Thursday, 5 April 2007

As Far As You Can On Your Own?

I read yesterday, a comment by a good writer, who said you should take your writing as far as you can "on your own" before considering going on courses, working in a group or with a teacher or mentor.

At the time I didn't think about this a lot, but the more I think, the more illogical it seems to be.

Why should we re-invent the wheel? Why, if our weakness is natural dialogue, should we struggle for three years or ten, trying to get dialogue right? (And what if we don't even see that the dialogue ISN'T right?)

Why randomly read when our reading could be directed? Why randomly critique when our critiquing might be shown to concentrate on the easy parts of the story while ducking the tougher? Why be rough and random when we could be systematic, universal and polished?

Why concentrate on the styles of writing which are comfortable for us and avoid the more difficult (but where our relative greatness might lie) simply because we can, with no one to point our cheating out?

Alone, will we read widely enough or will we seek out our comfort zone, and worse, "stuff we like"? I didn't learn much theory, learned no craft on my MA but at least it got me to read black writers and women writers. I had not realised I didn't read them until I got my reading list!

This is not an essay, it's a set of quick thoughts, but what IS "as far as you can"? Surely you never get there? The only way to get there is to die while writing. We improve, however slowly, merely by writing. We improve, however slowly merely by reading. We improve, however slowly, merely by reading critically, after we have read for pleasure. We improve, however slowly, by critiquing the neophyte work of others. We never REALLY finish improving, so should we never look for help outside ourselves?

When we read well, are we not "taking advice"? Am I not learning to write poetry by reading poems? Am I not learning poetry by reading other poets who talk about their craft? Am I not learning when a poem by someone else inspires me to write a poem? Am I not learning when another poet gives me a short-story idea?

How is this different from having a teacher who DIRECTS my learning, who sees a blind-alley (because he went down it in 1989) and shows me a way to see exactly where I'm going, maybe two or more years before I discover it for myself? I can read books almost randomly (but I'm likely to choose 'easy" rather than challenging) or I can be directed to a wider range of books, books specifically arranged that open up new worlds, new ideas, new craft issues. I can be made to read for weeks, books that focus on known difficulties, read for weeks and discover how a great writer met a problem and resolved it.

Of course we can learn to write by simply writing. The analogy I use is the idea of a pen-pal. We have no natural letter-writing skills but begin to correspond with someone in a far off country. If we write a thousand letters and read a thousand, if we do nothing else, will our letters be better by the end? Almost certainly.

We have learned by the very act of writing. Perhaps we have learned economy, expression. Perhaps we learned some skills from reading the letters sent to us.

If we had the discipline to read a random short story every day, and if we wrote a short-story every day, if we did that for three years, would we be better at the end of those one hundred and fifty-six weeks? It would be remarkable if we weren't.

But if those 156 short stories we read were indeed, "random" how many were great stories. How many were superficial and cheap? How many, by simple chance and bad luck were "OK" but running over old ground? So we have improved, by osmosis, by simple exposure, by repetition, like a child learns to speak merely be being there, but how likely is that this random way is the BEST way?

What would we say if a doctor chose this route to knowledge? By chance he knows a bit about tropical diseases but he can't recognise a slipped disc or a bowel obstruction?

Doesn't the doctor need a long general education, then more specifics, chemistry, physics, biology, haematology, and then years of medical learning at a university, then years as a hospital intern, then a few more working with a general practitioner or a crusty hospital specialist?

Why is writing different? Should it be different?

The head of the Arts Council of England, in a radio interview last year said that only one serious self-taught painter emerged in the UK in the whole of the twentieth century, only one did not go through art college. Is painting an amazing picture any less artistic than shaping a beautiful story or writing a fine poem?

In the last century, thousands of young men left school to work as apprentices and it was as apprentices they developed their skills, overseen by older, wiser, more experience men who had once, themselves been apprentices. As these youngsters make their mistakes, the old hands see their own repeated, and know of ways to shorten and ease the inevitable pains of learning.

Some soccer is pure instinct, and a player needs the right physique, eyesight, muscular strength, flexibility, courage and so on. A great movement in soccer is like art, magical, poetry. But footballers train and train and train. They have managers, coaches, physical trainers. They learn tactics. A promising talent is NURTURED and he goes further, achieves greater heights because he is nurtured.

I cannot find the quotation right now but I think it was Raymond Carver who was asked about the teaching of creative writing, was there a point, could it be taught.

He answered by pointing out that Michaelengelo was AN APPRENTICE and so were Raphael and all the famous painters. He rattled off a list of great writers all of who were mentored. He was mentored by John Gardner, shaped by Lish. In turn he taught others who published and then others were taught after that.

I have lost count of the times in Boot Camp, a discussion will arise driven by errors in one story. Someone will write, "Yes, but…" and I can then post an example of a writer who DID resolve this problem, maybe post an opening of mine. Or I can take that issue and quickly rewrite a paragraph or two and SHOW there and then, in the heat of the furnace, that the problem is resolvable.

Without the group, the argument, my experience, MY reading, my examples, my rewriting (and then more argument, more directed reading) could the author have resolved the problem? POSSIBLY.

But it might have taken years, or the author may simply have avoided that situation in future writing. He would have written, maybe not one-armed, but with two fingers permanently taped together.

In this week's BC session we had seven stories, fifty-seven critiques, twenty or so grids of marks, one hundred and thirty-four posts on the works, then after the session a posted summary of the session where I wrote an editor/judge's view of the stories as a group.

How could a lonely, maybe depressed, writer, starving in his garret get the same intense learning experience? Where does he get his seven stories and when he crits, how does he know he's right (or wrong)?

083 100
084 098
099 113
089 103
085 094
076 094

This week we had stories with mark-ranges of 9-18 (relatively close) but the difference between a Boot Camp 83 and a BC 100 is HUGE. Either the 83 is wrong, or the 100 is wrong. Discuss!

Our solo reader-critiquer (if he even bothers to formally dissect and critique) may constantly over-estimate the worth of what he reads. If he does, who is there to correct him? Who is there to say, that the story he thinks is cool is in fact clich̩-ridden, uses a ripped off plot and has wooden characters? (And note it doesn't matter who is right, the 80 or the 110 Рwhat matters is the argument to support our marks.)

In one case (the highest-scoring story this week) the first-person protagonist dies. I HATE that and said so. (I hate the illogicality of this particular story.) I say so (learning note… at least one editor/judge would bin this because he has a negative thing about how I wrote this…)

But the author felt that the first person was necessary, that in any other point of view some of that voice would be lost. One critiquer actually felt the voice got in the way. Most "fell for" the voice and overmarked because of it.

So, could the POV change for the better? Would that lighten the voice? But even if the voice was thinned, would that be better or worse? Less is often more. BUT, the author couldn't see how this would be possible. She couldn't imagine a voiced third person. But the group leader could because he'd been there, done that, ripped his T-shirt.

Writer X
Alex, I agree with the death thing but if this was 3rd person wouldn't you completely lose the voice? I've scored it high too, but I am wondering now, like Tom, how much of this is voice, because not much else really happens. If you had marked it as 3rd, then the scores would, imo, be quite a bit lower.


I had less of a problem about the 1st person POV of the narrator dying, because the author extended the dying into a sort of out-of-body experience, without going too weirdly ghostly. For me this worked better than just ending with nothingness. I'm not sure that a close 3rd person POV (which it would have to be, because it's all from the MC's head) would work any better. I have the same problem about continuing the story after the death of an over-the-shoulder narrator.


It would be hard for me to disagree more strongly than I disagree strongly! I think the story would be seriously enhanced by being third person. It can take on a spiritual voice over feel and make the whole resonate more.


Could you do us a paragraph of it in this ethereal 3rd person voice to show what you mean?


One example At a Stroke

Let us look at the end of his life.

His name is unimportant. What he does, what he did, how he has earned his way to here, is immaterial. What matters is, somehow, today, he – call him Tom – has come to this.

It is about two-thirty when Tom thinks about the time, pulls away from the computer, thinks about going to get his daughter from school. Tom has been feeling faintly low, headachey, uncertain, undefined, and he has stopped these few minutes earlier to give himself time to clean his teeth, to shave, to slap and sting his face with cologne, to change his shirt for a fresh one. In the past he has called this "dressing to wake up". It breaks the cycle.

The discussion continues. Most like the example/sample voice, the writer of the original story sees what's going on. Then in the craft forum the author raised the issues raised by the story and a thread started where a second story was posted to show that "detached, ethereal, voiced voice" ( a story where the protag dies)…

The above is a trivial example, but it's a learning moment for every Boot Camper. A story develops, (actually a minor consideration) but more importantly the writer has learned that another POV might help, that there is a maximum amount of voicing that will create a voiced story without losing a reader. Forget THIS story, think how the WRITER has been changed.

And all the other writers who read the story, the critiques, the discussion, the new craft thread, and there see three stories "replying to" the original story, showing three similar but not the same ways of dealing with the issue.

This writer, could of course, have written for another decade solidifying her methods before exposing herself to these ideas, examples, argument.

This argument made me think of a very old story of mine, one which won $1,000 when Pontius was still in Pilate Training:

It opens, slow, slow, almost dreamy. The POV is 3rd but it's at Dai's pace, it reflects Dai.

Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes careful, half dog-end, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes. It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.
Rivers run down from the top of the mountain, down the steep side roads, black with coal dust. The rain is like stair-rods now and the Cwm road is welly deep. Running boot-steps splatter past the open pub door and Dai’s black and white terrier looks up. The dog is spotted with splashed black water and moves slightly. Without looking, Dai puts out a hand. The dog lowers its head back onto Dai's feet.
Pimple Roberts is laughing. He has a rolled up Western Mail in his massive fists and he is arguing the toss about something and nothing with Jones eighteen-months. Both of them have arms like pit-props.
From the crowd by the bar there comes a shout of, "Bloody 'ell, yer daff bugger!" A young apprentice called Merthyr Jenkins has just knocked over someone's drink. It is Toop Williams' pint and Toop has just given young Merthyr a good clip round the yur. Merthyr's a big lad and thinks about answering back, but Toop just looks at him and says in his slow voice, "Doanbe darf, son, bugger off inta y'corner and drink yer beer." Toop's face is dark, his eye-brows darker still. The boy turns back to the bar.
Everybody in the pub knows that if he wanted, Toop Williams could kick young Merthyr from where he stands clear to the Arms Park. And they all know no one else would dare. Merthyr is Toop Williams' buttee and no-one but Toop gives a clip to Toop's boy.
Evan Pritchard, shop steward, is in love again but this time it's pretty bad. Dai listens to him talk. Evan wants to take Arfona on the trip to Murrayfield. He's started drinking shandy with low-cal lemonade because Arfona says he's getting fat. The boys think this is funny but Dai Griffiths is sad. Merthyr takes four pints over to a side table, looking for support.
"But ee's a funny bugger, that Toop. I oanlee tripped."
"Fists like ee's got," Pimple says, "Toop can be as funny as he fancies," and Jones-eighteen-months says, "You're not bloody kiddin!"
Now they are talking rugby.
"So anyways," someone says, "this number eight, thickuz two short planks, no neck, shoulders like tallboys. Ee 'its Gareth swack, base over apex - Gareth's in the third row of the stand and on the Mayor's lap, over goes the bench with the Lady Mayoress, legs up in the air, all drawers and no pension book."
Someone asks seriously, "Gareth all right?"

The main character is Evan (or the village, the villagers, as an entity) and the detached, sad, voice-over feel returns at the end. The middle has just been dialogue, rugby, sex, the avoidance of reality. Evan has started learning and the more he learns, the more he thinks he'll have to leave the village, which is dying anyway…

Evan is head down. "No. I wuz thinkin of packin it in."
"What? Being shop steward? Oo the bloody else is gunner do it, Evan? You're the only bloke oo can understand the bosses when they come out with their bullshite."
"I've started doing Open University, "Evan says uncomfortably. "And, well, it's finding the time for everything…"
"Y'mean those dickeads on the telly with the naff clothes?"
"The films were done a long time ago, Ron. But achully, some of the stuff, it's rather good."
"Oh, act-chew-elly, some of it is rar-thuh good. Oh, bugger off, Evan."
"I'm doing political studies. Margaret Thatcher -- "
Jones Eighteen-Months cuts in sharply. "Is an old witch. She'll close every pit before she's finished."
Dai speaks now. Softly, but he is heard.
"Leave Evan alone, eighteen-months. If I'd ad some learning I wouldn't be sitting here now, watching the rain."
"Sorry, Dai. We thought you were avin a kip."
"No," Dai says, "just waiting for Phil."
"Look," Evan says, "Arfona, I think I'd better get back..."
"It's bucketing down, out there, Evan!"
"I know, but. And I've got some homework to do."
Suddenly, at last, someone is serious. "You'll be at the meeting? You won't let the boys down?"
Evan stands up.
"I'll be there. I'll be there. I think this is it, this time."
"You're not really goin' out in that wet are yer?"
"I got me top," Evan says. "It's only bloody rain."
"You get off oam," Dai Griffiths says. His head is still. He touches the dog's head. "And do me a favour while you're wet, check Phil's not ad a funny turn will you? Ee didn't look that good yesterday. I think this rain might be on is chest."
Evan likes Dai. "No problem," he says, meaning it.
Dai smiles and wonders. He taps the dog again.
Evan steps from the pub and out into the rain. He doesn't run. The one thing about being in the rain is he isn't underground. He didn't tell the boys about his job offer in Bristol. He couldn't. Dai might understand, but the rest, they'd think he was betraying them. The rain is so heavy and it is very cold. When he gets to Phil Pugh's house, the front room curtains are closed and there is no light.
Evan knows that Dai will die lonely and Merthyr Jenkins will have his dog. Toop will get the dust and be a thin, coughing old man. Wales will lose on Sunday in Scotland, the pit has six months to live. He might be crying but thank God the rain is in his face. If the boys knew he was crying for the village, his mates, they'd laugh at him for a fifteen day fortnight. Better just go.
Street lights glim behind the rain. He turns up one of the steep side roads.
Better just go.

The mood, the reflectiveness in the opening, the rain, is easy to create because there's this over-seeing, loving-but-sad view of the village. Then (they are inside, out of the rain) it becomes lighter, sillier, the lads having a laugh… But the ending has the old man Dai, there again, his dog, there again, the rain, always the rain. There again. The end answers the opening, the voice is resigned.

In first person, how much harder would that have been?

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