“I Have No Mouth . . .”

I was a breech birth. Since then, I’ve done everything in life bass ackwards.

A recent and relevant example of this is my education as a writer. Instead of first learning the craft of writing, and then studying up on the subjects I wanted to write about, I have spent most of my life studying the things I thought I might want to write about, and only recently have devoted serious attention to learning my craft. In my own opinion, this is not the best approach.

In my previous post (yes, from long ago), I suggested that the reason for this late arrival at the education of the writer was pride. I still think that has a lot to do with it, but another thought has since occurred to me: this detailed knowledge about the craft of writing, of storytelling, is quite a recent—and still ongoing—phenomenon. Many of these high-quality craft books have appeared only since the turn of the 21st century. And when they appear, it takes time for them to become known and appreciated. When I was a young writer, there were not the resources that there are now to strengthen one’s storytelling prowess.

As recently as the 17th century, the French dramatist Corneille could say

It is certain that there are laws of the drama, since it is an art; but it is not certain what those laws are.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, those laws are becoming known, and there is a growing library of works explaining them, with the aim of helping storytellers improve at their art. Looking at things from that point of view, I feel fortunate to be alive right now, and to have the benefit of this education at any age.

And another thought has occurred to me. The lives of writers are often notoriously tortured. I’ve been reading about the life of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. He was an alcoholic and an “incompetent”—someone who, as an adult, was more than once put under the supervision of lawyers and other guardians—who killed himself with a mixture of gin and barbiturates at the age of 47. Many other writers have lived lives almost as tragic. What I’ve been wondering is, how much of that suffering has been due to lack of craft? For Lowry, Under the Volcano was far and away his best and most important work. He struggled for years to produce other things, but never came up with anything as good. Would this have happened to him if he had known more of the craft of storytelling—a craft that he himself said was important to him? Did he suffer and finally kill himself because, at some level, he didn’t know what he was doing?

I recognize that writers have had plenty of other reasons to self-medicate and kill themselves: poverty, failed relationships, social ostracism. But the basic writerly problem has lurked undiagnosed, hidden behind other names: writer’s block, abandonment by the Muse, angst. They—we—have lain awake at night, wondering, “Why am I no damn good?” The answer was and is: we don’t have the craft.

I think of the title of a short story by Harlan Ellison: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” This is the condition of the writer without craft. So those teachers who are now providing that precious knowledge, people like Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Amy Deardon, K. M. Weiland, Angela Ackerman, and Becca Puglisi, are not only making life easier and better for storytellers; they may in some cases be providing a life-saving service. And for that I thank them.

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