Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Everything Old Is New Again

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.


  1. This all goes back to the one unbreakable rule of writing fiction ...

    Tell an interesting story.

    Everything else, grammar sometimes included, can fall by the wayside. So long as it's interesting to someone. No matter how that's done.

    It was recently brought to my attention that my naive farmboy in SON OF MAGIC was too world-weary and logical. Which was actually good, because he's going to be rewritten as an engineer once I get done with my current WIP.

  2. Scott, I've gone through a similar process. At times I've wanted to write like my favorite writer, but I fail to capture what it is that makes his writing so attractive to me so I stop trying to. Right now, I'm reading widely, trying to see what authors are doing well so that I learn from them in the hopes that I continue to improve my craft.

  3. I love this post. Sadly I haven't kept up with blogging lately, so I feel its time to pick it up again. Your post was just the thing I needed to hear to get my creative waves flowing again. Thanks for the inspiration!

    PS... I'm not sure why you have a starfish brain, but the thought of it makes me laugh.

  4. I was wondering what Davin meant by the starfish brain. He's going to have to explain that.

    Well said, Scott, about experimenting. I experiment nearly every time I sit down to write. I'm always trying new things. However, I think only .002% of what I try actually stays on the page and works. Everything that surrounds it is traditional storytelling - what Matt says ends up in an "interesting story."

    As you're aware, the ice-cream model I'm always referring to is something that proves traditional storytelling is the only way to make a story work. No matter how a story is told, no matter what experimentation is used, I've found that if you don't have specific role functions and parameters, the story simply doesn't work well.

    Writing is malleable. Rules are guidelines. Experimentation = possibility. But I think, in the end, a story is a story is a story.

  5. I liked your blog. Hey, would you like to come to mine? Mine is at www.seraphlybloggerofearth.blogspot.com. Of my creative musings and such. Come follow and comment! I’d appreciate it and I am trying to get my voice as an author and artist heard!

  6. That was pretty funny with steps 2 and 3. I suppose I've never really tried to emulate a specific writer. But I suppose that when it comes down to it, you do have to tell a story. Even if the story itself seems small, your writing can make it large and worthwhile. So in that regard, you have lots of room to play if you can make it work.

  7. You'll find what works. There are plenty of writers that admire but I aspire to be better than all of them!

  8. Really interesting post, Scott. Like a small window into your (starfish) brain. ;)

    (Do starfish have brains?? Davin really must explain!)

    I think there is both a freedom in experimenting but maybe a constraint too--if one feels that she must be experimental or avoid traditional forms of storytelling just for the sake of being nonconforming.

    Some of the flash I read on the internet appears like it exists for the sake of its unconforming form/structure/use of "shocking" word choice etc, but not really to tell a story. To me, that feels like I've been used. Like you want me to think you're cool, but I just came for a good, well-told story.

    That being said, I don't think we should be too rigid in this or not be open to something that seems slightly off the wall. I'm thinking of James Wood who whacked Zadie Smith et. al. for writing as though they were afraid of silence, throwing in all kinds of plots and subplots and silliness. I've described Smith's writing as over the top, but I still consider it traditional storytelling. Especially with Smith, I think the style itself has a larger point, that it is another layer of the story, not like it was just out there on display. If that makes sense. And it probably doesn't because I have a fever and am totally rambling.

    But Davin, after thinking about all this, I'm even more curious about Rooster.

  9. Scott, Nice post. I wonder if Step 7 will again be an attempt to write something not like anything you've written before. I wonder if it's an oscillation. I feel like the order in which we learn things helps to contribute to the final project, and these rollercoaster journey's somehow work their way into our writing, just as the other parts of our history do. I'm working on a traditional story, and already I'm learning a lot. I will probably (or hopefully) get to a place where that traditional structure is internalized so that I can depart from it and still make a story that's fun to read. We'll see.

    Regarding the starfish brain I refer you to your own post: "My plan now is to take a bit of a break and regenerate the part of my brain that knows how to write." Oh, I'm droll.

  10. Jennifer, I'm in the middle of trying to decide if Rooster works or if it is a structural mess at the moment!

    And, thanks for the link to the Chee article! I had just read something he wrote about Annie Dillard!

  11. This is a great post. Sadly, I didn't get to step one until I was in college. But #'s 2 and 3 - I've been there and done that!

    I've never consciously tried #4. At this point, I've come to the realization it's simply about the story.

  12. This post was very thought provoking. In the end, the prevailing thoughts directed me to Google "starfish brain" and this is what I learned:

    The starfish does not have a brain.

    I think Scott can still take this as a compliment because a) Davin already explained what he meant and he did not mean to call Scott brainless, and b) the entire nervous system of the starfish acts as its brain.

    So the smaller sections of the starfish can function as holistically as the entire starfish. I sense that same level of detail in the nuances of Scott's writing (based on his posts and comments). It can be related in a positive way.

  13. Two things:

    1. Stories are part of our collective human heritage. They speak to what it means to be human. There is an inherent structure in all stories, even when we think there isn't. It's like the promise of "once upon a time...." As humans, we are pre-wired to hear, understand and appreciate stories. (At least I think so.)

    2. I want a starfish brain.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.