Wednesday, November 7, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 18 - The How-to-Write Industry

I suspected the marriage did not stand much of a chance when my then wife thought it was great that my stepson was so pleased with his poetry writing class, which was centered around keeping control of your work by always writing the last line first, then filling in whatever needs to be filled in so that you can get to that last line and nowhere else.

But I can understand the appeal, for if the ending is there before you begin you can pretty well dispense with the anything precarious that might appear while in the writing process. In effect, you have thrown out process. If you already have the ending in place, then nothing bad can happen. And nothing will ever change.

There is a vast industry that tends to silence real artists and that I believe is based on fear. I call it the How-to-Write Industry. It is something like what Leonard Bernstein called “the music appreciation racket.” Non-artists take over, promote criticism above creativity, and set up rules and limits to what artists can or should do. And thus art, including the art of writing, becomes something so safe it threatens no fossilized ideas.

The How-to-Write industry can make itself felt in academic writing programs, starting with English 101, where silly rules often come in and the silliness of such things as learning rhetorical modes. Its rules are often felt in back-biting M.F.A. programs in Creative Writing, in many of the commercial writing workshops and the huge number of on-line writing courses a web search turns up, as well as in writing magazines for the public and little writing journals for the academics. In all these areas there are sympathetic, empathetic teachers that one would be fortunate to encounter. But there are many more teachers who exalt criticism at the expense of art and do not welcome real stories. In many of these courses, as in a majority of books about writing, it is as if nothing is real, everything is an exercise or a system for writing-to-order. And writing is meant to be such an ordeal that there are programs that use the word “boot camp” in their titles or promotional materials.

But though writing can be hard, the pure-ordeal notion cannot be taken seriously by a writer who is actually writing from what that writer knows, sees, feels and finds inside herself or himself. In fact, in the Authentic Writing workshops and in our private client sessions it often seems that the very best writing comes in ways that feel natural and even easy. It is the falsification involved in the writing-to-order kind of writing – in writing meant to fit someone else’s version of reality – that causes anguish and blockage – like a time during dark days I tried to turn a searing family story into a happy story for a book editor, or write about State Department people as if I admired them – myself then like all those people who will not admit that what they are trying to write has nothing to do with what they believe or who they are.

The How-to-Write industry keeps coming up with new techniques to stop writing from going anywhere unexpected, anywhere that would cause anxiety to those in power. This industry is like a religion that finds death more appealing than life.

As in a cult, there are How-to-Write laws rooted in dubious scholarship
such as the rules, based on Latin, not English, to never start a sentence with a conjunction, never split an infinitive, never end a sentence with a preposition. These rules are calls to stop doing things that all the best writers constantly do when they allow the writing itself to take over. And there are other rules constantly violated in major literature that, if followed to the letter, are just as bad – such as "Avoid the passive voice" or "Adhere strictly to your outline." These are things that at best might be somewhat helpful as fixed rules if your only ambition were to write catalog blurbs or small appliance assembly instructions.

One thing my brother did as my writing was taking off again was sign me up, forging my signature, in the Writer’s Digest Book Club. And just then the Writer’s Digest magazine’s special memoir issue came out. It was filled with advice for writing memoir by writing only about people you had known, really interesting people, rather than about yourself.

Much in the manner of those prissy grade school teachers who ban the use of “I” –for who would be interested in such as you?

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