by Kate Wilhelm
One of the questions Damon and I returned to often was simply: can writing be taught? There are many writers who say emphatically that the answer is no. I see their point. High school and college creative writing classes are too often a joke, taught by non-writers without a clue about the real world of publishing and what makes for a publishable story in contemporary markets. For most writers struggling alone, the learning curve from the first attempt to write to becoming an accomplished writer is very long; years in many cases. And all the while they are being taught by rejection slips, by trial and error; they are learning what works for them and what doesn’t. Even after they have published a few stories, often they can’t see why one story was accepted and not another.
The answer we arrived at was a qualified yes; some things about writing can be taught. Possibly there were shortcuts, methods to reduce that long learning period. Anyone with fair talent, a great deal of determination and perseverance, and some luck, can become a publishable writer, and what we could do was teach technique. We believed we could help emerging writers become better writers sooner.
Anyone who is literate can write, after all, and if all one wants to do is keep a diary without planning to share it with anyone else, that person does not need help, and studying technique would be wasted effort. Why bother? Write the diary, and be done with it. But as soon as publication is the goal, then technique becomes necessary.
That was our starting point. We talked about the kinds of writers we had met and how they worked. Although possibly there are as many methods of writing as there are writers, there is one dichotomy that cannot be denied. There are natural storytellers and then there are word smiths and their methods are quite different. I walked in on a conversation one time between two professional writers in which one was saying she agonized over the words to use. Even getting someone up from the table and out the door was difficult. The other one said, “Just say he got up and walked out. It’s that simple.” She looked at him in amazement. For her it certainly was not that simple. There was the difference between a storyteller and a word smith on display.
Damon and I made a pretty good team; he was a word smith and I’m a storyteller. I think of it as surface and depth, with the full understanding that it is much more complex than that. But it was a starting point. Damon was a master with the surface, but sometimes if the surface was too bad he failed to see beyond it to the depth. And often I ignored the surface to explore a story I found below it.
We realized early that we had to cope with both kinds of writers at Clarion, and what was effective with one was not necessarily effective with the other.
A good story is one in which the surface and depth are fused into one inseparable whole. Beautiful language, unique imagery, subtle symbolism over nothing is not a good story. Neither is a story obscured by bad word choices, awkward phrases that conceal meaning rather than reveal it, inappropriate symbolism or metaphors. We often encountered both types.
Having a group of twenty-five or more people critique a story, pointing out what was good and what was bad was extremely helpful, of course. But the students needed methods they could apply to achieve fusion after they left the group. Too often at home mother, spouse, beloved other all thought whatever came out of the typewriter–I’m talking BC here, before computers–was wonderful while the beginning writer was contemplating papering a room with rejection slips.
Those who were blind to the prose had to retrain their brains to look at and consider words instead of yielding to the impulse to write as swiftly as possible and think of the story as done when they reached the end. Continue to write at whatever speed is comfortable, we said, but then apply reason. For those who were blind to the fact that no story lay behind gorgeous language the message was harder: use the language you love, but then search for the meaning. We devised methods for each group to try without ever mentioning the dichotomy we had seen and were working with. We wanted everyone to try everything.
There is an adage: the more bitter the medicine the quicker the cure. The exercises that follow are laborious and time consuming; everyone hated doing them, but presumably, after enough doses, they helped cure the problem, or at the very least alleviated it.
Using a finished story, take clean paper and cover everything except one sentence at a time and read that one sentence. Does it say exactly what you intended and nothing else? That’s the test. For example: “Don’t do that!’ he exploded.” Looks okay? Wrong. You can’t explode words. You can utter them, say them, mutter, murmur, yell, shout, whisper, and so on. You can’t laugh words, or giggle words, or ejaculate words, or jump up and down words. Use “say.” If something stronger is needed, go to “yell” or “shout.”
“He looked at the book sitting on the table.” Pretty innocuous? Wrong. Inanimate objects don’t sit. Damon used to draw funny little pictures of things sitting around, books with legs dangling over the edge of the table, coffee cups with legs, plates, papers, guns. . . .
Consider a sentence like: “Her snakelike walk, gliding sinuously among the tables, was alluring.” Look up sinuous. Snakelike? Why repeat it? Rephrase.
Or: “The ringing of the bells, clanging in his head, was giving him a headache, and sent him packing.” Too many sounds. Rephrase.
Consider: “Running down the stairs he put on his shoes and opened the door.” I doubt it.
You can’t do all those things simultaneously.
Forget the story line, the plot, everything about the story except the sentences, and examine them one at a time, and then one word at a time.
Another exercise we tried was meant to curb a tendency toward purple prose, that is prose in which the modifiers–adjectives and adverbs usually–overwhelm the nouns and verbs. Take them out. All of them. Each and every one of them. Not just the immediate modifiers, but also the modifiers of the modifiers. For example: “The full, ballooning moon, glowing as if alive with white-hot fires forged in an unworldly icy hell, rose serenely with its majestically imperial presence over the harsh, frozen and hostile tundra.” Three or four sentences like that in a row can make the reader lose the story line altogether. Sensory overload sets in with too many images, too many contrasting and competing ideas. Where is the focus of that sentence? What does it actually say and mean? The moon rose.Okay, but you might need a little more than that.
After you strip the entire story down to its bare bones, start at the beginning and see just how many of the modifiers you must restore. The full moon rose over the frozen tundra. If that is what you need to convey, stop there. Sensory overload can be more deadly to a story than minimalist prose. You may be surprised to find a much stronger story than you started with once it’s relieved of its overwhelming finery.
If most of your verbs are paired with adverbs, use stronger verbs. They should not need crutches.
Another exercise we tried is as follows. The story has a surface that is as flawless as you can make it, and yet the story is unpublishable. One way to find out why not is to examine it with a different set of tools. Start with the first paragraph, read it several times, just that one paragraph, and then write in the margin what happens in it or what it is about. You may decide it’s a description of the place, the setting. Write “setting.” Next paragraph, do the same thing. More setting? The next and next. You may find that by the end of the story you have written setting over and over. Or perhaps it was character description, or something else repeated time after time with different phrases but the same basic meaning. The story is static, giving the reader more and more of the same thing glossed with beautiful language. Or maybe there is a character moving through the setting. Same diagnosis: a static story, nothing happens.
A walk through a park, no matter how lovely or dreary the park, is not a story. A character study is not a story. Impeccable language, beautiful imagery will not make them turn into stories. Something has to happen; something has to change. Equilibrium must be upset, either within the story, or in the reader experiencing the story. The end of a story signifies that a new equilibrium has been achieved.
Think of a Pooh stick tossed into a stream where you can watch its progress without knowing if it will land or if it will be destroyed, tumbling this way and that, caught in eddies and swept faster, then slower, but moving until it finishes its journey, always in sight. It has arrived at a new destination, achieved a new equilibrium. There is movement, something happens, and there is an end. The motion is visible, the action is within the story.
There is another kind of story, however, where the stick is tossed into a body of water and there is no apparent motion except for a gentle bobbing. But the currents are strong beneath the surface of the water, and when you turn your gaze away, you realize that the movement, the change has been within you, not in the stick. Something happens; at the end of the story you arrive at a new destination, a new understanding or a new insight, a revelation about an event, a world, or a person. The story of revelation can be extremely powerful, and the appearance of stasis is deceptive. The stick is unmoved; the reader is moved instead. Something happens.
Either of the above two examples could be made into stories if the writer knows in advance what is to be revealed by the end. The walk in the park could be a story if it is revealed that without an exit, an escape route, Eden can be a prison. The character sketch could turn into a story if it is revealed that someone altogether different from the public face lives behind the mask the character wears. But you have to know what the story is about and not simply hope that enough lovely prose will cause something to develop. That takes the guiding hand and head of a writer.
Damon and I lived in a huge, unmanageable house: a circa 1890 Victorian, with a huge, equally unmanageable-at-times family. On cold nights with snow piling up deeper and deeper, the thermometer plunging to zero or lower, we sat near a fire in a fireplace big enough to roast a pig on a spit, something we discussed doing now and then but never got around to. We talked about everything, including the twists and turns our lives had taken to put us in the role of teachers. How strenuously we both had worked to avoid what we considered to be the teacher trap.
Immediately after graduating from high school Damon left Hood River, Oregon, the small town where he grew up. His father was principal of the high school, his mother had been a teacher; he fled and joined the Futurians, a group devoted to science fiction, in New York. The group broke up, each member going his own way after a time, but Damon remained a Futurian in spirit for the rest of his life. He had sidestepped the teacher trap. He knew from an early age that he had to become a writer.
All through my childhood I told stories, and then wrote stories in high school. Several different teachers said I would be a writer and I didn’t understand why they did. I knew that writers were magical, god-like, and dead, at least the ones we studied were dead. I did not qualify on any count. Wanting to write stories and becoming a real writer were so far apart I didn’t see how anyone could bridge the gap. I was good in chemistry and math, and I decided to be a chemist until the advisor told me that I would end up as a man’s lab assistant or else I would teach. By then I had a college scholarship, but I didn’t take advantage of it; instead, I got a job, married, started a family and tried to read every book in the Louisville Public Library. Ten years after graduating from high school, I was reading an anthology and finished a story I thought was quite bad. I closed the book and said, “I can do that.” I wrote a story, rented a typewriter to copy it, mailed it, then wrote another one. I sold them both and bought the typewriter with my first check. I’ve been writing ever since. I too had avoided the teacher trap.
Yet, there we were, Damon and I, sitting by the fire, planning our next two weeks as teachers at Clarion, both of us eager to do it again, determined to try harder and do better next time. We had entered the teacher trap unaware; the trap had sprung, and we were captured.
Excerpted and adapted from Storyteller: Writing Lessons And More From 27 Years Of The Clarion Writers’ Workshop Copyright 2005 Kate Wilhelm