SnowDrop Buddha-94There seems to be three categories of books written about creative writing.

There’s the traditional books that primarily deal in craft; point of view, story arc, goal/motivation/conflict/showing instead of telling, and so on. These types of books teach you the rules, which you can break once you’ve master them. These are often written by editors possibly with the hope of making their job easier.

Then there’s “how I did it” books by authors. These are often self-serving and self-aggrandizing and though usually more entertaining, not as helpful.

Then there’s the third tier of books written about creative writing, usually by an academic that deals with the more esoteric aspects of writing and creativity. Reading these types of books I often get the feeling I’m a student sitting in on one of their lectures. Come to think, that’s likely not far from the truth since I imagine these books are often compilations of the same lectures they’ve given year after year.

That doesn’t mean that some are not worthwhile.

David Jauss’ book, On Writing Fiction – Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft, is interesting. Is it going to teach you how to be a better writer? Maybe, if you’re prepared to consider his take on what spawns creativity, which is that not knowing is crucial to art; that without uncertainty the imagination simply does not come into play.

Okay, so how do you go about achieving this?

According to Jauss you use “convention unconventionally”. To do that requires destruction as well as creation, and destruction requires “rejection, negation and contradiction”.

Sounds like suggestions blue-penciled in the margins of the last manuscript I submitted – especially the rejection part.

So once you’ve “destroyed the cliché, the stereotype, the formulaic plot, the predictable rhyme, the potted theme…” how do you go about creating something new?

Jauss says you must “court contradiction, seek out uncertainty”.

Well, all right, since nothing else seems to be working. But isn’t this just a highfalutin (this is actually a word!) way of saying try to make your characters and your plot as interesting and as unusual as possible?

I’ll let you decide.

Jauss also challenges the conventional wisdom about “writing what you know.” His take is the same as Grace Paley’s who said, “You write from what you know into what you don’t know.” Or, to quote Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person”. Jauss suggests that you reveal more about your true self when you imagine the life of others through fiction, or to complete the Wilde quote, “Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth”.

In other words (not quite so highfalutin), writing a memoir or autobiography is not only really boring it’s also a lie.

Which is exactly what I tell my students, though in not quite the same words.


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