpiece of clarity and brilliance.
    It’s super ego-boosting to denigrate the learned among us, to poo-poo English and MFA degrees, to ignore the rules about technicals as well as structure and craft, to constantly “tell” instead of “show,” making mud-holes of self-indulgent rant that only a best friend will appreciate because they understand your heart and mind.
    Within the M.A. and M.F.A. degree preparation are untold hours of reading, dissecting, and processing the ideas and techniques of the great literary works of the various cannons. Can Dickens teach us something about character development and the incline of story? Yep. So can the consumption of hundreds of poems, treatises, short stories, and novels, required of the higher-degree writing student. Once studied, literature can inform today’s writing and make it richer.
    No writing teacher I ever met said to copy the greats, nor do I in my teaching of novelists and creative nonfiction writers. But study them? Yeah. Learn from them? Absolutely.
    With respect, I don’t agree the creativity of writing has gone by the wayside. If you hear someone say “this is the only way to do it,” take what pearls you need from them and leave the rest. Some writers need the rules so they can build up confidence. Some don’t. That doesn’t make either one wrong.
    I guess I’m saying I don’t see the need to bash teachers-of-craft or university instructors or their “rules”; instead, learn from them and then create your own voice and style. The day a writer stops learning is the day the writing dies.

  3. Luella, I meant no offense to MFA recipients and teachers alike, or that I do not value the hard work and knowledge obtained with higher education. Education is never wasted and I am a strong advocate of higher learning. Your points are well taken about learning from writers of the past, and learning the skills of the craft. But I will insert, that “untold hours of reading, dissecting, and processing the ideas and techniques of the great literary works of the various cannons,” does make for a great writer, necessarily. It makes an educated writer. If the two meet, education and creativity, then there is something great. But I think you are missing the point. I wasn’t talking about learning craft. I was talking about the creative process. There is a group-think mentality, if not a “trend” in writing, that is permeating the writing industry, whether writing programs, agents, editors, publishing houses. For example, who is to say that adverbs are bad??? When did this become such a poo-poo of writing? And yet, it is permeating the industry as if this is the way of a great writer. It isn’t. It’s a trend. Nothing more. If you were to set this standard of past writers, then they mostly likely would never be published. And yet, this is what is being spouted out to all new writers. I, for one, love adverbs. I love to read books with lots and lots of adverbs! I think they are the texture of a book. The truth of the matter, if one does not fit a mold, you are pushed aside (rejection pile) or asked to conform if you want to be considered. This, to me, is a shame, and is producing pedestrian art. Where are the movers and shakers? Where are the innovators? Where is the creativity in writing that opens the doors to different or unique? As a creative, it is hard to fit into a box, and yet the industry is almost demanding conformity to even be looked at. My point being, is that sometimes, as an industry based in the creative arts, it is important to evaluate methods and standards to avoid homogenization. Maybe it is time to open the box and see what is on the outside?

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