Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Two Spectrums of Writers

I was thinking this morning about the different types of writers and how they tend to fall into one camp or the other (though on varying locations on the spectrum, of course). One of the things that got me thinking about it was simply remembering some of the conversations about writing I’ve had with my friend Frank.

As I see it, there are primarily two perspectives on writing – the practical perspective and the spiritual perspective. Sure, as I mentioned above, most of us fall somewhere on the number line between them, but we tend to favor one over the other.

The practical perspective tends to see writing as an exercise of the mind, learning rules and standards and discovering the mechanics or grammar, plotting, dialogue, form, etc, and they often edit themselves to death (as the saying goes) in order to improve their words. These poor writers are the ones who scour over their manuscripts, changing weak verbs to strong, red-inking superfluous adverbs and adjectives, and constantly “killing their darlings.” (If you get the reference, you’re likely this type.) If anything, they can miss the proverbial forest for its trees when it comes to communicating in a written form.

Writers in this camp are the ones who more often buy, read, and recommend books on writing to help others. They also tend to believe that anyone can learn to write just as anyone can learn to put together a barn if taught the basics of how to do it.

To them writing isn’t so much an art form as it is a skill that can be learned.

On the other hand, the spiritual perspective tends to see writing as an exercise of the soul, with a selected group of masters born with a predisposition to see the world through a “writer’s eye” able to pour forth the mutterings of their souls into word processors and onto paper or into song.

Writers in this camp don’t usually buy books on the mechanics of writing, and they also tend to not go through as many edits other than perhaps a few spell checks, as their words have come from their inner self and to “study” them in a thorough edit would be to taint them. Their copy can often be found disobeying the “rules” -- preferring instead to create their own rules and listen to the voice inside that exists outside of any imposed restrictions. Writing is writing, they reason, not learning about writing, and learning about writing only gets in the way of the actual writing itself.

To them writing isn’t a skill to be learned, but an art form that comes naturally to those who get it. They tend also to believe that, sure, anyone can learn the basics of putting sentences or words together, but not anyone could actually be a writer. A mere writer, they reason, is a far different noun than a real writer.

I’ve known writers from both camps, and I’ve enjoyed their works equally. I have friends from both camps, and I love to get them together to argue with each other about writing. (It’s a great way to learn how to snort coffee, I can tell you that much.)

Myself, I tend to fall just to the side of writing as a skill. I believe that most anyone can learn to write -- and write well -- but that there are a select few with a born “gift” for telling stories or communicating in a written form. For every Ed McBain, there are plenty of John Grishams, just as entertaining and well-crafted in their chosen field, but not as artistic.

But for me, that doesn’t have to detract from the ability of the Grishams. It only means that while some buildings are tall, others can be taller, and still others even taller. But that doesn’t make the tall building merely tall (or even small, since smaller can also be tall at the same time).

But me, I’m not going to be satisfied with being good. I want my writing to come from both my spirit and my intellect, my soul and my mind, my natural knack and my learned skill. I’ll do whatever it takes to hit great, starting with natural talent (or self-delusion anyway) and adding skill upon skill to that, never satisfied that I’ve hit “tallest” yet.


I don't read a lot of writing books now, unless it's something I'm looking for in particular (like a reference on crime scene investigation for writers or a book on screenwriting format, etc.) or a memoir by a writer I admire (Eudora Welty's A Writer's Life comes to mind).

However, having said that, there are a few volumes I really enjoyed that helped instill in me a love for the art (not skill) or writing -- The Triggering Town is a beautiful book about the power of words and sounds and how they affect reading. And as far as I'm concerned, How to Write a Damn Good Novel Using the Power of Myth is the only book about the hero's journey anyone ever needs to read to develop the skill (not art) of plotting and the art (not skill) of character development across a narrative.

I do think most beginning writers could benefit from a good book on writing dialog and developing character, though.