I play the violin. Not brilliantly, but not so badly, either. I have taken lessons, what we in the business call “classical training,” which means that I am in my own small way part of a tradition that goes back to about 1700. I’ve also studied music history, theory and composition, which means that I have an awareness of the way classical music has evolved over the last 300 years, each successive generation of players and composers building on the developments of the previous generation. Even the avant garde composers, the serialists, the atonalists and the minimalists have written music that is directly connected to this tradition, no matter how weird the music seems on the surface. Excuse all the backstory.
Yesterday Davin Malasarn (who elsewhere curiously implies that I have the brain of a starfish, which calls for an explanation, DM) posted about writing something that does not try to be experimental, that tries to conform to traditional storytelling. Which got me thinking. I pause to reflect on how so many of my posts these days are responses to things Davin and Michelle have posted. Excuse the digression.
Anyway, Davin’s plan to write something in a traditional manner with a traditional structure made me realize something about my own journey as a writer. In brief, my writerly evolution has gone something like this:
1. Lots of reading as a kid, sparking a desire to see my own name on a book cover.
2. Trying to write like the authors I admired.
3. Failing to write like the authors I admired.
4. Trying to write nothing like the authors I admired, trying to be “original” and “experimental” to “find my own voice.”
5. Failing to come up with any Earth-shattering new way of writing.
6. Trying to write like the authors I admired.
What I think happened at steps 2 and 3 is that I didn’t know enough about the craft of storytelling to be able to write the way I really wanted to write. The authors I admired all knew how to tell stories. These writers were part of the literary traditions that stretched back from present day all the way to Aristotle’s Poetics. Even if the writers I admired didn’t know Aristotle, they were writing in ways that reflected his ideas about narrative, character, dramatic tension and conflict, et cetera.
In the end, I think we all return to some kind of traditional storytelling (even the current experimental writers like J.M. Coetzee and Italo Calvino), because we tend to understand stories in a certain way, and writing to that understanding makes our stories meaningful to our readers. I also think that the step of striking out on our own and trying things we’ve never seen attempted is important, so that we have unique and individual writerly experiences that we can bring back to the traditional forms when we do return. Sort of like the prodigal son returning with war stories and battle scars and knowledge gained of the outside world. Or something. My starfish brain struggles with similes this morning.
What I’m getting at is this: to try new things and experiment is important and, likely, necessary to growth as a writer. But in the end, basic storytelling and prose skills are what will find us a readership and make our work valuable. I know too many talented writers who, when their experimental phase didn’t get them published, gave up writing entirely. I think of myself as a traditional sort of writer, but even so, I try new things in every piece I write. But I don’t concentrate so much on the experimental side of things these days; my first priority is writing a coherent narrative and telling an interesting story. Do I know, really, where I’m going with this rambling post? Not so much. Mostly, I am sharing my amusement that I have come full-circle on my writerly journey, and am back to trying to write like the authors I admire.