Observations and Revelations


“Know thyself.” –Socrates

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog stating that you can’t learn how to write by reading other people’s writing. Well, you know how it goes: just about the time you put your foot down and make some kind of summary statement, you prove yourself wrong.

I still believe that learning the craft of writing is mostly about applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and writing. But lately I have been receiving some pretty good revelations by writing other people’s work.

I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy. My writing isn’t necessarily as bleak as his, but I admire his ability to write from an external perspective, using incredibly scaled down language and description. People new to McCarthy might be shocked when the first start reading him, mainly because he uses no punctuation. Direct quotes don’t have quote marks around them and he uses few commas or apostrophes. And like Hemingway, he has long stretches of dialog where the two speakers are identified. You have to follow closely to know who’s talking. But he has  a real talent for detail, despite the sparcity of his language, and his stories are rich.

In the few days before we start the Summer Challenge (see my other blog), I am enjoying the “Coyote” book series by Allen Steele. The story is an echo of the Pilgrims coming to the New World to escape persecution, but in this case, it’s intellectual dissidents who leave Earth to start a colony on a new planet. I have been fascinated with his technique of telling a story of a new world through the use of a series of short stories. Once he has you immersed in the world he has created, he carries the major storyline with individual stories of people who live there. This technique does two things: it enhances the richness of the story and the world by showing different perspectives, and from a pragmatic standpoint, allows the author to sell the stories independent of the completed novel.

Now I am too much of an old dog to suddenly decide I am going to change the way that I write. And I wouldn’t advise that of anyone. You have to write, write, write, and in the process discover your own personal style. On the other hand, techniques like this are good tools to have hanging from your writing toolbelt. And versatility in writing is something I consider essential for the serious writer.

There comes a time in your writing career–probably many times–when you find yourself becoming bored with your own writing. The same thing happens when you teach a class. That’s when it’s time to shake things up: try some new ideas, get creative. That’s when it’s time to take a look at these techniques others have used and, just for fun, try them on for size.

My apologies to all you English majors. You can learn a lot by reading other people’s writing. But then when it comes time to create your own masterpiece, it’s all you.

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