Narrative Deafness

Given that my sure fire writer’s block breaker is tied up with family stuff today, I decided to blog again in lieu of staring at my WIP for unreasonable amounts of unproductive time today. I recently got into a discussion with another writer friend about the different type of writer’s blogs out there. Some folks are very into blogging about the craft itself (and we often wonder if this is to the exclusion of actual writing). I read several of these industry blogs and can often learn something. But I am unlikely to do much blogging on craft myself. Why? Well, to put it nicely, I don’t think it can be taught. You can teach grammar. You can teach vocabulary. You can teach the technical concepts of a story or character arc. But though you can learn all of these things and more, there is one thing that cannot be taught, without which I don’t think you’ll be a successful writer: a sense of narrative and storytelling–by which I mean an innate sense of how to tell a story, how the characters interact and events unfold, how to pace the narrative to maintain interest. As people can be tone deaf to music, so they can be deaf to narrative.

Now according to the field of narrative psychology, human beings are hard-wired to think in stories. Our lives are constructed as stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Our dealings with other people are often related in story form. Our journals and blogs tell stories every day about what happened to us at work, or the fight we had with our spouse or the funny thing our kids did last weekend. But there is a huge difference between reporting what happened and making it a story. THIS is the sense that you’re either born with or you’re not. This is that essential component without which all the blood, sweat, tears and revisions will be for naught. I’m not saying that if you have this ability you will automatically be a great writer–you won’t. Good writing is a product of lots of hard work and refining of craft–learning all those things that can be taught and figuring out how to tighten your prose and clarify. There’s a lot of sweat that goes into good writing.

But this is why I don’t believe in “creative writing” classes. You can do exercises and writer’s prompts and they won’t make you a better writer. I took an honors creative writing class in college and learned nothing because the professor was interested only in narratives containing sex, violence, or perversion–not exactly my cup of tea. He taught only what he liked, and for others who are interested in the same, that was fine. But it wasn’t applicable to all writing. Nothing we did in that class helped me refine my craft. I’d have been better of spending the semester practicing my craft and writing in that period of time than wasting it listening to someone else’s ideas. That’s the kicker. It all comes down to practice, practice, practice. You will not get better if you don’t practice. Personally, I think it’s arrogant to tell anyone how to write. I think at most you can say what works for you and if someone else tries it and it works for them, GREAT. I mean you can certainly say “you need a comma before blah” or “you misspelled x” or other grammar nazi type issues. But in terms of “this is how you do it”…nope, not so much.

I’m sure I will manage to offend someone with this post. Please don’t think I’m trying to discourage anyone out there who wants to write. If writing is what you love, then by all means do it! This is just my personal opinion on the subject.

2 thoughts on “Narrative Deafness

  1. It’s an interesting post. And now the truth comes out: in the nature vs. nurture debate, I tend to come out more on the side of nurture.

    So whereas you would say some people are just born storytellers, I would say all people are born storytellers and some people’s greater exposure to storytelling, and the unique chance events storytelling-related that occur in their lifetime, produce storytellers of different types and proficiencies. (And if you think I’m going to go back through and read that mess and try to fix all the subject/verb agreements before I’ve finished my first Diet Coke, well, you would be wrong.)

    So yeah, I guess I do believe that _anybody_ can write and that writing can be taught. That what we view as a “natural-born-storyteller” is someone who was possibly exposed to storytelling at a young age, maybe had a set of life circumstances that created in them a love of reading, a need to read as an escape, taught them skills of observation and reflection…

    The two necessary components to the teaching are reading and writing. Someone who tells stories may read in a different way than someone who does not. The reading of writers may be more analytical, consciously or unconsciously, than the non-writing reader. So while the reader is lost in the work, simply enjoying the story, the writer may (and may not even be aware of it) taking mental notes regarding things like pacing, structure, and other things that did and did not work in the piece. From my personal experience I can volunteer that while I have always been able to recognize these technical aspects, the more I immerse myself in writing, the more I am apt to notice them in the work of others -> She can be taught!

    As for teaching the writing part, yeah, that’s mostly about practice. I have never taken a writing class that didn’t do more harm than good for me. But I would call that much more of a problem of matching the teacher/subject to the writer than of classes in general. You know that I am one to pick up a book on technique from time to time, and even if I think 99% of the book doesn’t apply or is stuff I already knew (and thought: doesn’t everyone know this??) I’m not sure I’ve ever skipped my way through one of those books without picking out at least one thing to think about and apply to my own writing–or reading, for that matter. So I think that a class (or book) can almost always provide, at the very least, some food for thought. The other thing that a class does is kicks the pants of the writer who either does not sit her butt in the chair long enough to get anything down, or is so consumed wth a million ideas that she can’t choose where to start. A class will say: sit down now and write this. And at least some practice occurs. Some people really need that. They need someone to _make_ them practice in the beginning. They need a little shove in the right direction.

    (I think where classes are harmful is in the area of feedback. In a situation where the writer isn’t well matched to the teacher/subject, you have both an authority figure and a room full of amateurs giving the would-be author all sorts of criticism that may be completely irrelevant to the kind of work they wish to produce.)

    So in my usual way, I could chat about this all day long. I’m wholly willing to accept the premise that humans are hard-wired for storytelling. All humans. And so it follows for me that anyone can learn to develop that which exists naturally in all of us. They just have to find a path and work at following it.

  2. And I’m on the nature side. (g) Granted, everyone can improve with enough practice, but I think telling stories is just like anything else. You either CAN or CAN’T do it. My personal theory is the whole right/left brain thing. I mean, some people are just analytical and can tear up math problems, scientific formulas, etc. that I can’t even begin to fathom. Some people come out of the womb singing… some people can draw, or have an ear for music. I’m sure nuture has something to do with it, but I’m not opposed to the idea of some people being hard-wired to do certain things whereas others are not.

    But here’s a possible problem. What if someone grows up unable to tell stories, and one day, at the age of 50 decides he wants to write a book? If he has absolutely no storytelling skills, can he really be trained to think in another way? I dunno… Me? I kinda doubt it…

    Maybe it sounds condescending to say “I can do this because I was born to do it, and you can’t because you weren’t.” But then, I can’t draw more than a stick figure with a big ole’ lopsided head. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the desire to. But, I can’t. I trained and trained when I was younger, but let me tell you… my skills didn’t improve. (g) I heard something recently that this brings to mind… Does anyone really think someone told Michelangelo how to paint the Sistine Chapel? Yeah, kinda doubt it. He just did it, because he could. 🙂

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