So, to start, the common advice for writers: ‘Read, Read, Read.’
We’ve all heard it before, but I don’t think I really understood. I always thought it was trite and of little practical use. Not because I don’t believe in the power of reading, but rather because I already read, all the time. I wanted to write because I loved reading first, so what was the point of being told to do what I already did plenty of?
Lately though, I’ve had conversations that make me rethink ‘Read, Read, Read.’
I’ve been talking to a number of early stage writers, people just getting started and trying to get their first books written or published. More often than not, the conversations end up revolving around peoples insecurity with the rules, forms, and techniques of writing. “The correct use of tense”, “The proper use of flashbacks”,”How to create tension”, etc.
These conversations have reminded me of similar talks I heard while attending University, with people who spent hour after hour memorizing information and techniques from textbooks. These people loved testing each others knowledge but never really learned how to actually apply the information. They could soliloquize about their chosen fields through to the wee hours of morning, but often couldn’t figure their way out of a paper bag if their lives depended on it.
Through my years in corporate we would silently roll our eyes each time a fresh MBA was hired. They would walk through the door expecting the world because of their higher learning, only to flounder through their first projects – school book learning is simply no substitute for real-world learning. I’ll come back to this below, but suffice it to say, this observation taught me more about life than any actual course I took while earning my own degree. I learned to identify and ‘hang out’ with people who were not only learning something, but understood why they wanted to learn it, and spent time trying to figure out what it all meant in the big picture.
So let’s talk about writing again.
If you stayed in school for an MFA, you should know all about things like the proper use of tense or how to ‘express coordinate ideas in similar form’, and you will have the ability to wax poetically on the subject or help others see where they went wrong. You will be able to TEACH the subject of writing.
For everyone else it’s more important to focus on developing a SENSE for good writing, than to know the proper terminology, and the best way to accomplish this is to ‘Read Read Read’. Not textbooks, or books on how to write, but reading books, novels. If you enjoy reading, and read regularly, you will know almost everything you will ever need to know about writing.
Let’s call this idea: ‘Writing Street Smarts’ vs. ‘Writing Book Smarts’.
In all things, always, I believe street smarts trumps book smarts. It’s possible, and enviable, to have both, but unfortunately uncommon.
To state this idea more simply: Knowing HOW something works (knowing the proper terms for the parts of a thing), does not necessarily give you the knowledge of how to use or implement that knowledge.
Are you with me yet? No? Okay, how about an example:
You’re starving. It’s been a long day and it’s dinner time, finally. You just walked through the door and want to heat something up quickly (mmm… microwaved food). Which is more important to your immediate survival? Knowing how to punch numbers into your microwave and where to stick the food? Or understanding how your little heat-box is passing non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation through foodstuffs, heating the polarized molecules in a process called dielectric heating?**
Right. Get on with the eating already.
Here, I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you never attended University, this may save you 50k and 5 years of your life… you know what I learned in University? All sorts of fantastically interesting things that I don’t use in real life.
Do I regret attending University? Not at all; I had a blast at University. But more importantly, because the number one thing I took away from university is something I use every single day of my life:
University taught me how to learn new things more efficiently.
I don’t think I know everything, but I do believe that I CAN learn anything. Street smarts is not about KNOWING, it’s about Understanding. It’s about understanding, at some level, the power of observation, testing, experimentation and persistence. It’s about knowing when you need to learn something new, and when you need to move forward (and do something) by walking in the light you’ve already accumulated.
Now, I’m not trying to piss off all you fine folk who spent years of your lives in college or university, wracking up loans you’ll still be paying off when it’s time to send your own kids to college – hell, I’m one of you after all. But I am trying to explain that there is a better way to learn than what our current school systems try to ram down our throats – mostly because it’s easier to test book smarts.
So, to sum up:
Book Smarts is about KNOWING THINGS
Street Smarts is about FIGURING OUT HOW TO DO THINGS
These are not mutually exclusive, but they are independent tracks that must both be practiced.
How does this relate to your writing?
If I could give one piece of advice to a new writer it would be this:
When you’re starting out, READ ALL THE TIME and read with attention. And when you write, do so in the forms you know, read and are comfortable with – all of which can be absorbed by your reading. Don’t worry about form, or device, or technique when you write. Just write.
While this may not give you the ability to explain WHY you wrote what you wrote at your next writers meeting, it WILL give you the ability to sense when something is wrong with your writing. You’ll know when its not good enough; as you edit, you’ll flinch, or grimace, or shift in your seat when your writing sounds ‘off’; pay attention to this discomfort and rework the sentence or chapter that caused it.
You may not know how to fix a problem immediately, or have the words to describe what is wrong, but you will be able to rely on yourself to find the weak spots in your writing and that’s huge. And when you do try to fix problems, instead of immediately picking up a book of writing rules, first think back to the books you’ve read and try to recall a similar scene or scenario. Go back and reread some of those scenes and compare against your writing; try to understand HOW those writers addressed the problem.
I’m not suggesting you eschew books on writing. On the contrary, you should make every effort to learn your craft. But, don’t let those rules become a crutch for your writing, or lack of writing. And if you ever get stuck, spend an afternoon curled up with a good book. Real world examples will teach you more about writing than a week spent reading a book of rules.
**On an aside, Percy Spencer, the American who discovered the heating effect of microwaves was a self-taught engineer – A great example of Street Smarts!