For the past 20 years, I’ve taught writing and literature. My love for the written word obviously preceded my passion for teaching it, but over the course of teaching it, I came to solidify my core beliefs about writing and storytelling. Below are the philosophical underpinnings of the classes, articles, and any other advice offered via Storm Writing School.
1. Story = humanity
Stories are one of, if not the defining trait of humanity. We make sense of the world through story. We become ourselves via story. Neuroscientists even posit that the human self literally is a story.
It turns out, too, that consuming stories—especially well-crafted ones that show transformation of character—can make us more empathetic and improve something called “theory of mind,” our ability to speculate what other people might be thinking or feeling.
A colleague of mine in the Social Studies department used to good-naturedly rib me about being an English teacher: “You people in the department of storytelling,” he’d say. And my rebuttal was always to fire back, “Pfft! What else is there? Storytelling is the only subject. You’re just a subdivision of us.”
Is this a hair snooty? Yeah, probably. But I make no apologies.
2. The job of the artist
“The job of the artist,” as David Lodge says, “is to make people feel.” I approach creative writing with this declaration in mind. When I’m writing, and when I’m reading, I’m constantly searching for ways an author can make a reader feel. At the very least, the writer should evoke emotions that engage the reader and make her want to read on: anxiety, hope, curiosity, and concern, for instance.
But the writer has a deeper goal, too. We don’t just want to keep people reading. We want to have a lasting effect once the story has been finished. So it’s ultimately a complex array of emotions we’re attempting to evoke. Francis Bacon says, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” I’ve always been in love with Bacon’s words because I appreciate the multitude of themes that can arise from one story. Stories do not articulate a thesis statement argument; instead, they enact a complex web of meaning that cannot be reduced to a single statement. Or, as Walker Percy said of the novel, it’s “just an extremely long name for a complex, evolving emotion that has no name but that.”
3. Write the story you want to read
There’s a lot of lip service in the world of writing instruction about knowing your audience. I understand that part of a writer’s job is to anticipate how her words will be received. And there are certainly some kinds of stories that necessitate some heightened sensitivity to the audience (children’s lit authors, for instance). But by and large, I think you really only need to be thinking about an audience of one: yourself. If you write the story you want to read, you’ll be able to find an audience. Because other people are like you. There are markets for every kind of fiction these days.
On the flip side, I’m not naive about the publishing world. If you choose to self-publish, marketing your work (and finding your audience) will be a challenge. If you sell your work to a traditional publisher, you may be asked to make some changes in order to cater to a specific audience. You may even discover that the spaghetti western dystopian novel you’ve created has a smaller audience than you were hoping for. But I believe that the purest form of creativity is motivated by personal passion on the part of the artist. As one of my past writing instructors, Maureen McHugh, once told me, “Follow your weird.”
4. Go beyond taste
I try to pull examples of successful writing and storytelling from a wide array of sources. And occasionally, I’ll choose an exemplar that a student of mine will not like. Said student may even take me to task, saying, “But I wouldn’t read on. This story isn’t hooking me.” And my reply is usually a nicer form of “So what? That means it’s not good?”
There’s a difference between appreciating and liking. I, like most writers I know, am not a fan of Dan Brown’s writing in The DaVinci Code. However, to dismiss a book that was so tremendously popular is simply foolish. Clearly, Brown was doing something right with his storytelling. Any story that can capture the cultural imagination so widely deserves some respect.
Indeed, I believe all work deserves critical engagement. Sure, it’s impossible to free oneself of one’s tastes, but I’m in this to figure out what stories captivate people other than just me.
5. Question authority
Within any creative endeavor there is no universally-agreed-upon best product, and therefore, the methods of attaining the elusive “best” will meet with similar lack of consensus. That’s a good thing. No artist should crave more rules or more clear-cut rules governing their craft. It would cease to be art if its effect were determined by objective guidelines.
And yet, writing is an artistic medium that relies on language, and though there is no single best way to say something, there are clearly worse ways than others. “I’m fixing to get me a beverage owing to the thirst that has beleagured me these four score and 20 minutes” would be an absurd way for anyone to declare intent to get a drink, for instance.
Fiction, however, is not just about clear communication. It’s about meaningful communication, and it’s about getting the reader to feel. Which is precisely why so many writing “rules” become less certain once put into the context of a story inhabited by fleshed-out characters. Avoid cliches? Avoid passive voice? Be concise? Avoid jargon? In the right context, any of those rules can be violated in order to serve the story and/or the characterization.
I therefore urge every writer to be wary of blanket prohibitions and, indeed, all advice spoken with too much confidence.
6. Learn instincts
The stupidest debate ever to occur within the writing community is that one about whether writing can be taught. Language is social. Of course it can be taught.
Do some people have better instincts for language and storytelling than others? Sure. Those who grew up immersed in storytelling or who were encouraged to use language to attain their goals or whose family and/or culture valued linguistic capability or who have spent tens of thousands of hours reading and writing stories—those people have better instincts.
You learn instincts. I’ve seen it happen to me; I’ve seen it happen to my students. You learn a “rule” or suggestion—initially, in an analytical way. You may consciously think about it in drafting or revising. But gradually, that “rule” becomes less and less conscious. You don’t look for the problem analytically. You begin to feel it.
And then it becomes instinctual.
7. Creation and criticism (go hand in hand, but don’t let the latter interfere with the former)
Perhaps the left-brain, right-brain dichotomy is inaccurate, but I still think it’s useful to consider. In the two-sided brain paradigm, we’re all one half analytical and the other half creative. Writing occupies a very strange middle ground: it utilizes language, which is usually associated with the analytical half, but its end is an imaginative, artistic rendering, which is associated with the creative half.
Writers need to bridge this analytical/creative chasm constantly. Reading like a reader is immersive, right-brained; reading like a writer is critically engaged, left-brained. Drafting is creative; revising is analytical. Learning craft is about taking note of analytical rules; but, as stated above, those rules become subconscious, creative instincts.
Juggling these two faculties is a challenge. And writer’s block is usually a matter of a writer not quarantining analysis when it needs to take a back seat. You need to engage in a whole lot of analysis, but there are times when you just need to put analysis in a closet and tell it you’ll feed it later.
Furthermore, you can’t write out of fear of what to avoid. You write (and do everything else you want to improve at, really) by striving after a goal, not by running from failure. Knowing what to avoid is helpful for editing, critiquing, and for revising. But set aside the critical and fearful mindset when you’re creating.
8. Story is preeminent
I’m fully with Lisa Cron, who writes, “Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time.” I understand that there are other things to do with language than tell a story. There is non-narrative poetry; there is experimental, postmodernist fiction; there are nonsensical song lyrics.
But personally, I’m drawn to narrative over other forms of word craft.
So when people ask me to edit stories or to teach courses on writing, I always make this bias plain: I’m a story guy. I want to be hooked by the story and I want to be moved by it. There’s a lot that goes in to making a great story, so it’s not a simple task to assess a story’s effectiveness. But that’s the goal for me in my teaching and editing.
9. Practice intentionally
I’m not like a total jock or anything; nor am I really much of a sports fan. But I was a college athlete, and I’m prone to sports analogies. And here’s the thing. When you practice bad habits and bad form—be it a poor swimming stroke or a loping running pace that allows for awful posture—you solidify those bad habits and you make yourself more prone to injury.
High intensity physical movement tends to encourage better form. When you’re working hard, your body defaults to a more efficient movement. I had a trainer once who pointed out that “moseying” (like the slow walking you do if you go to a mall or amusement park or fair) is horrible for your body. You’re likely to hunch your shoulders more, allow your pelvis to shift forward, and walk with a wider stance—all of which can create lower back pain and knotted muscles.
Long analogy here. The lesson: practice writing well. It’s not enough just to write.
This goes for reading, too. Students who read two books in a semester but who do so intensely—reading and re-reading, reading closely, considering layers of meaning—benefit far more than students who read five times as many books but do so with less consideration of the story’s meaning.
Quality matters more than quantity.
10. Writing is social
You can go at it alone, but you’ll learn more and you’ll learn faster if you’re interacting with insightful readers who know the inner workings of story and can talk with you about how to improve.
I can help.
The blog has an ever-increasing number of articles discussing writing craft and mindset.
My newsletter goes out every other week, typically, and will alert you to new blog articles and other helpful links.
The school has an ever-increasing number of video courses for you to check out.
I do editing of short stories, novels, memoirs, and/or excerpts of any kind of story. Take a look at the editing page for more info.
I offer online critique groups–a group video conference in which we discuss writers’ work and learn relevant craft tips. The groups run over the course of 8 meetings in a “semester.”
And finally, I offer coaching for writers. If you’re looking to develop your own story writing and want some personalized instruction tailored exactly to your needs, contact me to explore the possibilities.