Monday 15 July 2019

On Learning. And on learning again - by Rowena House

This month I bought two more writing advice guides: On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

The contrasts between them are remarkable; you’d be forgiven for thinking they aren’t about the same subject at all.

On Editing is practical, clear, logical and full of excellent editing advice, like how to develop a Show Not Tell mindset, how and why to control viewpoint, and classic ways of plotting your story’s shape.

Bird By Bird is personal, wise, endearing, and full of excellent creative writing advice about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously, of finishing whatever small portion of a story you’ve started, of silencing inner critics, of freeing your imagination.

Devouring them both, it became clear that On Editing is the right book for me as a mentor for writers seeking publication, but I dithered about whether Lamott’s vision might be more relevant to where I am at the moment as a writer: i.e. starting over.


(Yup, I know. Sadly, after a year or so exploring the WWII story I’ve blogged about before, I found I didn’t believe in it enough to keep on keeping on. Never mind. There are galaxies of stories out there, and we only need to discover one star.)

Anyhow, if you’re a writer you’ve no doubt discovered long since that there is no ‘right’ way to write a story. This is a truism of our business. We each do what we do. Plot or not. Start with a hunch or refine a premise. Run with an obsession. Fall in love with a character. Ask What If…?

After a decade of attending writing courses, and running them myself, this tenet of individuality had come to seem rather obvious and run-of-the-mill. Trite, even. I certainly thought I knew myself: I plot, I structure, I edit. Guides like On Editing, Story and Into the Woods were the books for me. Then…

I attempted to teach creative writing skills to young people who weren’t remotely interested in the subject (!) but had, nonetheless, to write an original story for their exams. In the classroom, all the received wisdom, all the insights about creativity I’d gained over the years seemed to count for naught.

My enthusiasm for conflict, for protagonists, for rising tension and turning points simply didn’t translate into 450-600 word coherent narratives, with varied sentence structures, and good spelling, punctuation and grammar, to be written in 45 minutes.

Worse still, my research into effective ways of teaching creative writing in schools and colleges unearthed an alarming amount of academic evidence that professional writers teaching in class have statistically insignificant effects on official measurements of pupil attainment and progress.

 [It was a relief to read the Literacy Trust’s report (link below) which showed author visits do have positive benefits for literacy, but that report came too late to offer any comfort during my teacher training year.]

Suitably humbled, and with a brand new toolkit marked “author visitor”, I’ve now returned to the realm of the writer with renewed appreciation for the magic and wonder of the creative process. What a gift it is to be able (eventually) to say what you mean, and shape that into a story worth sharing.

It no longer seems to matter a jot whether one writes methodically, with a guide like On Editing to hand, or as a free spirit, completing each nugget Bird by Bird. What to write remains a big question, of course. But how to write it? Any damn way you please.



Anne Booth said...

I love 'Bird by Bird' but I haven't read the other one, so thank you for this. I am sure you DID inspire people and I think they were lucky to have such a brilliant writer teaching them. I think the guidelines for teaching creative subjects have obviously been drawn up by people who don't understand them or write or create themselves. I'm sorry you are leaving one book but I know you will write another brilliant one, and who knows, maybe you will come back to that WW2 one one day. I'm currently finishing something I started in 2003!

Rowena House said...

That's such a kind thing to say, Anne. Certainly we had fun in one group I got to teach for a while, so I hope some of that lingers with them. And I agree absolutely: what we, as writers, consider to be creative and original seems to come from a different plant to the GCSE narrative 'product' expected by exam boards. One thing that shocked me especially was coming across an academic paper earnestly describing that all-too-familiar pre-writing angst, that tongue-tied period when we struggle to find the right words to say what we mean, then turn those words into some a reader will 'get', as a cognitive deficiency in teenagers!

You encourage me no end re your 2003 story. I would like to return to WW2 but not when people in this country are talking about the Blitz spirit post-Brexit.

Ness Harbour said...

This was a brilliant read. Thank you. So many people are looking for a magic 'formula' and a quick way to learn to write. In my experience, there isn't one. You have to find the best way for you to write. It is a good idea to fill your writer's 'tool box' with all the right tools but how you use them will be quite individual. That's why I love it, everyone's an individual. I love both those books. They both have their merits and will be needed at certain moments of the writing journey. Follow your heart Rowena and let the writing take you where it needs to. Trust your gut. You are an amazing writer. Can't wait to read your next book.

Rowena House said...

That's really, really kind, Ness. Thank you. I think you're right: at a certain point one must follow the heart. I've rather overfilled my head with the theories of storytelling, so that now reading advice guides are delicious way to procrastinate. Trying a 100-day challenge to do something about the WIP every day (though wobbling between two WIPs already!) One day there'll be another launch party - yours probably well before mine. :o)

Paul May said...

Great post, thanks! My favourite writing advice comes from a song by Declan O'Rourke— be brave and believe.

Nick Garlick said...

Excellent post. And thanks for the Anne Lamott tip. What I've read by her is refreshingly direct. I'll go looking for this book.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Paul. You certainly have to be both to keep going.

And Nick, so many people love Bird by Bird, and I can see why: it's beautiful, but I don't think I am on her wavelength as a writer. There's an entire chapter about the angst of school lunches which totally passed me by, or my memory is so shocking I can't recollect anything like it. Enjoying it thoroughly, nevertheless.