On Becoming a Better Writer

I know a lot of aspiring writers and novelists. Occasionally in our conversations, one or two of them will say that they don’t read fiction much – they focus on reading books and blogs about writing. These poor fellows (for those I have in mind were all fellows) thought simply reading about writing was enough to make one a decent writer.


What is one to do with such nonsense? For it really is nonsense of the highest order. Like good moderns, these gentlemen were interested in boiling everything down to the bones and then picking through the remains in order to find out how to create life thereby. It is the reductionist mind at work again. In what other area of life is this done? The biologist (if he is in any sense a decent one) does not confuse his work with that of the zoo keeper, of dissecting a horse with the experience of riding one. Lifeless bones lying on a surgical table can only tell us so much; the biologist might be able to eventually figure out how the muscles of a horse works, but he would be doing so quite the wrong way around. Knowing that a horse is strong and feeling that living strength surging beneath you across the plain toward your foes are quite different matters altogether.


C. S. Lewis (in his Narnia chronicles) wrote that even in our world, stars might be made of gas and fire, but that wasn’t what a star is. In this his point was that meaning is not limited to the compilation of an object’s parts. The real qualities that make up a horse or a star is not reducible to the collection of bones and sinew and cells and tendons. These aspiring writers have fallen prey to this very idea, that Story can be reduced to a template. How-to books, however helpful they may be, all bear titles like The Anatomy of Story, revealing their invisible assumption that what you need to write a great story is to know the bones, to pull some stories apart and compile their varied elements into a series of steps and sections to which you simply fill in a blank.


It is my feeling that writing, as a process, is more complex than that, and more holistic also. Most of what you learn about life and how to behave and think, you pick up without noticing from your parents. The way you sneeze, how you respond when someone greets you in public, when someone asks you a question, the way you talk, limp, groan, and laugh, all are picked up from examples you have experienced in action. These are simply the things you do “naturally,” that you don’t even think about doing while you are doing them.


The same goes with writing. The most important elements of Story you don’t study and examine under your microscope. They are the elements you absorb invisibly while in the grip of a compelling novel. Absorption and imitation are the vital ingredients to a well-rounded writing life. You can learn more about character development by loving a great one than by any essay on goals, quirks, and creating sympathy.


The great teacher is love, and imitation his pupil. If you do not read stories, you will be unable to write them. At least, you will be unable to write them well. They will lack that inherent humanity and spark of vitality that is what makes great literature great and adds depth and profundity to invented worlds. The greatest MFA in the world is never-ending, one in which you find yourself enrolled at age five or six when you can really start reading on your own and continuing your whole life.


So put down your books on writing, and pick up books where things are written. Absorb and imitate. Repeat until dead.

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