I’ve heard a number of writing lessons over the years, but I’ve found these two to be the most true:
- Read. Read often, read everything, never stop reading.
- Never stop writing.
While I was in college, I largely stopped reading for pleasure. I frequently was assigned 2-3 hours of reading every night, as well as plenty of other homework, so I scarcely had time to myself–and when I had it, I didn’t want to spend it with my nose in a book. Sometimes I would fall asleep before I could finish my assignments, so I ranked reading near the end of the priority list; I would then skim over the subject material in class, make a few quick observations, and call it good. Yeah, I was one of those BS-ers, but it was good-sounding BS.
After I graduated, I became addicted to PodCastle because it allowed me to listen to fantastic short stories while I tended to things around the house. I listened to everything in the archives. This included some stories I was not entirely comfortable with, including Red Riding-Hood’s Child, which was frankly a little odd for me at the time as it involves not only werewolves and sex, but gay wolf sex. Personal insecurites set aside (if I want to call them insecurities–it’s simply not a topic I was accustomed to, as I spent all my formative years in ultra-conservative cultures), I found the actual story and the telling in particular to be very beautiful.
PodCastle opened my eyes to a variety of voices and tales, including: Goblin Lullaby, a sort of “the other side of the questing adventure” tale; Illuminated Dragon, a tale of amazing magic which inspired my own start of an “illuminated” story; Black Ribbon, a tale of a baby reared into being a poison-laced assassin; Magnificent Pigs, a tale of child mortality mingled with key elements from Charolette’s Web in a heartbreaking yet heart-warming story; Wizard’s Apprentice, the story of an evil wizard who takes in an abused boy as an apprentice; Gods of the North, a classic Conan tale; and of course, a how-to guide called Accounting for Dragons.
So many of these stories made me question something in myself. Is the evil wizard still evil? Sure, he is, but is that a bad thing? But wait, evil is inherently bad. That sort of line of mental questioning kept me going from one story to the next, and oftentimes it took the next episode coupled with some of the selected comments from the forums in order for me to understand why I was hung up over a particular turn of events.
The thing about these stories is they aren’t mainstream. The ideas in them have their place, but I couldn’t ever imagine seeing them in the Bestselling Top Ten because they bring up too many questions, opinions the mass public might be unwilling to have challenged. There are a few people in my family, for instance, who firmly believe that dragons and snakes can only be “evil” characters and have actually flipped out a little when I pressed the subject. I don’t really discuss my fantasy writing with them. But I still write dragons as neither inherently good nor evil, but rather just as another character with their own drives and motivations.
I don’t believe in censoring ideas. Object or agree with them as you will. I certainly do. But does that mean that the only idea, the only acceptable concept is your own? Certainly not. This is why I don’t press my dragons-are-just-characters tales on my family, yet neither do I stop writing them. The tale I’m currently working on includes sex before marriage. It isn’t a romantic ideal, but I think some people will appreciate the honesty behind it.
Discovering literature like this has really changed me. It’s provided liberation. It’s shown me that a story I find amazing, someone else will find purely appalling and terrible. And that’s OK, because we are all different individuals with different tolerances and expectations. It’s sent a message to me that whatever you do, do it, and do it well. Hold your head up about it. Not everyone is going to enjoy it. Know what else? Everyone doesn’t need to.
Since I’ve given examples of things I love, here’s one I don’t: Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I had to read this for one of my classes, and while it was initially interesting, I hated the ending. I hated that the narrator, a man who slaved away for his family and one morning woke up as a beetle, was loathed by those he loved, abused by them, and when he died, they rejoiced in it. Know why I hate it? Because it goes against everything I’ve ever learned to value. It goes against caring for your family. It goes against hard work. At least that’s how I see it. Kafka intended for it to be a statement that in the natural order of things, the son isn’t supposed to support his mother and sister, he is supposed to go out into the world and support his wife and kids, so his unnatural transformation was a reflection on what happens if you don’t–or so that’s how the classroom discussion went. I seemed to be one of the few who still hated the story after.
My opinion doesn’t make it any less of a work of literature. And I still remember it when I’ve forgotten so many others.
Just food for thought.
PS, I hit 41k on NaNoWriMo today. 🙂