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Boilerplate Learning to Write Is Killing us

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

Why do you write? Have you ever thought about it? I mean really, really thought about it. Do you write because you want to be famous or make money or impress your friends or your family or do you do it because there’s nothing else to do? Why? Is there something about you that makes you want or need to write? Do you have secrets to share or knowledge or are you trying to get even with the world through your writing? All of it? None of it? Sounds like a multiple-choice exam, doesn’t it? But I suppose each of us has to answer some of that at one time in our lives, or do we?

Frankly, I’m tired of the old chestnut that people write because they have no choice. It’s as though it’s an addiction that must be satisfied and I don’t believe that. I think people write because there’s beauty in the words and a world of your choosing can be created and you are the god of the alphabet that stretches as far or as near as you want it. You have the power to force emotion or to open minds, whichever you choose.

Can someone teach us to write, to be a wonderful wordsmith (a word I haven’t seen very often)? Is there some innate ability that can be brought out? One well-known writer said that he can help make people writers or better writers than they were, but out of a class of 30-40 or 50, there will be one, only one that will have that sheer magical ability to rise above all others. Is it genetic or early childhood learning?

Many of the writers who have provided all those tips for the rest of us say that they began to write when they were three or six or, at the very latest, 12 and it came naturally. They had no formal training, no one prompting them to write; it rose out of something, but they couldn’t say what other than that they enjoyed writing. Scribbling with pencils and crayons, they produced works that their mothers put on the family fridge. It was always seen as worthy of exposition.

A bit of discouragement for anyone who didn’t start writing at a young age was provided by Albert Einstein. The giant of Princeton said that if you didn’t make a significant contribution by the age of 30, that was it for you. Yes, he was biased and looked at a very small sample in his circle, but we still loudly applaud the wunderkinds who make that “30 under 30” success list or whatever they’re calling it. Forget it as surely as you need to forget that interpretation of dreams theory of dear old Ziggy.

The past year, I’ve spent hours reading, watching and listening to famous and not-so-famous writers provide all the mechanical tricks and spreadsheets or mind maps to outline written works. Quite a few of the “helpers” on YouTube are young women (mostly, come to think of it) who have some claim to fame as writers but I’m not sure in what genre.

I don’t read romance novels or spy stories or science fiction. My books of choice gravitate to the classics (and I’m not nearly half-way through them), biographies, religious history and books on politics or world history. Restricted I admit, but it’s what I enjoy and unless I’m going for a fourth degree (and I’m not), I have no intention of poking my cursor into the “buy” icon of any others if I can avoid them.

Thus far what have I learned? For sure, there is no agreement among some of the highly successful writers about what you should and should not be doing with regard to your sentence structure (unless it’s Stephen King who knows it backwards), your plot curve with its predictable three-act structure or the required crisis that must be resolved and then there’s another crisis.

King as well as Atwood and Gaiman seem to all believe that you write as you wish and the purported structure of the novel should not be the straitjacket you surely must don if you are to be a writer of worth. Gaiman is quite the outlier here because he not only writes highly profitable novels, he is a comics guy as well.

What about that longitudinal story that goes from beginning to end? How about dipping into the characters lives as children or the experiences they’ve had and not going full tilt ahead in a timely manner? Don’t all of us go back and forth in time as we think about our lives and the people we’ve known or the things we’ve done? Of course, we do.

We play those movies time and time again and whether there’s a cost for it is ours and ours alone to know. Some do this obsessively, so why wouldn’t a writer put that structure into their story? The obsessive bobbing and weaving of backstory and contemporary existence is the stuff of life. It is the fabric which we’ve woven and if there are nubs in the warp or the weft, isn’t that what makes us unique and interesting or highly disturbed? Well, perhaps “disturbed” isn’t exactly what I mean. But that handmade product is us and if someone is to tell our story (no, not really our story, but THE story), it’s got to be there, right?

Atwood talks about the “frame story” where there are many stories going on in the novel. I like that and, if a reader finds that disturbing, well I guess that’s not the novel for them. Think about “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Last Year at Marienbad” is still the bane of my existence. I’ve tried to watch that film so many times and I feel physically sick because it is moving so slow for me.

Yes, I will give it another try right after I finish watching “The Bicycle Thief” where I, within the first 10 minutes, knew the dilemma that would turn up and that it might not be solved so easily by the unemployed man. Didn’t Tennessee Williams do a bit of that in “Suddenly Last Summer” in the film version where she goes back to that fateful day that Sebastian goes down to the beach and meets the crowd of young boys?

Call it a flashback, if you wish, but that’s plotting and it’s her remembering and it adds to the story rather than disrupts it. I know, sometimes the writer isn’t so clear that it’s now switching to another person’s memory of something. I’m finding that in “Olive Kitteridge.” No, I didn’t read that when the book won the Pulitzer Prize. Isn’t it ironic that a man accused of advancing his newspaper’s circulation through the use of yellow journalism should have such a prestigious book prize named after him?

Undoubtedly, I am catching up on a lot of things and the ever-emerging new world of book publishing is one of them. But, if we are writers, how should we craft our writing; to satisfy a need to provide well-crafted books or the demands of the publishing world be it brick-and-mortar or other types? Will these demands be met by us (internal demands, for sure) or by the nascent writing form of AI that will churn out books to each of our liking as though we provided the template and the program produced just one copy for our immediate devouring?

Will these programs that have begun to learn to program themselves replace fallible writers who struggle with theme, plot, characters, etc.? Who knows and why should we care? If we want to write, we will write. The fabric we weave with all those imperfections will continue to fascinate and AI may prove its undoing with its striving for perfection in grammar and other aspects of the “written” word.

For now, write on my friends, write on.

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