A discussion with a friend of mine today prompted this post — it was getting late in the day, and I wasn’t thinking of anything more exciting to report than my very slow progress through Of the North, on a quest to put in bold the (remarkably few) lines good enough to keep verbatim. Those of you who read the first draft will recognize very little in the second, if you’re so fortunate (or unfortunate?) as to remember things word for word.
When, in 2008 or 9, I wrote down my first story, I didn’t think other writers existed. If you’d asked me whether new books were being published each year, and whether real live people wrote them, I would have said yes, but that was far off and unattainable. I didn’t know that I could do such things. I knew people from the seminary who’d published books, but they were doctors, and anyway they wrote theological essays and treatises, not stories. And thanks to our extremely limited household library of 6,000 books, I hadn’t yet encountered many published after about the year I was born.
Also I was extremely shy of showing anybody my work, which didn’t help much, so hardly anybody knew I was a writer. Even when grown-ups asked the horrid question “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d say one thing or another (rarely the same thing twice in a row, as I recall) just to answer the question so that they’d go away, without really meaning it. I never did know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I figured, at best, I’d grow up and find out what I was doing then, and keep doing it. (So far that has not failed me.)
I wrote this and that in notebooks I collected, fantasy stories they might be called, some being more obvious pastiches of Tolkien than others. In my first Creative Writing class in college, we were all told to imitate somebody’s style, which I’d grown out of doing by then, but it is true that it’s not a bad way to start. I still don’t think you should tell people to imitate, though; if they need to, they’ll already be doing so, and if not, you can set them back a ways with it. Some of them never outgrow it. Paolini imitated all sorts of things in his Inheritance Cycle, with the result that it never should have been published as it is, but who knows, another decade or so and he might have found his own voice (and not come to such empty conclusions about basically every important thing, but I digress).
When I was twelve or thirteen, and had been writing for about three years, I joined Ravelry. It’s an online community for knitters and crocheters, with many smaller sub-groups. One of these I joined was for Christian writers — having finally figured out that was I was doing (making stories in my head and putting them on paper) was called writing, and that someone who did it as obsessively as me was called a writer; see also lunatic — and I met Hope there, among other people.
Being where I was, just finding out what I was, and just beginning to open up to people about it (more readily online than face-to-face, because having conversations in person is always scarier, and I wasn’t very confident in my newly-discovered lack of sanity yet), it was good. People might not give very constructive criticism, but they did encourage me to keep writing. We had challenges and contests every so often, and I like a challenge, so that helped. It also assured me that I wasn’t the only one who thought about killing people, or had “imaginary friends” that I was more attached to than my friend (singular, unless you count my sister) in “real life”.
But eventually a lot of the more mature writers moved on, or left, or weren’t active on Ravelry anymore, and a lot of immature writers replaced them — writers who were even less mature than I was, which is saying something, since I hadn’t even heard of “show, don’t tell” yet. So I left, and was without any other writers for a while. For those of you who aren’t writers (if any of you do read my blog), it’s hard to understand how hard it is to be a lone writer.
By the time I was fifteen and starting college, I knew I wanted to study how to write stories. Also, on the first day of my first class-in-a-classroom-with-classmates ever, the teacher told us “Show, don’t tell”. It was just a Composition class (in retrospect not even a very good one, but I didn’t know at the time), but that was the first time I’d ever heard that practically omnipresent piece of advice.
Much more recently, some poets from my church, along with the one prose writer (me), made a group for discussion and critiquing each others’ work, but we’re grown-ups, which means life gets in the way just as much as it did when we were children, and we don’t meet very often. And besides, though they have read lots of good books and all, they’re still poets, and I write prose. The two are essentially different.
I haven’t gotten to know very many writers at college, certainly not the kind I’m comfortable sharing my writing with. Oh, I do, of course, because classes require it. But when someone has an entirely antagonistic worldview, their advice is likely to be skewed, and often it’s a good idea to do the exact opposite of what they suggest. Often, not always, to be fair. But it is still a secular college, and liberal, of course — awfully liberal for being in a region settled by Norwegian Lutheran farmers.
I learned a lot about writing without knowing it, because I’ve been a bookworm for longer than I can remember. I never plotted anything — all I had to go by was knowing how books were when finished and published, not how they got there. So I wrote, because pencil and paper is a good way to get words out of your head. But I also just wrote things down as they happened in my head, without paying attention to plot structure and things, because it’s hard to consciously do something you don’t know exists. Characters didn’t have much depth or grow a lot. I summarized instead of showing. The style of the writing wasn’t very good. Sometimes it would sound a little like whoever I’d been reading, and sometimes it was more like a flat balloon. You can learn a lot faster, with a lot less trial-and-error and reinventing the wheel, if you have people who are farther ahead who can tell you things.
Then came college, into which I went bravely with a major in Creative Writing, and I learned about themes from philosophy classes, tone and three-act structure and foil characters and character arcs from literature classes, a little bit about writing from the odd poetry section of a craft and theory class, and next to nothing about writing from the actual Creative Writing classes. (You already know what I learned from that one workshop last semester.) I did learn something about the history of ideas from the writing classes (though I got to see them move along more in the British Literature classes, and the philosophy ones go without saying), and discovered that Modernism is still flourishing hand-in-hand with Postmodernism, which of course has no trouble with logical inconsistencies, in certain members of the faculty. (I also learned that a feminist of the old school can love medieval literature, whereas the new sort can only teach you that everything’s wrong with anything written before abortion became legal.)
I am now over thirteen hundred words in this post, and I think I shall leave you with a cliffhanger until my next one, which will now become mostly an advertisement, based on where I break things up now.