The second-best way to learn how to write

In university I had an English teacher who drove most of his students mad. He marked very harshly. Students who were used to A’s got C’s. B students eked out D’s. Everybody else failed.

At a certain point, the class confronted him. Nobody could understand why his standards were so different. Some students actually complained they needed high marks to get accepted at graduate school, and their chances were being ruined.

He explained his approach. Unlike most of the other professors – he was actually a lecturer without tenure, a part-time contractor lacking any institutional protection from the demands of his students – he didn’t ask us to write twenty-page papers. He didn’t expect us to string along quote after quote, citation after citation, with only the thinnest of connecting original thoughts.

He had a maximum length in mind – no more than five pages for a paper – and he only allowed quotations from the text, none from critics. He was a fan of close reading, and he wanted us to articulate our own thoughts, arrive at our own insights, not cleverly quote the conclusions of others.

It was clear the majority of the class didn’t agree with him but at least now they understood  him. He also offered us something else, in response to demands to clarify what he considered good writing and more importantly tell us how to achieve it:

“Good writing can’t be taught,” he said to loud groans of frustration. “But it can be learned,” he concluded primly as if he hadn’t heard anything.

It’s one of the few lessons of writing I still remember. There’s no substitute. Writers learn by writing.

The second best way to learn how to write is to read. To read like a writer, not just for entertainment or for the learning in the content, but to see how different writers tackle different challenges.

Many writers also learn from friendships with other writers. They talk about writing. They share their writing and give each other feedback. Many writers take creative writing courses where they combine writing with reading with talking about writing.

I do have a writer friend with whom I talk about writing and share problems for discussion but I haven’t taken a creative writing class since university. I never did a creative writing degree. And I don’t hang out with many writers.

I’ve generally focused on learning to write through writing and going back to novels I’ve previously read to study particular techniques that I think will help me tackle a current piece of writing.

But a couple of years ago I discovered the interviews section in The Paris Review: Since the 1950s the magazine has been interviewing writers. Most of the twentieth-century greats are there. Novelists. Poets. Short story writers. Playwrights. Scriptwriters. A few editors.

I’ve learned more about writing from these interviews than from any creative writing class I ever took. Perhaps more importantly I learned about what it takes to become a writer. For every Hemingway who is recognized in his twenties, there is an August Kleinzahler whose first book sells a handful of copies, who toils away in obscurity for years before earning a book contract with a major publisher and going on to win several major prizes.

Here are just a few quotes to give you a sense of what you might find in these interviews:

William Faulkner on technique:

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

Amy Hempel on different approaches to plotting:

“Some writers have a more defined sense of cause and effect. Plot. My sense of life is more moment, moment, and moment. Looking back, they accrue and occur to you at a certain time and maybe you don’t know why, but you trust that they are coming back to you now for a reason. And you make a leap of faith. You trust you can put these moments together and create story.”

EM Forster on developing fictional characters from real people:

“A useful trick is to look back upon such a person with half-closed eyes, fully describing certain characteristics. I am left with about two-thirds of a human being and can get to work. A likeness isn’t aimed at, and couldn’t be obtained, because a man’s only himself amid the particular circumstances of his life and not amid other circumstances. So that to refer back to Dent when Philip was in difficulties with Gino, or to ask one and one-half Miss Dickinsons how Helen should comport herself with an illegitimate baby, would have ruined the atmosphere and the book. When all goes well, the original material soon disappears, and a character who belongs to the book and nowhere else emerges.”

Paul Auster on whether writing fiction ever becomes easier over time:

“No, I don’t think so. Each book is a new book. I’ve never written it before and I have to teach myself how to write it as I go along. The fact that I’ve written books in the past seems to play no part in it. I always feel like a beginner and I’m continually running into the same difficulties, the same blocks, the same despairs. You make so many mistakes as a writer, cross out so many bad sentences and ideas, discard so many worthless pages, that finally what you learn is how stupid you are. It’s a humbling occupation.”

Ann Beattie on not always knowing where you’re going:

“Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock.”

David Mitchell on being a dad (which as you know from my novel Sons and Fathers is one of my obsessions)… :

“I could probably do ten [hours]if I had them, but I’ve got two young children, so I can either be a halfway decent dad or I can be a writer who writes all day. I can’t really be both. As things stand, I might clock in three hours on a poor day, and six or seven on a productive day.

…and on the many activities that make up “writing”:

“Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours.”

James Baldwin on how to become a writer:

“Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.”

And the list of insights goes on.

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