Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking Back Control of What We Write--and Read: Moving Past Our Training and Culture

Voice and theme were the topic of a recent workshop I taught at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We had a lively discussion about the way we are writing--and reading--today.  A writer from the class emailed this week with more thought-provoking ideas.  

My premise:  We are being taught to write a certain way, in school, in business, a way that goes for appearance over substance.  It's changing the way we approach creative writing (books) and also reading.

Studies document our brains changing, our attention span growing shorter.  Nicholas Carr's The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a finalist for both the 2011 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards.  As writers, we are very interested in this change!   

The writer in my class added this idea:  we are also taught to focus on the main ideas, not just when we write but when we read.  "This makes it tough to engage someone to read a whole book," she said. 

What if the world is being split into two camps:  those who love books, who have been avid readers their entire lives, who somehow survived the training and still kept their love of complex literature, and those who find literature confusing, uninteresting--perhaps because the ability to read for shown meaning was trained out of them?

The writer in my class says she last read fiction books in junior high, "an occasional non-fiction book since then but I usually have a high motivation to learn something on the topic and am thus more effective at forcing myself to read it to the end.  When I read setting, I skim right over it."  She is looking for the main ideas just like she was trained to, but setting usually only has images and description.  "Not surprisingly," she adds,  "I resist writing setting."
Voice and theme come from shown meaning, from images, primarily used in setting.  Images that arise organically from the writer's core and life passions.   

Uh-oh.  If our ability to enjoy theme, understand shown meaning (versus told meaning, which nonfiction uses) is being trained out of our brains, will we be able to find the meaning that emerges as theme, as authentic voice?

I'm not talking about the structure experiments that are stretching the norm:  the cinematic books, the rise of graphic novels, the shorter chapters in many novels and memoirs (sometimes one paragraph or one page), or the new overall structures like Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index and episodic novels like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Evolution happens in any creative art.  Neither good nor bad, it reflects the changes in our culture.  What I don't want to see:  our training away from substance dictating the new forms.  Do we want only literature that tells us what to think, rather than asks us to think deeply, reflect, mine the story for personal and universal meaning?  Have our brains become too impatient for this?   

Training away from meaning in school and the corporate world may not be stoppable.  We're quicker now, flashing through our lives.  Sadness is when the speed creates a sense of disconnect with art.  When writers begin to think that appearance (proper punctuation, spelling, sentence structure) is more important to readers than what we have to say, we die a small death as literary artists. 

Early in my teaching career, I came across the writings of Carol Bly, most notably author of The Passionate, Accurate Story.  In that book, Bly tells about a young writer who tried to write about her parents' divorce and its devastation on her and her siblings.  But before Carol worked with her, she had only received feedback on her mistakes in punctuation.  Easy to see why this writer learned that how her papers looked was top priority--the substance didn't count.

Creative writing classes try to train back in the time it takes to understand meaning.  Bly's classes were famous for this.

Are you coming from a school or business writing backward which values obtuse language over directness, appearance over meaning?  I thought I'd escaped it in my school years only to encounter it in corporations where I worked:  concerns over litigation ruled the page, when a company can't say what they mean.  I learned to write a lot about basically nothing.  Our words show up on the page, but they lack any sense of us.  I had to relearn how to first find my meaning, then to write it.

Good books are made up of three equally important parts: content, structure, and language.  Content is what's happening, the events, the characters or real players onstage, the setting.  Structure is the sequencing of the content, how it flows to the reader, the order you present each event or information.  The plot.  Language is the appearance, the fine-tuning of voice, pacing, and theme. 

If you zero in on language first--from your training that appearance is what counts--you may try to perfect one sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter, and never bring a book into being.  You may never give yourself time to explore the substance of what you want to say, what means the most to you.

Allow yourself time to explore--without censorship--what you want to write about.  What means the most to you.  What you are passionate about.  If that schoolteacher or boss in your mind whispers, "Watch out, that comma is in the wrong place" or "Terrible word choice, you must go back and find a better one now," first let yourself become aware of this critical voice inside.  Acknowledge where it came from, where you learned it.  Know that there is another way. 

Take a creative writing class (emphasis on creative) and unlearn these awful rules inside your head.  Know it will take time.

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