Since I began taking my writing seriously again–or perhaps for the first time really, as an adult–after graduate school, I’ve done a lot of reading on craft. Some of it has oriented me as a writer, answered that instinctive call of loneliness and isolation so that I know that others have come before me and continue to experience the same joys and frustrations as I. Last year I did a lot of reading about the technical aspects of fiction writing, and if nothing else, I learned how little I really know.
I’ve been putting myself and my work under a microscope, trying to take an objective view of where my strengths and weaknesses lie. Coming from a background in clinical psychology, the concept of self-analysis is an easy one for me to grasp, so it’s been an illuminating process. While I didn’t make the goals I’d hoped for last year, I think I learned a lot of valuable lessons about my habits and where I often get it wrong or fail the reader. Awareness of a problem is the first step in fixing it.
One huge thing that I’ve become aware of in the last year or two is that I really walk the line, having to weave in and out and between two disparate, and not always remotely compatible, worlds. By day (and part of the night) I am a scientist and a teacher. As a scientist I’m required to be objective and specific, quantitatively oriented. My editorial skills are in high demand, as is my natural tendency toward detail–fitting papers into a specific format and mold as required by each peer-reviewed scientific journal we submit to. As a teacher, I’m placed in a position where I have to emphasize to my students that objectivity and clarity of thought and communication–and above all, good grammar–really do matter in the real world if they hope to do well. It is a skill that fewer and fewer college grads have these days, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.
But as a writer, I know and believe that rules are made to be broken–so long as there’s a reason for it. I frequently use fragments, one line or even one word paragraphs, stream of consciousness–all these things that are taboo in scientific or academic writing. In my creative life, I have to submerse myself in feelings, in qualitative experience, in specifics rather than generalities.
And it’s the crossover that often causes me problems. I’m often guilty of being too clinically distant with my characters–a habit redolent of my days as a therapist. Sometimes my writing is stilted–because I haven’t gotten my head out of the formalized APA style for whatever journal article I’m prepping for submission. And at times, when it comes down to my adding substantively to such an article, I stare at it in dismay, unsure how to proceed because I have no character to serve as my compass. In graduate school my papers, though well-written, were often criticized for being “too literary” or floral. God forbid I entertain while imparting information. It took me almost a year of writing after getting out to lose that forced, formalized tone. I was almost convinced that they’d ruined my voice for life. Three years later and I’m still resisting the urging of my thesis chair to turn my thesis into a journal article. I don’t want to immerse myself in that world any more than my regular job requires. Because it isn’t what I want to do.
I am a writer, a novelist. A spinner of tales. Albiet one who must continue to walk the line.