When I started writing as a young lad, one of the things I learned was that getting better is bittersweet. I recall days when I was fourteen and fifteen when I would write for hours longhand at a breakneck pace, my eyes rooted to the paper and my wrist cramping up over and over again. This still happens now and again, but it’s much rarer, and the difference has to do with freedom.
Back then, I didn’t think about getting better, I just wanted to have fun. Spelling and grammar? Who needs it? Structure, character development? Forget it. Coherent, plausible plotlines? Beginning, Middle, End? Leave those motherfuckers in the dust. Editing? Didn’t know the meaning of the word. No, I just wanted to have fun – and I did. So many novels left behind, some of them gigantic, all of them unreadable, and all of them great memories.
But I got frustrated. Because when I read my work, even my inexperienced eyes could see that it was bad. The people who read it complimented the ideas, but handed me work packed full of notes detailing all the errors and flaws. I knew many of them didn’t finish the books, and worse, I suspected the ones that did didn’t really enjoy them. Not the way you enjoy a Stephen King or a Michael Crichton.
Fuck this, I said. I want to be one of those guys.
So I decided to learn the basics.
I had to slow down, because I wanted my spelling and grammar to be right, so it wouldn’t distract the readers from what was going on. I learned to paragraph, which meant stopping now and again to consider when I should make a new one: gone were the days of my fifty thousand word paragraphs. I focused on description, so I could make the readers see what I saw and feel what I felt.
I had to learn to cut my words down, to get my point across more clearly, and to edit, because not only does no one do it right the first time, they don’t do it right the second time either, or the third time, or ever.
You don’t master any of this stuff. Shit, I still find spelling mistakes in my final drafts, sometims. What I did do, though, was get better, and whatever fun I lost through my learning, I gained in the satisfaction of being able to create something of higher quality. I found new joys, like the joy of finding my own style, a way of writing unique to me instead of a pale imitation of whatever writer I favoured at the time. And the joy of homing in on what I wanted to say and then saying it.
I met people in university who seemed to scoff at the basics. They’d write run-on sentences for pages, or twenty one-word paragraphs in a row. Here’s a bit of a story I read, and this is not quoted word for word, but about as close as I can get it from memory. You’ll get the gist, anyway:
Shewokeandthenightwas BLACK BLACK black black. It crowed a song of the nightstars and she begged it to come to her but it would not and flew away, the night sky its home, the stars its friends, and left her behind like an abandoned lover, her screams mournful in the air and HEART BROKEN (broken?).
All five thousand words were just like this.
I mean, I understand. This guy was in that beginning phase, that innocent place where you can write ten thousand words in a day easy, eyes wide, heart hammering in your chest. It’s from the heart, baby – pure and unfiltered. Kinda like a lot of spoken word poetry that doesn’t rhyme. I’ll bet he had fun writing that story, probably felt really good about it.
But no one wants to read that shit.
You might as well be pouring your heart into a well. You might as well fall in love with a brick wall.
These days my writing sessions go for two or three hours, at most, and I spend plenty of that staring dreamily into space or considering the next or previous sentences, rather than typing at a hundred words a minute (though that does still happen occasionally, in the really good parts). But it’s worth it, because I know I’m improving, practicing, learning.
Writing is communication. Stephen King called it telepathy. Human beings are galaxies, infinitely complex systems of planets and gravitational fields and black holes. We are similar, but also very different. Light years of empty space separate us, however close we might feel to those around us. Stories, and in fact all forms of communication, are like little rockets sent from one galaxy to another, across that space.
You can only send a limited number of rockets before you die. Do you want to send garbled, static filled images and noises and incoherent scenes muddled together? Or would you rather send crystal clear messages, containing exactly what you mean and how you mean it?
The point I’m trying to make is, being a good writer is better than being a free one. It’s a barrel of fun to play around on a surfboard out in the bay, but falling off over and over gets old. What you really want to do is paddle out where the pros are, get in line and take the next available tube. What you really want to do is get in front of a big one and surf that son of a bitch.
The beauty of it is that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Restriction facilitates creativity, it doesn’t stifle it! Once you know the ins and outs of structure and grammar and genre conventions, once you’re able to deploy them with deliberation and purpose, the way Federer deploys a perfect forehand – that’s when you have the freedom to change, to break rules just where and when they can be broken.
But you have to walk before you can run.