February 2nd, 2009

Expounding on something cool (Doctor Who

Writing without thinking

A couple of things made me think about writing in the last few days.

First up was this story, on the BBC News and elsewhere:
Golfers who think too much about their technique between shots could be seriously affecting their performance, a study has suggested.

St Andrews University and US scientists said they had established that too much analysis made the golfer's game worse.
- Overthinking 'disrupts golf putt', BBC News Website

The second was a director/actor talking on the radio this morning (it was Steven Berkoff, but I missed that part). What he said was:
Sometimes the best actors don't think too much. Sometimes too much thinking can clog up the works.
In both cases, it occurred to me that the same was true with writing.

When I was starting out, I spent a lot of time reading 'how to write' books, trying to figure out the secrets. I learned the 'rules' and techniques and I obsessed about detail.

It held me back enormously.

When I was writing, I was thinking about adverbs and adjectives and passive voice and point of view and a thousand other 'rules'. And while I had some sharp little sentences, I never had a story that sparked or flowed. The writing was rarely compelling.

The biggest thing I've had to learn over recent years, and the one thing that has caused my writing to improve enormously, is not to think about any of these techniques or rules. I've had to forget about being a writer and just tell stories.

Now, there is a place for all these 'rules' (which aren't rules, of course, nor even guidelines, but suggestions that sometimes may be helpful), but it's rarely in the first draft, nor the second, for that matter. The place, for me at least, for all these techniques I wasted many years on is when I've come across a bit of story that really isn't working. Then I can shuffle through the techniques and see if there's a solution hiding in there. Sometimes there is, although instinct is generally more helpful.

Sometimes we as writers forget what is important in storytelling. We forget that our audience don't for the most part care about the minutiae of writing technique. They care about the story and the characters and the experience. That's why it's so common to hear writers shouting "How did he/she manage to get a book deal/sell a million/become famous when he/she obviously can't write for peanuts."

The answer is that they can often write, and in some ways better than those doing the shouting. But what they are good at is the storytelling and the characters and the experience rather than the small stuff.

A couple of years ago, I started an MFA, as those of you who've been around this journal for a while know. It was fun and there was plenty of good stuff in it, but occasionally it seemed to me to be more about the small stuff than the big stuff.

I recall two talks on the MFA, one called something like "Do sweat the small stuff" and the other "How to read like a writer". Now, I didn't attend either, and this isn't an attack on the talks, and they were probably excellent (almost all the talks I went to were), but the titles made me want to shout, "NO!"

Because to be a really good writer, you have to learn to forget the small stuff, at least early on, and you have to forget how to read like a writer and instead remember how to read like a reader.

In retrospect, I wish I'd never spent all those years plowing through how to write books, because they didn't tell me how to write a story. They only taught me to become stifled. In Berkoff's words, to "clog up the works".

The BBC News story on golfing says, "The researchers think the loss of performance was due to an effect called verbal overshadowing, which makes the brain focus more on language centres rather than on brain systems that support the skills in question."

I wonder if there is a similar effect in writing, where the small-scale, obsessional language centres overshadow the more primal storytelling centre. If so, then I think the best advice that anyone could give to a new writer is "Don't think about writing!"

I should probably end by saying that I'm only thinking about the type of writing where the most important things are the story and the characters and the emotional experience. If, for you, the quality of the prose is more important, this probably is exactly the wrong advice.

And the whole thing may only be true for me. I have an overly-scientific brain, prone to look for rules and patterns and logic, and that can overwhelm my writing. If your brain works in a fundamentally different way, you may find the opposite is true for you.