Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On Reading the Fantastic and Writing the Meh

I learned to write when I was "young."  As a sixth grader — all of eleven years old — I developed a fixation on The Lord of the Rings.  And also Dungeons and Dragons.  With character sheets on one corner of the desk and hand-drawn sketches of a "hobbit swashbuckler" in the other corner, I put all my attention to the beautiful blank page before me: the story.


It's not a surprise: I've always loved reading.  As a child, I sometimes spent whole days just sitting a reading.  As a student and as a writer, I've always had an advantage compared to many of my classmates — those years of devouring "cheap" science fiction from the 1980s also ingrained the the grammatical and editorial standards considered de rigueur in today's academic writing.

Naturally, there are some differences, but the drawn-out pseudo-scientific explanations I read in scifi have a lot in common with the research writing we see today — unlike tweets and text messages, which must often be far shorter and more direct in order to convey snippets of immediate information very quickly.  And unlike my students, I've "always" had a "natural" feeling for where to break a paragraph.  It was neither always nor natural — I simply read so many paragraphs growing up that I tend to know where they should break.  But get me going in polite conversation, and my lengthy diatribes will kill the party.

As a teacher, this is part of why I appreciate Universal Design for Learning.  It helps me understand why writing has always been "easier" for me than for my classmates.  Even on the days I struggle with writing — such as the seven drafts I wrote for the opening chapter of my dissertation — I can always rely on the mechanics.  I know my grammar will be decent because I'm always writing.  Most days, I write more than I speak — often, I'm far more articulate on paper than I will ever be in person, and that's just the first draft.  Give me some time to revise, and I can make words that sound like something a professional would write.  Which is good.  It makes me feel better about that whole Ph.D. thing.  Because let me tell you — grad school was tough.  Seriously — less pay and longer hours than my time in the army.  And half my grad school income was from the G.I. Bill — as a veteran, I still don't know how my classmates survived.

On the other hand, this realization also leaves me somewhat sad.  Naturally, I want every student to become a great writer — and most students do.  You don't need to be a novelist to be a great writer — there are countless websites, grant proposals, and social media feeds that make the world a better place, whether it's through raising funding for research to disseminating information for disaster relief.  In these contexts — and countless others — quality writing helps shape reality.

But beyond this, there is an artistry to beautiful writing that is far more difficult.  The "gift" of writing is neither easy nor guaranteed.  And for most of my composition students, they will never attempt — nor have any desire to attempt — to become a novelist.  It isn't that they can't — it's that they have better things to do.  Unlike me, they typically have lives.  You won't find them sitting alone in a community college classroom after the campus has closed for the snow.  (Seriously — if security finds me stranded in the parking lot after I finish this blog post, I'm gonna feel very, very stupid.)

Let's be honest — creative writing is a gamble.  However many thousands of words I write, I will still pick up Harry Potter and realize that J.K. Rowling is a better storyteller.  Whatever anyone might say about the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer plugged into a scale of cultural zeitgeist that I am unlikely to ever reach with my own writing.  And I also really enjoyed Twilight — when I read it, I couldn't put it down.  Sure, I could have reworded the sentences or restructured the paragraphs — as a grad student in creative writing at the time, I could have easily explained all the "mistakes" Meyer made in her writing.  But as a writer, I have to admit that Meyer's work does something impressive.  It speaks to millions of people in a way that my own writing does not.  Sure, my own writing may one day have die-hard fans — I want to have readers who love my writing.  But would they love my books the way that some love Twilight?  Will anyone ever treasure one of my books more than Harry Potter?  And also, why does it matter?  Just as every writer is different, so is every audience.

Hell, even my own tastes have changed with time.  Like with Lord of the Rings.  You know — the book series that started me on writing in the first place.  I downloaded a copy from Amazon a few months ago.  Then I tried to read it — I couldn't finish.  I couldn't get through the first book.  Frodo and his band barely made it out of the Shire, and then I switched books.

Saying this feels like blasphemy.  I mean, can Lord of the Rings be boring?  Is that even allowed??

But it isn't.  It's a great series — a fun and fascinating read, especially for those who enjoy it.  When I was young, I loved it.  Now that I'm older — now that I'm a single parent typing up lesson plans, websites, and a novel series — my tastes have changed.  As a recovering graduate student in creative writing, I can go through all the ways in which Lord of the Rings is a sophisticated and well-written series of novels.  Given time, I could probably imagine a dozen ways in which the book is "better" than Twilight.  But again, what does that matter?  The two sets of novels aren't competing with each other — they're very different books.  They have similarities, they have differences, and I they speak to each reader individually.

And this, then, is the saddest part about writing.  In terms of effort, structure, and sophistication, Lord of the Rings was undeniably the harder book to write.  Tolkien spent decades writing and refining — and inventing an entirely new language — before sending his book out for publication.  Meyer, on the other hand, wrote her first draft of Twilight in about three months.  After a year or so, she was published — soon after, she was famous.

For every creative writer, this is the gamble we take.  However well we write, however inspired we feel, however much effort we put into crafting each individual word, it's impossible to know what our audiences might be.  Or even how the future may change those who loved our books to begin with.



Side Note — following eight years of graduate school, I saw my views on Harry Potter change somewhat.  And I do have bone to pick with Ms. Rowling.  Like, seriously — where are the grad students at Hogwarts?  How are they even less visible than the house elves?  Are they supposed to be some unpaid, hidden component of the academic teaching staff?  Like a bunch of unclean vermin trapped in the lowest dungeon of the library, each one chained to a desk with one of those quills that engraves your own blood into the parchment?  I mean, seriously — how did Rowling provide such an accurate depiction of graduate school without a single mention graduate teaching assistants?

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