I dedicated most of my high school years to the pursuit of nerdhood. I was editor of the Valor Dictus, our school newspaper, I sang 1st tenor in the choir and I was a district champion debater. Home life was a bit odd, so I spent as much time away from it as I could, and despite doing crazy stuff that would get teens thrown in jail these days, I managed to stay mostly out of trouble.
During my senior year, I decided it was time to shift gears, so I threw my hat into the ring of the musical theater. I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of Godspell. The show was so popular that it sold out its initial weekend run and we extended to a second weekend of sold-out shows. Quite the head rush.
One of my fellow cast members was a guy named Phil. For whatever reason, we never crossed paths outside of rehearsals and performances, but I was fascinated by his skills on the piano. He could play anything, including a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” that rivaled the great Jerry Lee Lewis. After he heard a song once–whether Beatles or Beethoven–he could make the ivories sing. But he couldn’t read a lick of music. Didn’t know a quarter note from a crescendo. I have no idea what happened to him or where he went after high school, but he expressed no interest in studying music.
By contrast, my brother knew a guy in his high school–Doug–who could read a symphonic score the way you or I would read a book. The staves on the page transformed into music in his head as he read them. Some years later, I learned that he was a teenager before he understood that not everyone could do that. He went on to Julliard and later earned two PhDs in music. He recently retired from being the artistic director for one of the premier choral organizations in the DC area.
Unlike Phil, Doug has never enjoyed being the guy at the party hammering out show tunes and Beatles favorites while people sing around the piano. I don’t know why, and I won’t presume to guess. I have a number of friends who love to play their instruments of choice, but need to have the music in front of them to make it happen, and so would likely sell an unimportant body part to be able to play anything anywhere.
There’s an analogy here to writing prose. We have our own Dougs and Phils. On one end of the spectrum you have that set of MFAs and PhD grad school professors who know everything there is to know about literature and writing theory, yet are unable to publish works that appeal to the masses. On the other end, you have the lawyers (or safety engineers) whose study of literature begins and ends with what they like to read and somehow are able to hammer out stories that find an audience. Most writers toil somewhere in the middle.
I’m a Phil. I’m not especially proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Early on in my writing career, when the inevitable question came up about what authors most influenced me, I would lie to avoid the dismissive looks and talk about Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. To be sure, those were wonderful authors and I have enjoyed their works, but none of them carried the clout of Alistair MacLean, Stephen King or even Franklin W. Dixon. These days, I tell the truth and endure the dismissive eyerolls. A few years ago, I was introduced to an MFA class as “only a commercial fiction writer”, but with the modifier that I had some thoughts worth listening to. Boy howdy, did I! Curiously, I have not been invited back. Must be the pandemic.
I have always read to be entertained, and have always written to return the favor. My job begins and ends with taking readers on a great pretend adventure. I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.
I’m being completely honest when I tell you that of the few implements I recognize in my writer’s tool box, I use precious few of them. I understand the major parts of speech like nouns and verbs and adjectives, but don’t ask me what a participle is, dangling or otherwise. That knowledge is of no use to me. If you groove on that stuff, then God bless you. It’s certainly not harmful, but it’s stuff I just don’t need to know. Ditto the three act structure, which to me means a beginning, a middle and an end.
I understand very little about the process of writing stories. I don’t know how I know that action and dialogue drive character development, but that’s how it works for me. I often tell people that I don’t want to think too hard about the creative process for fear of breaking a machine that I don’t know how to fix. If it ain’t broke . . .
Remember the motto of the famed Faber College: Knowledge is good. My preference is to learn craft by reading books that I wish I’d written, but I would never discourage anyone from studying craft. We all learn differently and we all follow divergent paths.
But formal study is not for everyone. For some, it can be harmful. Remember always that the voice in your head is unique to you. Even a well-meaning teacher can ruin that voice if you’re not steadfast in your defense of it. Any creative advice that includes the phrases “you must” or “you cannot” is wrong. Hard stop. If you’re in school and such is the opinion of your teacher, then earn the A by giving him or her what they’re looking for, but then erase the rules from your brain. If something inside you is driving you to create–if something inside you won’t let you not create–then trust that the same driving force will help you find your own way, whether through schooling or sheer force of will.
Irrespective of which route(s) you follow, the one constant is that your early efforts are going to suck. Everyone you ask to help you un-suck it will have bits of advice that vary from others’ bits of advice. That’s a lot of well-meaning voices in your head. At the end of the day, you’ll still be stuck with the task of choosing on your own which is the best path to take.
What say you, TKZ family? Are you a Phil, a Doug, or somewhere in between?