Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 6): The Importance of Learning from Our Past

Missed Part 5? Read it here:

“The Importance of Learning from Our Past”

Early on the morning of January 2, 2017, when I should’ve been fast asleep like a normal person, I sat at my desk reading every short story I had written in high school, trying to figure out my roots. There were seven stories in total, most of them just episodic installments of a larger series I had intended to finish but never did, and I had spent my later “knowledgeable” years thinking they were garbage and worth forgetting.

To my surprise, however, I discovered they weren’t that bad. In fact, I might’ve even learned something about myself, my history, and my personal character arc (a fancy term writers use to signify growth or change) through reading them.

What I’ve learned from my old stories is that, even if we don’t enjoy literature—reread my first post in this series, “The Importance of Literature” for more on this—we still understand the basic conventions of storytelling and know when a story adheres to it, maybe thanks to all of the movies we watch, but also because we inherently know what a hero’s journey looks like when we see one. For that reason, there’s a good chance we set out on our writing careers with decent stories in mind, even if we don’t exactly know how to approach telling them.

This is why we must be careful about what we do with our inherent knowledge versus our acquired knowledge when we choose to learn new writing methods to improve our craft. We should never forget that reading the types of works we want to write is almost as good of a teacher as listening to a seminar on how to write. Reading will enforce our intuitions and help us to decide whether the education we’re getting to improve our work is actually good enough, or even accurate, to get us to our goals of becoming excellent authors.

Consider this reality: after rereading what I produced as an uneducated high school bibliophobe, I started to wonder if learning how to write was actually perilous to my journey to becoming a great author. Food for thought?

I realize this bears explanation, especially to wannabe writers who think taking a writing class is the answer to all of their needs. I know my 1998 self would challenge this statement, as I believe I learned everything I’d ever need to know (because isn’t college supposed to teach us everything we need to know for success?).

So, let me elaborate:

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English. I took the majority of my relevant courses at UCF from 1998 to 2000. I had three and a half years where I couldn’t afford to finish, and then in 2004, I went back to finalize my degree. With the exception of screenwriting, my 2004 classes were largely elective, and really just there to get me to the finish line. I had done my core coursework prior to my financial breakdown in 2000. And for my creative writing track, I had to take mostly creative writing courses to fulfill the requirements of my degree.

Pretty obvious path, right? Take a fiction or poetry class, write three or four works for that class, workshop them (that’s when you sit in a circle among your classmates and listen with a smile as they rip your work to shreds, and you’re told not to interfere with the process by explaining your intentions), then revise your baby based on the feedback. The common joke of writing workshops, of course, is that all of you are learning the same principles at the same time, so anything they point out to you, you should already know, and if you’re wrong, chances are they are, too. As much as I liked my writing workshops, I definitely agree they are flawed, at least based on the conditions they provided.

For anyone reading this who has not taken a writing class before, let me break down the system for you. Forgive the slight tangent. I’ll get back to the point momentarily. But I feel this is important to any aspiring writer who doesn’t know the creative writing college climate:

The first few weeks of class is spent going over writing exercises, like scene setting, character sheets, dialogue, etc. Microscopic rules for storytelling are explained in the process, such as show don’t tell, make sure the reader can visualize the hero, etc. Sometimes we’re given an assignment to read something published to get an idea what we’re aiming for. Then the rest of the semester is spent going over the works we’ve written for the class. This leads to the workshop format that I wrote about above.

Terms like conflict and resolution might come up in the course of a semester, but they certainly don’t get the full attention they deserve, which I honestly think should be dedicated to a course in of itself. And structure? Forget about it. What’s that? The only course that touches on the three-act structure is screenwriting, and that’s because screenwriting doesn’t work without it. Oh, and in a screenwriting course, you’re only going to write the first act. There’s no time to go over the whole thing.

So yeah, that’s a college writing track in a nutshell. I’d imagine the Master’s program would cover more ground than the Bachelor’s, but I think that’s because the foundations are already set in an undergraduate program, and graduate programs tend to be more independently focused than class focused anyway, so I’m told.

So, how does all of this relate to the seven short stories that I wrote in high school and the self-reflection they afford me moving forward in my ongoing growth as an author?

Well, let’s return to the beginning of my story and draw a line to see if my educational path was straight.

The only creative writing I had done for a grade prior to college had been for an eleventh grade creative writing class and for various English assignments from seventh grade on. None of these classes taught me the essentials of story. They were fun, yes, but they just focused on presentation, entertainment, etc. at the scene level, much like college did. In theory, I shouldn’t have walked away knowing anything about story form given how these high school and college classes were designed.

And based on my writing from about 1998 to 2005, I’d argue that I graduated knowing nothing about story form. When I should’ve gotten better over the years, it turns out I might’ve actually gotten worse.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that the stories I wrote in high school were any good, or that my instructors were bad at communicating the elements they did have time to teach. In both cases, they weren’t. But, when I went back and reread my “magnificent” seven, I found that I had understood the concept behind story structure in those days, or at least the conventions that make a story entertaining, better than I had in my college years, years later.

So, I actually wonder if my college education had sapped me of the fundamental knowledge I’d already had going into writing. It could be that I was simply writing a different type of story in those days. There is a clear division of style between my early works and my current works, the latter which is derivative of my college and post-college writings. But that, too, may be a result of my college education because there is also a distinct difference in the level of imagination I had put into those early works versus the ones I put out in college, and by proxy, today. It seems I had taken greater narrative risks in those days. One story in particular, about a ninja attempting to save a carnival from a madman, has an entire segment where the hero is trying to get out of a well, and his progressive complication is that the rope breaks, then the townspeople start jumping in with him (they think he’s throwing a party down there), making his ability to call on them for help diminish by the second, and at the last minute, as he’s finally about to ascend the top of the well, an explosion at the carnival knocks him right back in and throws mortar on top of him. Even as he manages to get out using his ninja climbing skills and confronts the madman responsible for the destruction, who is now wielding a bazooka with limitless ammo (I was probably 17 when I wrote this), he has to deal with the fact that the whole town is now on fire. How does he deal with it? He retrieves the bazooka from the madman, blows enough holes into the earth that the town itself sinks, and celebrates as the underground river puts out the fires, and the wreckage.

So, is it stupid? Yes. But is it innovative? Yes!

My ideas in those days were weird, certainly, but they weren’t boring. As a 40-year-old man who enjoys well-written fiction and knows something about it now (I’ve been reading a lot in my years following college), I honestly thought I’d hate my old works. So, you can imagine my surprise when I actually found myself not only laughing at them (because they were funny, not just because they were bad), but eagerly anticipating the next scene, and even getting mad at my 17-year-old self for never finishing the later installments. I don’t think I could capture that same level of imagination today, not after all the ways I’ve sanitized my thoughts over the years. I actually want to know how “Engine Man and Groovinator Enter the Future Dome” would’ve ended, had I ever finished the story. But I remember the other problem I had as a 17-year-old with limited access to his neighbor’s computer. I got bored quickly. I probably didn’t think the story worked.

And that’s too bad. That kid was more intuitive to what made a story enjoyable than the adult who followed him. I’ve spent the last ten years unlearning everything I learned in college just to make my stories fun again.

I never thought I’d say this, but I think I need to go back and write a new Engine Man and Groovinator story, even though the characters are cartoonish and the situations surrounding them are basically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Cheech and Chong. But then, isn’t that the kind of thing we readers want to read? I know I do, and as I said in “The Importance of Managing Fun,” I am my first reader.

So, should we continue to learn from teachers and experts? Yes. But, we need to do so with caution. Reading, or even watching movies, is essential to understanding, inherently, whether a story works. When we fill our subconscious with stories that do work, we begin to sense whether or not our instructors are teaching us things that don’t work. Of course, I’ve proven that that’s not true in of itself, so we also have to train ourselves to ask the right questions of our instructors, and the right questions essentially come down to whether or not the methods we’re being taught are the same methods that the masters used to create their works. If the answer is “no,” then maybe we should be wary of the instruction we’re receiving.

At the end of the day, the masters write books that we, hopefully, have fun reading, and part of writing for fun is to make sure we have an audience who reads us for fun. Again, we can figure out whether we’re on the right path by reading our older works and comparing them to our newer works. Are we getting better or worse at it? If we’re getting worse, then we need to chart our progression into the hole, figure out where we slipped up and fell in, then correct our course for a path of actual learning. Next week, I’ll share some of the rules I’ve learned to help me keep to a better course.

Next Week: “The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling”

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Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 5): The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience

Missed Part 4? Read it here:

“The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience”

In Part 4, we talked about how writing should be fun (the theme of this series). But that implies we should write only and always for ourselves, and that the moment it stops being fun, we should stop doing it. To that logic, I would say, we should stop taking care of our yards or helping our kids with their homework the moment we stop enjoying the process.

No, writing shouldn’t always be about fun. Sometimes it needs to be about business. Or expression, or something that may not necessarily leave us feeling warm and fuzzy inside, but will in some way leave us feeling vindicated for all the fiery knowledge that’s been heaped on us over the years.

But, whether we write for business or the heck of it should depend on why we’re writing, who we’re writing for, and what message we hope to convey (and how urgent it is to share that message with unsuspecting readers). Why are you writing? Or, if you haven’t started, why do you want to write?

I began writing as a way to explore my adventurous side, as I was getting too old for toys, and watching movies and playing video games ultimately limited my ability to freely explore. Sure, much of my imagination was sparked through watching futuristic action movies like The Running Man, which takes place in 2017, FYI. But sometimes I might find myself wondering what’s down the path the hero didn’t take, or what would’ve happened if Schwarzenegger had taken the contract to join the stalkers, etc. I started my writing journey to explore those dark corners that the mainstream wouldn’t show me and those epic events I could no longer simulate by throwing all of my action figures into a pile and see how many of them could survive the “Rumble by the Cliff Overlooking the Mile-long Drop into Lava.” Weirdly, it was an episode of The Jeffersons, where Florence, the maid, writes a detective story involving all of the show’s other main characters, that convinced me it was time to start writing for myself. It was in syndication by that point, but it happened to be on TV the day I was ready to move forward into storytelling, and it was enough to get me to break out the pencil and line paper and get to work. I was 13 at the time.

When I began writing, I did not have the business of writing in mind. I did not expect to share my work with the world, and I wasn’t even that interested in sharing with all but a few of my peers. I can’t remember if I was embarrassed or shy, but publicly displaying my story was not priority number one, and neither was displaying the dozens or so stories I’d written over the next ten years. Deciding on a creative writing track in college certainly forced me to get comfortable with letting basic strangers read my stuff, and taking a creative writing class in high school helped my productivity along—it also helped that the teacher would anonymously read student works to the class in such a way that we’d all get a laugh, and that getting picked for the public reading was an honor, not a curse; I daresay that that anonymous exposure was ego fuel, and made the prospect of having a readership more attractive, except for those times when classmates refused to critique my work because they thought it was too long.

Whether I recognized it or not, those early days of sharing my work exposed me to the reality of audience, and the importance of knowing who’s supposed to read what I’ve written.

Knowing our audience is imperative to all writing, whether we’re doing it for fun or for business. If our audience is ourselves, then we can probably get away with writing anything, for we are unlikely to write anything for fun that we wouldn’t also read for fun. But once we make the decision to share our work, then we need to understand the people who will be asked to read it.

Turning fun into business ultimately comes down to understanding the people we want reading our stuff. No one is going to buy anything we produce if we’re not giving them something they want to read (or watch, or listen to, or use, etc.). We can play in the playground all we want, but the moment we turn that playground into a staging ground for the next world war, we’ve ruined what was great about that playground, and the people whom that playground was designed for, the children, will no longer come around. That poor playground will get trampled by the wrong people. We don’t want that, right?

Regardless of our reasons for writing, we need to have an understanding of what we want to do with it when we’re finished. Ideally, we should know the answer to that before we start. Whether we keep it to ourselves or share it with the world, or limit it to someplace in between, the best thing we can do for our writing is to craft it in such a way that our intended audience will want to read it. And this doesn’t always mean that we should write in elevated language or elaborate scene-setting. It doesn’t always mean that we should wax eloquent the type of threading used to piece the hero’s spandex together or the heroine’s dress. Even if we have fun researching the composition of gunpowder before including all of our notes into the scene where the hero loads his weapon, it doesn’t mean those six pages of information need to be shared with our audience, especially if the scene requires heart-pounding action that moves at a clipped pace. Even if we like the descriptions of the clothing materials or gunpowder, there’s a good chance that we’re the only ones.

Okay, so how do we know if we’re harming the balance between business and fun, if what we’re writing is getting in the way of enjoyment for the reader, even though we ourselves may be enjoying every moment of it? Simple. Put someone else’s name on our work, shelve it for a few weeks, then come back and read it as a reader and not a writer. Do we still like that overblown description of gunpowder in that action scene that takes six pages to set up?

As I said in “The Importance of Managing Fun,” the author is the first reader. But if we want a second and third reader, then we may want to redefine our definition of “writing for fun” because writing for fun should lead to our audience reading for fun, and we may not achieve that goal if we write completely uninhibited. Some knowledge of structure, story fundamentals, understanding of vocabulary and grammar, and so on, will ultimately need a place in our boxes of writing fun if it’s to remain fun for everyone. If we neglect the essentials, we may find, unfortunately, that readers will neglect the stories we want them to read. So, even if we write for fun, we should still consider writing also for business, if for no other reason but to think of the future and the place our works have in that future. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t start his 2017 breaking out of prison to outwit murderous stalkers on national television to the amusement of Richard Dawson, doesn’t mean he didn’t still find his way onto the set of a reality show to the scrutiny of those he should entertain. We should always consider the future when putting together the fabric of our present.

Next Week: “The Importance of Learning from Our Past”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 4): The Importance of Managing Fun

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

“The Importance of Managing Fun”

Stephen King had to start somewhere. His book, On Writing, gives us a history lesson on how he started, how he grew, and how he became a success. His main message to aspiring writers is to remain consistent. But, he also encourages writers to bring with them a sense of discovery. There’s a turf war in writing right now between the “plotters” and the “pantsers,” the latter of which King is the king, but both camps agree that discovering the story is as important to writing as knowing its structure and its ending. Discovery is important to the writer because the writer is the story’s first reader, and emotionally, it makes sense for the writer to plot the story along as if he is discovering things for the first time with the reader.

This is where writing for fun comes into play.

One of the big questions when we write anything (for this argument, we’ll focus on fiction, even though nonfiction writers have the same question to ask) is whether or not we should write for an audience or write for ourselves. If we’re writing an adventure story when our personal preference is thrillers, for example, are we being true to ourselves as authors? If we love screwball comedies, but are forcing ourselves to write a serious vampire drama because it’s what’s hot in the market at the moment, are we doing our job well? If we discover things about our protagonists, even if we don’t actually care about his journey because he doesn’t live within our preferred genre, are we still expected to “ooh” and “ahh” at the discoveries the way a potential reader might?

To that, I say, the author is also the audience.

Now, this isn’t to suggest exclusivity, of course. As we take writing more seriously, we need to start asking ourselves whom we want to read our stuff. But the real first question is whether or not we want anyone else reading our stuff. As I said in “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear,” I began my writing life as a private citizen, unwilling to share my stories with anyone who didn’t also wear my underwear. As I wrote more and had more fun doing it, however, I had a greater willingness to share what I was writing. (If I had fun writing it, then maybe others would have fun reading it.) I started by sharing my work with my dad; then I started reading my stories over the phone to a select group of friends. Nothing I wrote was “good” per se, but I enjoyed writing it. And they enjoyed reading it (so they said). But I was not about to release any of it to the public.

Why?

Simply put, I wasn’t ready to put myself out there.

I’m an introvert by nature; though, life has taught me that even introverts have to show their faces to the world from time to time. The invention of the Internet has helped me to combat my fears. It’s given me a comfortable way to get out there, spread my wings, and grow as not just a writer but an author, too, as sharing work can be autonomous, based on discovery, and not require me to slap potential readers in the face with copies of my manuscript as I shout, “Read this!” In other words, I can put my name on a work, keep my face off of it if I want, and avoid the awkward conversations that could’ve formed had I given someone my work directly.

The flipside to using the Internet, however, is that now anyone can read anything I’ve posted anywhere, including the good works and the crap I should’ve kept to myself, and now I can’t hide my imperfections, my poor thoughts on a subject I know little about, my lame turns of phrase, my general ignorance about how the world works, and perhaps worst of all, my inexperience with business and my lack of professionalism as an author. Once it’s out there, it’s out there for all to see. And even though my memory sucks, plenty of people have solid memories that endure years upon years, and they’re the ones who will inevitably read the stuff that made me want to remain a private citizen in the first place. Question then becomes, should I put my name on this thing at all?

Well, there’s a flipside to that, too. Putting my name on crap means everyone who finds it will now think I’m a bad writer. But leaving good work anonymous will mean anyone who finds it won’t know I’m a good writer.

Everything is a risk. Putting our names on the line like that is a risk, just as leaving our names off of things is also a risk. Crazy thought, huh?

That’s when we need to decide whether we want to write for business or for fun. We usually begin our writing life for fun, just as I did, and it’s okay to write for fun. But when we post our work for the public, we have to acknowledge whether or not writing for fun is still our goal. Otherwise, why would we bother sharing anything with strangers? We’re the ones supposed to be having fun, right? Are the people who read our work having fun? Does that even matter?

I’m sure Stephen King began writing for fun. But here’s the kicker: I think he still writes for fun. I think it was, is, and will always be in his blood. The difference now is that he gets paid to do it. He had to start somewhere, and even he will tell you that he’s written crap once upon a time. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I’m pretty sure he admits that in his book, On Writing.

The reality is, we should write for fun. It’s okay to write for fun. But we should also forward-think a little. Just like posting about our bad day on Facebook, we should think about what sending this piece of writing up the line will do in the future. Will we be okay tomorrow if this gets out today, or will posting this cause something consequential and irreversible? And is that a bad thing? Perhaps that’s why we need coaches and mentors in our lives. We need gatekeepers to let us know if what we’re about to do is helpful or harmful, and if the job we’re doing as a writer will still be fun tomorrow if this gets out today.

It’s okay to write for fun, but we should have some sense about why we’re doing it first.

Next Week: “The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 3): The Importance of Imperfection

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

“The Importance of Imperfection”

So, let’s take a hypothetical situation here. Let’s pretend we’ve written something stupid, incoherent, and laughable. But let’s also pretend that we wrote it for fun. Let’s pretend we wrote it knowing it would be stupid, incoherent, and laughable. Should we present it to the public?

I’ve been part of two camps when it comes to authorship: professionalism and completionism. With professionalism, we acknowledge that we have a goal to produce quality work for a quality customer. If the work we produce falls apart, injures the end user, or sows the seeds of discord, we probably don’t want to share it with the public, not unless we’re evil supervillains bent on taking over the world. Doing so could damage our brands. However, with completionism, if we have the obsessive-compulsive need to provide everything we’ve produced to satisfy those obsessive-compulsive collectors who wish to acquire our entire inventory of products, past, present, future, forgotten, conceptual, and should’ve-been-destroyed, then it might make sense to share it all with the public, warts included, even if presenting ugly work will still, inevitably, damage our brands. I can sometimes justify leaning on both, as professionalism will keep people coming back for more while completionism will give true fans a chance to see a career charted, from terrible failures to resounding successes, and feel as though they are part of the author’s journey toward greatness. We all want to be a part of something great, don’t we? But should there be a choice between professionalism and completionism? Can both coexist?

In either case, we have to acknowledge that genius is rare, crap is inevitable, and neither should end a person’s career before it begins. Consider this: The original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was probably decent but lackluster. Harper Lee had time to refine it, of course, and refine it she did. She refined it so well that high schools now teach it as important literature. But, one of the reasons she could refine it so well was because she had actually written Go Set a Watchman first, which wasn’t so well-refined, and her editor knew that and convinced her to write a prequel and release that book instead. Her experience with the first book not only helped her to figure out her story and characters, but it allowed her to write a masterwork for her second.

But, was writing and releasing a perfect novel on her second attempt really the best thing for Harper Lee, or for her readers for that matter? For over five decades, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only Harper Lee book we knew. Go Set a Watchman is older than To Kill a Mockingbird, yet Harper Lee was wise to hold it back for as long as she had, according to her editor, her sister, and probably many others, for it does not measure up to the same quality standard as To Kill a Mockingbird, not then, and not now, and to release anything of lower quality would have inevitably driven down her author stock. If we consider her legacy, however, we could argue that maybe she should have released it sooner anyway, perfect or not.

Question is, why could we argue something so preposterous? If releasing Go Set a Watchman could damage her perfect record, then why bother releasing it at all, decades ago, or even today? Didn’t we ruin Jurassic Park with all of those terrible sequels? Isn’t Star Wars tainted by those awful prequels? If we had left Indiana Jones with just three movies, couldn’t we say, forever, that it’s the perfect adventure series, and not one where the hero can survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator?

Maybe the release of Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s or 1960s would’ve damaged her perfect record. But it also could’ve led her to writing and releasing a third book, a fourth, and so on, furthering her career, as now the high standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged and ultimately failed to match, and thus the need to remain perfect is diminished. Maybe by failing at sustained perfection, the world could’ve been blessed with a vast library of Harper Lee books to follow, ranging across decades of southern life, with some being lackluster, but others being masterworks. If only she (and her editor) had just taken the chance to release Go Set a Watchman to the public decades sooner, we might’ve seen a brilliant writer fulfill her brilliant destiny of having a robust range of brilliant titles in her bibliography instead of just two (one perfect and one flawed).

We want to produce perfection, and we want to make sure that perfection is all the world will see from us. But, if we wait on perfection, we will never build our careers. Likewise, we potentially shoot ourselves in the foot if we achieve perfection anyway. Think about that. I’ve been saying for the last year or so, “We can’t improve on perfection. Any change we make to it will just make it worse.” If we write the perfect book, we damn ourselves to that perfection, and we can never write anything else ever again, lest we ruin our perfect reputations. So, maybe it’s better that we tell ourselves it’s okay to write crap, and that it’s okay to release it to the public whenever it reaches a stage just above crap. Maybe we’ll give ourselves a chance to succeed with that attitude.

If the masters want to stall their careers because they’ve achieved self-actualization, that’s their business. I like writing, and I like sharing it with anyone who identifies as a fan, so I’ll keep producing, even if it’s simply enjoyable and less than life-changing. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to write the stuff that impacts the world. Just means I’ll probably follow it up with something fun. After all, Nicholas Cage may have won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, but it didn’t stop him from following it with Con Air and Face/Off. And let’s be honest, the world is better off for that decision.

Next Week: “The Importance of Managing Fun