DL: Why Learning Technique Is Important
My dad has always, as long as I can remember, possessed two traits:
1. He loves reading fiction.
2. He views higher education as a necessary evil. Sure, his kids and grandkids need it to get ahead, but…if only you didn’t have to pick it up in institutions filled with the Ph.D.’s he calls “educated idiots.”
So it’s not surprising that, when I began studying the writing of fiction at California State University at Long Beach, he suspected I was doing a good thing but getting the wrong instruction from a bunch of eggheads. When he heard about a book on writing—highly praised by a bestselling but abysmally reviewed novelist—he strongly suggested I pick it up. “This writer says that he never sold a novel until he read this book and started doing what it says,” my dad argued. “You can sit around in your college classes all day and wax eloquent about similes and metaphors, but this book tells you what you need to write if you want to sell it—and if you can’t sell it, why write it?”
I, of course, with the arrogance of someone who’d never had to pay his own bills, scoffed at such crass commercialism. I didn’t want to write that shallow commercial fiction anyway! I wanted to write…literature.
Even now, looking back more than thirty-five years, I can still applaud my high standards and my commitment to quality. I was partly right. Wanting to write novels and stories that speak the truth about the human condition—that’s a good thing. Wanting to write well enough, and to connect with the psyche of my readers powerfully enough, that my stories would still be read years after my death—that, too, is a good thing.
But my dad was partly right too. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get published, and there’s even nothing wrong with wanting to sell enough copies of your book to pay the bills. And there are books, like the one my father pointed out to me years ago, as well as many writers’ conferences, that specialize in guiding you in writing the kind of things editors like to publish, and then finding those editors and presenting your stories in a winning way.
There are conferences and books, too, that guide one toward writing…well…literature.
Oddly, it wasn’t until I was in grad school that I realized what was missing in the tug-of-war between the artistes and the commercial hacks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hack. When I was a bureau chief in state government, two of the writers in my bureau made a sign that they proudly hung in the hallway over their office door: “Mark Nicholson and Peggy Todd: Hacks.”) What’s missing is: Neither tradition sufficiently encourages young writers to study and master the techniques of writing winning, powerful fiction.
Both give lip service to technique—the commercial side will talk for hours about plotting, and the literary side will extol the merits of and investigate the means of characterization, and occasionally delve into the mysteries of POV or voice. But it’s a valid generalization to say that neither side presents (at least not in any widespread or generally available and applauded manner) a systematic or complete approach to learning the techniques of fiction—not in the same way, for instance, that a painter, whether in an MFA program or a program for commercial artists, is expected to learn the techniques of painting, and to practice them, again and again, until mastered. Nor in the way a singer is expected to practice, for hours a day, not how one approaches getting a manager or a recording contract, but the myriad subtle and necessary techniques by which one vocalizes with beauty and power. Nor in the way an aspiring dancer is expected to spend hours daily building muscles and gaining flexibility and practicing moves and technique until they become second nature, so that they can be performed almost without thought, and without apparent effort (no matter how much concentration and energy those moves actually take).
Singing, playing an instrument, painting, sculpting, writing fiction—like all artistic endeavors, what these things have in common is that, for hundreds of years, generations of artists before us have spent their lifetimes discovering what works best, and what doesn’t work. The body of that knowledge is the canon of technique for our particular field of artistry. And the artist who ignores that stored, tried-and-true knowledge dooms himself to a life of trial and error, of re-discovering truths he could have learned from the start by studying Chekhov or Hemingway, or by reading one of the myriad of excellent books on fiction technique (many of which, happily, fall about midway between the two camps), or by studying with a qualified mentor.
Technique is not a substitute for heart—for the emotion at the core of your writing that gives it its power and wisdom. But, if we assume that you have a story to tell and that a grand truth lies at the heart of it, you can deliver that story with more power, you can affect your reader at a much deeper and longer-lasting level, if you have mastered the techniques of fiction. And isn’t that worth the years of discipline necessary to attain that mastery?
David Lambert writes and edits fiction with heart and technique from his home in Michigan.