The Nature of Learning How to Write
One of the amazingly inspiring and frustrating things about writing is that it is one of those things you can work at for your entire life and still not perfect. I think this is in part due to the incredible diversity in form and purpose of stories. Stories are everywhere, in our entertainment, politics, advertisements, even in our everyday communication. The story your coworker tells you about her weekend is used for entirely different purposes than the story you tell at your job interview, which is different from the story you watch at night on your favorite sitcom.
Once you start to see how broad the arena is, you realize how impossibly hard it is to try to master all aspects of the craft. You can study one area and progress, but there will always be rungs left to climb, and whole other arenas unexplored.
To me this complexity is inspiring, because as a person who loves to learn new things, it promises endless areas of exploration. But the frustration comes as the more you understand, the more you realize how clueless you have been, how much more there is to learn.
It can be really disheartening when you think you know how to write, and then realize that you really know nothing about say pacing, or plotting, or how to write relatable characters, or how to incorporate theme unobtrusively into your work. At times like this, I inevitably start to ask myself, what exactly it was I thought I knew?
Writing is maddening like that.
One of the unexpected benefits of recognizing this complexity is that I’ve gained a new appreciation for a much wider variety of works. I used to think of writing as either good or bad, trusting whatever my particular taste was at that time to make that judgment. Now I see pieces of writing existing on a broader spectrum. Where one book might have incredibly rich philosophical concepts but be so dry as to make it hard to keep reading, another might have stunningly beautiful imagery but no real characters to speak of, and another might have you ripping through the pages but at the end of the book leave you with a sense of things unfinished.
As readers, I think we are drawn to different aspects of writing, and our particular tastes can change over time or even just depending on our mood. Sometimes I want to be challenged by what I read, and other times I want to be entertained. What I’ve been realizing is that we seek out these different types of stories for different purposes in our lives, and that each takes its own set of skills to master. So rather than looking down on something that meant purely for entertainment, I can see it for its incredible pacing, or humor, or plot twists and try to learn how to incorporate these things into my own work.
This is not to say that I like everything. Of course I don’t. I have opinions like everyone else. But I’ve started to try to learn from the flaws. If I like one aspect of a book but am disappointed in another, I try to think about what was wrong with it, and how it might have been improved. Though it is wonderful to have things you idolize and want to emulate, I think it is equally if not more instructive to have examples of things you don’t want to be, and learn how to avoid them.
So although the more I learn about writing the harder it is to feel wholly satisfied with my own work, I am grateful to have learned to appreciate new voices, and to begin to see the complexities of even the simplest of stories.
But as we try to grow and minimize the problems in our writing, I think it is important to keep in mind that there are flaws in almost everything that has ever been written. This to me is a simultaneously disheartening and hopeful thought. If we can’t eliminate flaws entirely, the trick then must not be to avoid them, but to learn how to prevent them from consuming you whole.
I’ll keep trying.