I have a confession to make. I've never read any writing how-to book from beginning to end. Years ago, I started Susie Bright's How toWrite a Dirty Story, but abandoned it about half way through, partly because I found the author's tone patronizing and partly because the smell of ink from that very early POD volume was giving me a terrible headache. The other classic writing texts that are supposed to be on every author's bookshelf – Stephen King and the rest – I've never even opened. I don't own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White, either, though my paperback Roget's Thesaurus is definitely the worse for wear.
Sometimes I feel rather creepy about my basic disinterest in studying the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I recognized the validity of the concepts and the terminology – the narrative arc and the character arc, the “Coming to Death” moment. I know that the writing process should involve internal queries about what the character wants, where a story is going and how it should flower. These are the sort of things I think about when I'm critiquing someone else's work. When I'm writing my own stuff, though, nothing could be further from my mind. Intellectual analysis has little to do with the process. I write from instinct.
At this point you're probably snorting with disgust at my presumption. “She thinks she's got so much talent she doesn't need to study the masters,” you might be thinking. Or, “Right, she was born knowing about characterization and conflict, suspense and catharsis. A regular Mozart of the written word.”
Honestly, I don't think that at all. I do believe I'm moderately skilled at the craft aspects of writing, but that's not due to some fabulous genetic endowment. Rather, it's the product of more than half a century's experience, reading and writing – plus a certain amount of early education.
My life was filled with words from its very first months. Before I could talk (hard to believe such a time ever existed!), my parents read to me, both fiction and poetry. All through my childhood, my father concocted fantastic tales of ghosts and monsters and wrote delightful doggerel that he set to music. He and my mom taught me to read at four years old, and almost immediately I began creating my own stories. I was writing poems by the time I was seven. Nobody ever showed me how. I guess I must have been emulating what I'd read and heard. It just seemed a the natural thing to do.
Reading was my absolute favorite occupation throughout my childhood. My mom had to force me to put my book aside and go out to play. I continued to write all through elementary school, high school, college and graduate school. And of course, I continued to read.
I adored the literature classes I took. There, we undertook the sort of analyses that the how-to books talk about, dissecting tales ancient and modern to see what made them tick. Although I majored in science, I tried to balance my schedule with at least one humanities course each term. I still recall the intellectual thrill I derived from the Shakespeare seminar in which I participated as a freshmen, the high I got from Russian literature in translation course in my junior year.
I still adore a lively discussion about a great book. A few years ago I spent more than an hour Skyping with my brother (who lives half a world away) about Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. We specifically set up the call for that purpose, and I enjoyed every minute.
So even though I've never deliberately studied the art of narrative, at least as applied to my own writing, I seem to have acquired a significant amount of knowledge by osmosis.
When I sit down to write, I don't consciously identify the “MacGuffin” that drives my story, even though it must be there somewhere. I may or may not know at the outset when and where my characters will experience that moment of total despair, when all seems impossible. If I don't know, I simply trust that I'll recognize the crisis when I get there. The story unrolls in my mind, a journey along a road where some parts may be foggier than others, but with a structure that seems to shape itself around the premise, the setting and the characters, without much deliberate effort on my part.
I do spend a significant amount of mental and emotional effort on the prose itself, trying to capture the elusive nuances of experience in words. I'm also focused on the big ideas that underlie the action, trying to birth the sort of startling, original tale that transfixes me with admiration when I am the reader.
That's what I find most difficult about writing. All the craft in the world won't make up for a ho-hum concept. All too frequently, I have the uncomfortable sensation that the story I'm working on has been written a hundred times before – sometimes even by me. I listen to some of my fellow authors complain about their so-called lack of talent, even as they produces tales so wild, terrible and beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, and I try not to be envious.
That's something no craft book can teach.
Still, discouraged as I sometimes am, I don't stop writing. Through the combination of nature and nurture, I've absorbed the so-called rules of story structure. They're part of me now. I probably couldn't prevent myself from following them, any more than the Canada geese could abort their annual flight south.