6/20/2016

Can You "Just Write"?

When I first decided to seriously pursue writing, I didn't think much about what I needed to do to prepare for a career as a writer. I just decided to do it, sat down, and started.

Why is that?


Can you imagine starting any other career that way? You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a fireman!" and start running into burning buildings. You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a stockbroker!" and start...actually, I don't even know what you would start doing. Go to a stock exchange and start shouting?

Anyway, I find it odd that writing is a career that people think they can just do. I mean, in a sense it's true; there's no national writing organization whose dispensation you need, no training you must complete. There are organizations and schools you can go to, but nobody is going to make you. If you want to be a writer, nobody is going to stop you.

But just because you can jump in head first, doesn't mean you should. Most writers agree that writing well is hard. No matter how good a communicator you are, there's a lot to learn when it comes to crafting fiction.

Writing fiction is like coding. Your manuscript is your coding environment--a blank text file, or the HTML template of a blog like this one. And the mind of the reader is like a web browser; it reads and interprets the code. Whatever you do in your manuscript has an effect in the mind of the reader. Sometimes it's the one you want. Sometimes it doesn't matter if it looks exactly the same to everyone, so long as it's close enough. And sometimes, if your code is faulty, the browser simply can't understand it.

You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a web designer!" and start writing websites without learning HTML. You might do what I did and get set up with a platform like Blogger or Tumblr, but you wouldn't go tinkering with the site's template unless you at least knew HTML and CSS. Hell, this website's template still intimidates me a little, and I've learned a lot in the last year.

The point is that writing, for whatever reason, seems to be one of the few careers that people think they can jump into without learning anything new. What is it about fiction that makes us feel like we can start messing around without learning the language first?

My best guess is that we think we already know the language because we speak in our native tongue every day. But it's important to realize that everyday speech is a completely different language.

A language is more than words and their dictionary meanings. Ask any linguist. A language is a complex system of rule-based information exchange. Language can exist in any of the five senses, and often it exists in more than one at a time. English is a language we hear and see, but when we talk to each other we also receive signals with our other senses. When someone smelly comes up and talks to us, it colors our perception of their words. If we still have the taste of our partner's lips on our tongue, it changes the way we hear their words. If someone says something while caressing your inner thigh, you're liable to interpret it differently than if they said it while punching your face.

In everyday speech, we have the entire lexicon of human body language supplementing what we hear (or see, if you're using ASL). A speaker's posture and gestures give subtlety and nuance to their words. Depending on the speaker's face, the same sentence might sound true, sarcastic, dishonest, or exaggerated.

In writing, however, words are all we have. There are a handful of tricks like italics to add emphasis, and punctuation to organize things, but we don't have anything as intuitive as body language to help transfer meaning.

Therefore, when we write, we must choose our words much more carefully than we do when speaking--and not just because we have fewer channels open. When we speak to each other, the words themselves are ephemeral. We rarely recall the exact words we say, or that were said to us, we recall their meaning. Not even that, we recall our own interpretation of their meaning, whether or not that was their intended meaning. All but the most profound words disappear like smoke in the wind once they're spoken.

One of my all time favorite quotes about writing actually comes from the 1982 Jim Henson masterpiece The Dark Crystal. When the main character is asked what writing is, he gives the best definition I've ever heard: "Words that stay."

Writing stays. Writing is permanent (or at least semi-permanent). A writer must make sure she wants her words to stay. She must make sure they deserve to stay. Which is not to say they must be some James Joyce-esque outpouring of the eternal human soul, but they must create the correct effect in the mind of the reader, or they don't deserve to stay. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Many of us write every day, even if it's just a grocery list, or our name at the bottom of a receipt. We fill out forms, write emails, and post sticky notes. It's writing, but it's still a different language than fiction, because the information they transfer seldom requires much imagination. Fiction invites the reader to imagine things which don't exist, and may never exist. There's room for interpretation, but if you want to write fiction, you have to know the code.

Maybe you think you can "just write". Maybe you think your editor will just "fix it". I did, when I started out. But I was constantly frustrated by people misunderstanding or not understanding my stories. Eventually I had to accept that the burden of clarity was on me. So I learned the code.

Think you can make it as a writer without learning grammar and storycraft? Let's have an argument in the comments! Gimme your best shot!