I'm always a little surprised to discover that there's actually a debate about whether writing can be taught. To me it's like wondering whether neurosurgery can be taught. Of course, there have been geniuses with extraordinary intuitive and analytical capabilities who learned to write excellent fiction just by living life and reading the work of others. For the rest of us, I think it's helpful to find a teacher or a school and prepare for a strenuous apprenticeship.
I'd been working for twenty-plus years as a journalist, and writing a novel for ten of those years, when I finally had to admit that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to fiction. I didn't understand the tools well enough to answer even the basic questions. Is anybody going to care about these characters? Should this piece be in first person or third? If third person, how close should the POV be? Should a given section be in scene or in summary? Within a scene, what should be direct dialogue, what should be indirect, what should be summarized?
I had no clue, so I became one of those middle-aged grad students euphemistically referred to as "returning" in the education biz. I was offered a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where I found a wonderful and supportive community of faculty and other students. I learned tons, very quickly, thanks entirely to the kindness and generosity of my teachers and my colleagues, and it was much, much more efficient than trying to figure it all out on my own. I came here to write novels but began writing short stories simply because I discovered that I loved them. Two years later came the startling email from Glimmer Train, which I hope means I may be on the right track.
Last fall the university offered me the opportunity to teach undergrad fiction writing, which was itself a great learning experience. By then I'd gained some sense of how to go about such a thing, and I was honored by having a few students who applied themselves and improved tremendously. So I was able to confirm my belief from the other side, as well—not only had I learned, but I could see my students learning, too. One of my happiest moments, in fact, was several weeks into the term, when some of them had gained enough confidence and command of the terrain that they started disagreeing, not only with each other, but with me. You don't generally get to kiss your students these days, unless maybe you work in France, but I was so proud of them I wanted to.
I've learned a lot from books about writing, too, of which I've read more than is probably healthy. I'd particularly recommend Writing Fiction, by Burroway and Stuckey-French, which the university often uses in undergrad courses and which is a thorough and excellent guide to making the kinds of decisions I noted above. Also great are Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, James Wood's How Fiction Works, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. There are many others, but those have been the most helpful to me personally.
I emphasize to my students that reading books about writing, or working from a list like the one I've inserted below, should be part of the process of revision. For me—and almost all of the writers I know—writing fiction involves semi-distinct phases. For the first couple of drafts, I really need to free myself from any ideas about form or structure and just write freely. I think it's best to let your unconscious do the work, let images come up however they want to, and allow characters take over the narrative, lead it where they choose, and reveal themselves as they please. Enjoy yourself, play, and be astonished by the wild stuff that's buried in those realms so beloved by Jung and Joseph Campbell.
All the approaches to craft, the books and checklists, are really for the next stage, when you're ready to start revising. If you try to apply those things too soon, in my experience, you'll just stifle yourself. It's really important to learn how to balance the writer's mind (free-flowing, wild, possibly insane) and the editor's mind (careful, craftsmanlike, obsessive about detail), and in fact you need both aspects of yourself to start and then finish a story. It's a dance, and everybody's got to figure it out for themselves, but if you're interested enough to be reading this you probably know what I mean. Nabokov claimed he used to plan everything in advance, but my two responses are (a) he was Nabokov, and (b) what fun is that?
As part of our approach to the revision process, my students and I developed a sort of checklist, expanding on one in Writing Fiction, that may help some people with rewrites. These are the questions we finally decided on as being the most useful:
- Is the story original? If it's modeled on another story, does it depart from the source significantly enough that it becomes its own story, hence keeping you out of trouble?
- Does the story begin at the right point? Too early? Too late?
- Do the order of events and the overall structure work for the narrative?
- Is the voice consistent? If not, is there a good reason for the inconsistency?
- Do we learn enough about the characters to believe their actions? Do we learn too much, so that we're lost in backstory or unsurprised by what takes place?
- Do we need all the characters? Conversely, do we need a character that isn't in the story?
- Have I made good decisions about what to put in summary and what to put in dialogue?
- Does the dialogue do more than one thing at a time, rather than simply describing business? Does it reveal character and motivation? Is the subtext rich?
- Is the story long enough to fully convey its heart, its central action? If things seem to be missing, what are they?
- By contrast, is it too long? Is there fat that can be cut?
- If there is ambiguity, does it successfully entice the reader, or is it simply confusing?
- In a similar vein, have I withheld information successfully, in a way that engages the reader, or have I simply muddied the waters?
- Is the language clean and spare? If it isn't, does this serve your purposes?
- Do metaphors and similes serve the story and reflect the characters' POVs, or are they gaudy and ornamental?
- Do the symbols work, organically, without calling undue attention to themselves? Are any of the characters aware of the symbols?
Also, I urge my students to steal. As a rule I'm allergic to sports metaphors, but I was once impressed by Tiger Woods's description of how he'd perfected his golf game. He studied who had the best long game, and learned how to do it by copying it. He studied who had the best chipping game, ditto. Putting, double ditto. He took the best parts of several excellent players' games and blended them into one game, then became the best player in the world. When I read writers I admire—a long list that includes Chekhov, Alice Munro, Updike, Antonya Nelson, Aimee Bender, Joyce, George Saunders, Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, Kafka, Murakami, Richard Russo, David Foster Wallace, and others—I try to pay attention to their strengths, to what they do well, and learn from them. I write imitations of, and variations on, their work—as exercises and sometimes even as stories.
I'm not talking about plagiarism, of course, because by the time I'm done, even those authors probably wouldn't recognize the original in the copy—or if they did see it, I hope they'd also see that my riff was more an homage than a ripoff. But you can learn an incredible amount if you do this carefully, and I'd recommend it to anyone. See how Updike describes a snowstorm, or traveling in a car with a friend. See how Antonya Nelson deftly and strategically inserts backstory to drive frontstory forward, not merely to provide information. See how Munro buries the central conflicts in her stories well beneath the surface, so that you sense them even without being able to articulate what they are. See how Henry James leads you on a POV continuum from very close third person to very distant third person, changing perspective and language accordingly, sometimes within a single paragraph. See how David Foster Wallace shifts back and forth between the close-third of different characters so subtly you barely notice, and infuses writing of great intellectual power with incredible sweetness. See how Chekhov brings in weird details that are never explained and seem irrelevant, but that somehow bring his stories to life. Find other techniques you like and admire, then try to replicate them in your own stories.
That's what I mean when I say steal. This exercise offers the added benefit of being humbling, because trying to imitate a really good writer brings you face to face with your own inadequacies pretty quickly.
I'm new at this, I'll admit. I have much to learn. I'm surrounded by writers who are younger, smarter, more talented, and better looking than I am. Some of them can even cook. I may look at this piece in six months and be horrified to discover it's idiotic, or pompous, or both. My apologies if so. I'm just hoping to throw a little light on issues that were extremely murky to me for a long time, and if it helps anyone in that way, okay. The more voices we have, the better.