Friday, July 27, 2018

Unlearning How to Write Your Book--What You Need to Forget You Knew

In May, at Grub Street's annual writing conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, I sat in on a lively workshop taught by writer Steve Almond.  If you've heard of The Rumpus's "Dear Sugar," you'll know Steve (and his co-writer, Cheryl Strayed).  His workshop was about stuff we know that we need to unlearn.  Forget.  Let go of.  Set aside.  He focused specifically on a rule that's dear to many writers, "show, don't tell."  Steve feels this is a crock and he's not mincing words to tell you why.  We ran through examples from published authors who used telling skillfully--and some examples of showing that didn't make the mark at all.

Scene is showing (dialogue and action) and it has its place.  But if you've been to writing classes or an MFA program in the past ten years, you've heard the rule about "show, don't tell."  It started, I believe, for a good reason:  new writers often tell their story and have to learn how to make it into scene so the reader can enter it fully.  But to take a rule like that and apply it blindly, that's not useful.

Another such rule is no backstory.  Read my post here about why writers need to unlearn that one.  Again, it began to help beginning writers balance their narrative.  But it's gotten carried too far.

One more example:  we're taught in school that grammar matters.  A lot.  That sentence fragments (not the subject, verb sequence hammered into us as kids) were bad.  That ending a sentence with a preposition would strike horror in the hearts of our readers.  When you take on a book, grammar still matters, but the story matters more.  I work with many writers who have to unlearn their rigidity about "proper" English.   A great exercise is to check out the discussion in style books, used by journalists, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, and see their viewpoint on language and writing, and how both have to shift with the times.  Because language lives, and changes, and the rules we learned in school often don't keep up.  

The point of all this:  Succeeding with a creative project, like a book, requires unlearning some of what you've learned.  Not everything, but stuff that no longer serves you.  You have to be open to new ideas, new skills, new rules, even.  

I subscribe to an occasional newsletter from Derek Sivers, the creator of CD Baby and other avenues for artists.  I enjoyed a recent post about unlearning, and it became the basis for our writing exercise for this week.  Read it here (or if the link doesn't work, go to and search for "unlearning").  

I find it helpful--even freeing--to take inventory of what I've had to unlearn or re-learn in the past year.  The list might include a few items like these:

1.  My belief that novels have to have motivated characters to get published (scroll down for my diatribe on Chemistry, a novel that doesn't).  I may not personally engage with them but evidently many people do.  
2.  How long it really takes to revise.  And how to be patient with this endless process.
3.  Backstory--use, placement, amount required.  Totally revamped my attitude and my own writing.

If you want, try your own list after you read Sivers's article.  It's illuminating.  It might help get you unstuck, if you're stuck.  It may even grant you a little self-compassion for the onerous process of growth as a writer.  Or why Steve Almond made such fun of writers who stick blindly with rules.

Next week, the blog will be on vacation as I teach my annual writing retreat on Madeline Island.  If you miss this Friday discussion about writing, scroll down to some of the past week's posts that you've skipped over.  See you again on August 10.

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