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”