March 12, 2010
“How did you become a writer?”
As soon as I tell people what I do for a living, the first thing they usually ask is how I came to this state of being. They don’t really mean “Where did you study?” or “What kind of education did you get?” but rather “What is the intrinsic quality that makes you a writer and people who can spell not?
It’s very telling. No one asks a doctor how he became a doctor. No one asks a teacher what is the intangible quality that makes him or her a teacher. These professions do require dedication and a certain mind-set, but very few would consider them something unattainable, even with training. Writing and art seem to have this kind of stigma. You either know it or you don’t.
Let me break a few myths about the writing process and what it takes to become a writer.
You want to write? Write.
There. You’re a writer.
Okay, maybe you were expecting a little more.
For me, the journey to become a writer started at a young age. I loved listening to stories. One day it just hit me that someone had to have written them. Someone came up with the Cat in the Hat. Someone thought up the Ninja Turtles. Someone thought up Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse, and the Terminator. I wanted to come up with stories like that.
One problem. I didn’t know how to write. When I was in college, a professor named Joe Heithaus told me one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got. Let me share it with you.
Step One: Learn the Rules
It may seem trivial if you want to create poetry or sweeping epics, but you need to know the rules of language. If you start filling your sentences with improper tenses, ambiguous word structure, and dangling participles, you’ll only prove to an educated reader that you do, in fact, have the reading and writing skills of warm mustard.
A few months ago, while working as a tutor, it seemed every freshman female student came in with a review essay for Twilight or its movie adaptation. Feeling the need to be better at my job, I picked up the novel, intending to read it to better understand their essays and help them polish their work, and promptly put the book down after one sentence.
If you haven’t read the novel, I unfortunately committed the first line to memory as a warning to myself and others.
“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.”
Now, class, what had its windows rolled down? Because according to Stephanie Meyer, the airport had its windows rolled down. This is why it is vital that you first learn the mechanics before you say something others will misinterpret.
Step Two: Bend the Rules
Bend the rules? What’s that? All the rules for the English language do something. Fiction and poetry follow the same principle. If you’re writing for children, you wouldn’t include words at the high school level. If you want to write science fiction, you don’t include supernatural occurrences. Science fiction is about a world based on science, the “what if” kind of possibilities. If you’re going to write a fantasy story, a world where magic works without any concrete scientific basis, there’s little point in having computers and technological gadgets.
Then again, I can hear you fellow nerds boiling with rage. What about, oh, I don’t know… STAR WARS?!
This is what I mean when I say that once you know the rules, you can bend them. Star Wars, The Dresden Files, even Harry Potter to a certain extent, take the traditional genre and add something new to it, something that isn’t found in the “traditional” literature. Harry Potter lives in the modern world, yet it’s a world where magic works and can’t really co-exist alongside electronics. Luke Skywalker uses telekinesis and telepathy alongside a starship. These franchises bend the rules, just a little, and create something unique. They don’t just plop wizards into the Star Wars galaxy. They fit into the cultural and historical context. They serve a purpose.
Obi-Won Kenobi is Gandalf in space.
If you’re going to do add something that isn’t usually found in whatever area of writing you’re working on, there had better be a very good reason for it.
Step Three: Break the Rules
So you’ve learned the mechanics of English. You’ve mastered commas, those tricky bastards, and now you’re ready to mix and match genres, writing styles, and otherwise make literature your personal carousel.
Now break the rules.
Bending the rules affords you new tools to play with. Like I said, rules are there for a reason. The more you adhere to the rules out of simple allegiance, however, the more you’ll concern yourself only with mechanics and not content. But what if you started your sentences with coordinating conjunctions like I’ve done for this sentence? People don’t talk in complete sentences. However, we should write properly if we expect people to take us seriously, and yet I routinely break this one simple grammatical rule.
Why? Because the purpose of these articles is to communicate in a conversational style. The last sentence was a fragment, and yet it sounds normal because we’re used to it. I know full well what I’m doing by putting sentences in this order. Even the fragments like the one above make sense. I don’t lose meaning. It’s a tricky thing to do, but if you know the rules, you can pull it off. I know how these sentences will sound in someone’s head when they read them. The fragments just emphasize certain phrases and points.
This is a small example, but once you know how to manipulate expectations and the purpose of certain rules, you can go wild with writing.
For example, most people expect a novel to have text on the page. That’s one of the most basic truths of a novel. But what if the text moved?
Ever read House of Leaves?
Yes, that is indeed a page from an actual novel, and it’s not unique. The text moves around the page. It’s missing in others, scratched out, in different colors, and otherwise a jumble.
And it makes sense. The author, Mark Danielewski, knew exactly what he was doing. The size, position, and even the font he uses in different sections are all part of the narrative. This is an extreme example, but it does highlight the kinds of things you can do once you get to a highly proficient level.
Writing is hard. It’s even harder once you know what you’re doing. Anyone can say “Oh, I can write better than that.” Maybe, but most people who look at art usually think they can do better. In some cases, they may, but it takes time to learn the rules. Yes, they’re there for a reason, and if you break the rules, there are consequences.
Make the consequences work for you. Think of the rules as a starting guide, markers to tell you where to go and not to go until you know better. Rules are the roads in writing… but not everything to see is along the road. Sometimes you have to go off-road. Writing is an ongoing journey. I’ve been learning it for more than ten years, and I’m still learning new things.
And once I learn something new, you bet I’m going to see how far I can take it. Do the same. That’s how you become a writer.
And now for you writers, here’s Mister Danielewski himself reading a section of his novel while his sister, singer-songwriter Poe, sings one of the songs from the book’s soundtrack, her album Haunted.