slow learners

I’m back.

Why the long absence since my last post? It’s not easy to explain. I suppose I could say that I’ve been going through a period of slow-burning crisis.

What sort of crisis, you ask? It’s a crisis with respect to my vocation as a writer. The word crisis comes from the Greek word for “decision,” so my crisis, I suppose, is over what kind of a writer I am to be. But no, that’s not exactly it, for I know what kind of a writer I want to be. I want to be a literary writer in the sense that I understand the term, which is not the way in which the term is commonly understood. I believe that the common understanding is that “literary” writing is intended primarily for an academic audience. Now my writing might indeed appeal primarily to that audience—I don’t know—but that is not my aim as a writer. My aim is to make my writing the best it can be, in my own estimation. Whom it might appeal to, if anyone, I will leave to fate, chance, the gods, or whoever else might be responsible. I think it was Thomas Mann, I forget in which work, who said that all true artists have one desire: to be allowed to do their very best. And that is my desire.

But that doesn’t sound controversial, not to me, anyway. Of course artists want to do their best—don’t they?

I’m sure that’s what we would all say. But what is one’s best? And how does one know when one is doing it?

Orson Scott Card, in his instructional book for fiction writers, Characters & Viewpoint, makes the point that

if your purpose in writing is to be admired, to impress people with your cleverness or skill, then the story itself is only a secondary concern to you, and your writing will be designed to dazzle your readers more than to enlighten them.

These words struck me, and then haunted me. I agreed with Card, and had put a lot of work into my story; but it was dawning on me that it may not have been work of the right sort.

I thought about another book, Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon’s collection of short stories, published in 1984. In his rueful introduction, Pynchon discusses the various mistaken ideas and defective methods that he used as a young man in writing the 5 stories in the book. He regrets that he had not made use of more material from his own life, which might have made his stories more “luminous” and “authentic.” He says

I hate to think that I didn’t, however defectively, understand this. Maybe the rent was just too high. In any case, stupid kid, I preferred fancy footwork instead.

Fancy footwork. To be admired, to impress people with your cleverness or skill. These are motives that I understand well. And over the past year I have been reflecting on how much my efforts at writing continue to be affected—or shall I say infected—by these motives.

It all started last year, 2015, when I started to acquire some books on the art of writing—on storytelling. It might have started when I read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (and which I reviewed in this blog), as part of my ongoing research into the question of story genres. Later I picked up a book on character creation, The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders (also reviewed in this blog), which was offered to me on Goodreads as an automated recommendation based on my other reading. For me this was an exciting eye-opener, for I had long wanted to find a way to use archetypes as a tool for character creation, and these authors had provided an excellent handbook for doing just that. Cool! How come I hadn’t heard about it before?

Perhaps inspired by the quality of this guide, I started to look for other guidebooks, and soon came across (probably again via the Goodreads recommendation engine) two volumes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi: The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws and The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. I dove into these, and was impressed with the authors’ presentation of how to express character psychology in terms of traits, as well as their authoritative treatment of how emotional wounds drive character motivation and behavior. One of my dominant thoughts was, “Wow, this is great! How come I don’t know this stuff already?”

Thirsty for more such knowledge, I hunted down more books, starting with some from these authors’ bibliography. I wound up buying about 9 more books, plus a set of CDs, and I got reading. Again, it was all as though I had never been a writer before: how to structure a story, how to develop characters, how to incorporate settings and symbols. How was it that I was encountering all this knowledge at such a relatively late date in my life and career? Why had I labored so long in the dark?

At some point an answer to these questions obtruded uncomfortably into my mind. That answer was “pride.” I hadn’t sought out the knowledge because I thought I already knew it. I was complacent and arrogant. Those character flaws (to use Ackerman and Puglisi’s term) had cost me big.

Pride—thinking of oneself as better than others—is the first deadly sin. I recall seeing in a text on Buddhist psychology that pride is a component of every moment of consciousness for everyone until we attain final enlightenment. I take this to mean that pride underlies our self-cherishing behavior; it is the reason that we regard ourselves as more important than others, in the sense that we always try to take care of our own interests first, if necessary at others’ expense, and sometimes even if not necessary. It underlies the “me first!” behavior that we engage in, perhaps most nakedly while driving, and more subtly at other times. But, pervasive though it may be as a character flaw, pride is undeniably more pronounced in some of us than in others.

People who are talented are probably at special risk of falling victim to this flaw. For to be talented means exactly to be, in some sense, impressive, does it not? And if you can impress people, you can gain their esteem and other advantages. It can become a coping mechanism to help you get through life. And if you’re better than other people at certain things, you may lull yourself into thinking that you have nothing to learn from them. In the words of chess champion Bobby Fischer, you need to be reminded that “your opponents can make good moves too.”

Among writers, probably few indeed have anything like the native talent of Thomas Pynchon, and this will be why he was able to surge ahead early in his career on the basis of that talent. It’s evident in his writing from the get-go. But that talent was also the very thing that made him, in his own eyes, a slow learner—one whose eyes were opened only belatedly to aspects of the craft that other, lesser talents were introduced to sooner, simply because they knew that they needed training. Those people knew they needed help at a time when Pynchon’s problem was more about how to deal with his crazed, obsessed fans.

I don’t claim to have the talent of a Thomas Pynchon, but I was born with conspicuous writing talent, and, from the time I learned my letters, have always found it easy to write well. And this talent, I now believe, has also made me a slow learner.

Well, this slow learner has finally, at age 57, taken delivery of his textbooks, and, now that the classroom is emptied of other students, all long since graduated and living productive lives, has started, highlighter in hand, to read them.

Maybe I’ll let you know how he gets on.

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4 Responses to slow learners

  1. It’s one of my firm beliefs that to succeed in anything (especially writing) a person needs to adopt the permanent mindset of a learner. Good thing so many of us love to read and learn!

    But don’t sell yourself short and chalk this all up to pride. In our industry, there’s so much to learn, from so many different sources–movies, books, plays, TV, games, real life, etc. Plus, there’s so many different areas that require our attention: writing craft (not just storytelling but the nuts and bolts of editing, grammar, structure, and strong word use), learning publishing options and understanding the industry, becoming proficient in marketing, platform building, social media, and just a ton more. So, chances are you’ve also been absorbing knowledge in some of these other areas as well. 🙂

    I’m happy you’ve found our books and that they are helping to fill some of the gaps. This is why we wrote them: to fill our own knowledge gaps. I think the most exciting thing (and perhaps the most terrifying) is that the more you learn, the more you see how much more there is out there to absorb. You never know where that knowledge is going to come fro either–sometimes a blog post is the thing that turns on a light bulb. Yours here was a good reminder that I’ve been lax in my craft reading, and need to make more time for it so I can continue to grow. 🙂

    Happy writing, and learning!

    Angela

  2. Paul Vitols says:

    Thanks, Angela. What you say is true, and I have indeed been in learning mode all along.

    I think my specific issue is that even though I have been a passionate advocate of the idea that storytelling is the central skill of the fiction writer (and dramatic writer generally) ever since I read some bootlegged notes from a Robert McKee story seminar in 1990, I had not really expanded my education in this field. I was so excited by McKee’s book Story and by Aristotle’s Poetics that I regarded these as a complete diet. I didn’t check out the other valuable resources out there, of which yours is one (or rather more than one).

    Many thanks for stopping by to comment.

  3. Becca Puglisi says:

    What Angela said :).

    To address your “How come I didn’t know this stuff already?” question, it may come as some comfort that Angela and I knew very little about emotional wounds, the formation of character traits, and motivation before writing those books. We had bits and pieces, but as we started drafting, we realized how much more we had to learn in order to fully understand the process and the whole picture. Those books were the result of a lot of study. By diving in to learning about so many different aspects of the writing process, you’re on the right track and will definitely emerge a stronger writer because of it. Good for you!

    • Paul Vitols says:

      Hi Becca. Thanks to you too for touching in. Yes, I certainly acknowledge that none of us knows anything until we learn it, and I even do believe that the right things come to us at the right time. The Student archetype in me is strong, and there’s nothing I like better than study. It’s all good–even late arrivals to the party can still have fun.

      Congratulations to you and Angela for producing such useful tools for writers. I’m intrigued by your new “setting” thesauri, and will check them out. And thanks again for taking time to comment.

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