My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mailbox- What does Good Writing look like? Am I Really Summa Cum Laude?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  And if you write me bitchy little anonymous torpedos, it will be (as they say) "so on".]  

Billy Writes,

Did you really graduate Summa Cum Laude, or is that one of your things like fake guest bloggers?  It's hard to believe that you could have gotten almost perfect grades in an English major with your grammar.  

My reply:

Hi Billy.  I only ever make up bullshit about stuff that matters,  and even when I'm lying, I'm telling the truth, so this being both insignificant and something that lying about wouldn't be truth, it is accurate.  I graduated with a 3.94.  Here's my diploma.  You can see the S.C.L. honors right above the seal on the right.

This and five bucks can get me a sandwich.  
Some of those A's are sad examples of the state of higher education in the US.  Some of those A's should probably be credited to Wikipedia and papers with "guest blogger" bibliographies (if you catch my meaning).  But some I worked harder for than I ever have on anything else.  Ever.  Each of Janusprof's courses easily involved ten hours of homework a week (for a three unit class) and final projects that I spent twice as much time on as any other final paper.

But besides being able to occasionally tell supportive girlfriend that I'm allowed to make up words, it's not really good for much.  (Unsupportive girlfriend thumps me in the left eyeball if I pull that on her.)  You wouldn't believe how fucking hard it is to work into conversations without being insufferable.

"Hi there.  I'll have a number two with the chipotle sauce instead of the green and oh by the way I graduated Summa Cum Laude if you want to come home with.....no?  Maybe you just want to touch my......no?  Okay just the number two then.

And a coke."

You're right though.  My ability at proofing my own copy is terrible.  Or if I were giving myself a performance review in corporate America, I would call it an "opportunity for improvement," but then I would pause dramatically, look over the top of the performance review at myself and add, "a shitload of improvement."  I'm getting better, but I've still got a ways to go.  I have some pretty anti-writer learning disabilities (mild dyslexia and severe A.D.D.) that are always working against me like punk ass ferrets...with switchblades, and sometimes it's a Sisyphean chore trying to work against them.  If I had unlimited resources, I'd hire an editor, but last I checked they weren't so hot on the 2 cents a day I could pay them, so I just have to keep working at improving that skill.  Most writers do.

I was able to get the grades I did for a couple of reasons.  When I really take some considered time and effort, I can clean up my own work pretty well.  I should probably learn to pretend every blog entry is a final exam, but some days I'm posting after five hours of writing and just don't have the mental focus to catch all my mistakes.   I try to fix problems as I see them when I'm re-reading old stuff, but I know sometimes my posts go up with some real boners.

I should probably also mention that not one instructor failed to mention my grammar mistakes at least once, so they agree with you this is a place where I am teh suck.  Usually at least once a semester I got a paper in right under the wire and didn't have time to proof it carefully.  The saving grace was that my higher order concerns like thesis and cohesion were apparently very good.  (Which makes sense since I was usually running rings around the literature majors in class discussions.)  Once, on a Raymond Carver paper my instructor said very bluntly that my grammar mistakes should have gotten me a C; however,  due to the elevated level of the argument, she could not in good conscience give me such a low grade.  However she gave me the lowest possible A- and warned me that on the next paper, I was to dazzle her with my proofreading skills or the level of my thesis wouldn't save me.

Sam Writes,

You talk a lot about practicing.  I'm not sure what I would be practicing toward.  With cello, it's pretty easy, as I can listen to Yo Yo Ma and say "wow, I'm never going to be like that but I'm gonna try".  With writing, it seems much more ambiguous.  What does "writing well" look like?  I can craft a tightly written, clear essay in a snap, but does that not count?  Do I need to be able to write The Great American Novel and win critical acclaim?  What voice would it be written with, if not the one I use now?

To know what rough edges I'd be filing off with all that practice, I'd need a vision of the finished product... that's what seems to be lacking from so many of the articles (yours and others) that I read about "being a better writer".  If I read what I've written and I like it, and my friends read it and they like it, am I still being a pretentious twit who's really not good at all?  Who decides who's a great writer and who isn't?

My reply:

Fair question.  Ideally you want to sound like Faulkner or O'Conner, and not so much like your cousin who writes essays in phone text.  But I think most of us would be pretty content sounding like a published author and not like the people to whom agents send form letters of rejection.  But I suppose it can be kind of hard to figure out what that means.

Lemmie answer your last part first because you don't sound like a pretentious twit at all, and I want to nip this thing in the bud.  Pretentious and pretend have the same root.  They both have to do with acting like something that you're not.  All writers are a little pretentious.  It takes an inflated sense of self-importance to presume other people will care about what you've written.  However, beyond that sort of baseline, pretentiousness doesn't have anything to do with the quality of someone's writing.  It doesn't have to do with their level of self-promotion or self identification.  It has to do with whether those things MATCH each other.  A hobbiest writer who is perfectly happy and content being a hobbiest is not pretentious.  People who say they are writers but don't read and rarely write are pretentious.  (And they are legion.)  People who claim a first draft of a story they wrote twenty years ago is going to get published if they "just find an agent who understands what [they're] trying to do," are pretentious.  People who call themselves "novelists" after they write a 50,000 word rough draft are pretentious.  But people who are realistic about how writing fits into their world--even if it is not their sun and moon and star lit sky--are not.

Now, let me try to explain what "good writing" looks like.  Though short of pointing you toward a literature class (or even better, reading a gillion books), I don't know that this question has an easy answer.  Good writing is bound in Corinthian leather and stamped with the name of a dead white guy.  ~rimshot~

You mentioned practicing the cello, and how you know you will never be Yo Yo Ma, but you probably have some idea of the technical skills that you would need to get to Yo Yo Ma's level.  I never played strings, but I have seven years of power-nerding with school band (and then uber-nerding for two more years with the choir at the same time), so let me see if I can run with your music analogy.

When you first start playing an instrument, you just know that you don't sound like the people who sound good.  You can't really tell what's wrong.  You just know that when the beginning band starts warming up with scales, it sounds like someone is sliding a thousand pound steel bench across concrete. As you practice and improve, you start to get a sense of why your music doesn't sound like professionals', but there's still not much you can do about that until and unless you're willing to work.  But for a long time, you might not know what the problem is.  It is only after considerable work that you start to realize that being lazy with your fingering, using too much vibrato, a tiny bit flat, and you're going to have to practice a lot more if you want to get the bow motion right through the coda.  Those aren't things you would have been able to recognize back at the beginning.  Back then, you just knew you sucked.  So it takes some level of skill just to know why you suck.

This is where so many would-be artists live and breathe--in this world of not knowing what's wrong.  Not just writers either--painters, musicians, singers, actors.  They don't even know why their art is problematic.  Sometimes they aren't even aware that it is problematic.  And the thing is, many of them would rather live in denial and blissful ignorance than face the fact that they have a lot to learn and those dreams they thought were just out of reach might actually be years-of-work out of reach.

Writing is no different.  It takes a certain level of skill to be able to recognize what you're doing wrong.  I'm hoping that you have read great literature--modern and classic--and you probably have SOME sense that it is different than fan fiction, young writer's first efforts, your average Facebook post, or even authors with cruddy prose like Dan Brown or JK Rowling.  It isn't just random chance and personal preference that separate these works--or there wouldn't ever be so much consensus on what good and bad even means.  While there's a continuum of quality and a considerable range of aesthetic taste, the artistic integrity of good writing is noticeable even through raging hatred.  I hate Sylvia Plath with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas, but I recognize her talent as an artist and I could write a paper on The Bell Jar that would knock the socks off any of my old professors.  Once upon a time, we only really found a work "good" if it endured the test of time or had a moral lesson, and back then there was a very strong sense about teaching writing that "Genius can't be taught!"  But with New Criticism and careful analysis it is actually possible to identify why works tend to resonate.

Though essays and other expository writing have some overlap with fiction, the artistic integrity of the latter involves a weaving of elements together to support an artistic vision.  That means that you have characters, tone (word choice), setting, plot, symbols, theme, prose rhythm, and possibly even point of view all working together to achieve the same artistic vision.  Think about how Steinbeck uses setting to echo his character's internal struggles or how LeGuin will often use language that intensifies the feelings of what is happening in her stories (short clipped words, sentences, and paragraphs during action; long languid words, sentences and paragraphs during the parts where the characters have to wait or cross a huge expanse of wintery land).  Or think about how the sonnets that break the rules of sonnets with blank verse or an extra foot are often ones where the CONTENT is about how rules are changing or the deliciousness of breaking rules.

The elements at their part and the work as a whole do a dance like performers on a stage.  If that dance is well choreographed you can tell even when the elements go "against" the vision, that is what they were supposed to do so.  If they just meander around the stage doing nothing or miss all their cues, the work as a whole is diminished.

When the elements all point towards the vision, it becomes incredible art.  When they all kind of do their own thing but the story is entertaining, it's usually...okay.  This is true of most any art, though different media use different elements to achieve their vision.  (Film uses cinematography, painting uses color, poetry uses meter...etc)

As for "is it enough"?  That really depends on you. If your goal is to be able to write a slammen essay, you surely don't need to diligently write for hours each day. If you goal is the emotional catharsis that comes from writing, then you won the minute you touched pen to paper (or pressed a key).  If your goal is to delight your friends, it sounds like you've got it covered.  If your goal is to get constantly strive to improve at your craft, then you probably ought to read like crazy write every day, and possibly read a book or take a class on writing.  If your goal is to be a working novelist who pays the bills with fiction, then you have to become a little bit insane about how much work you do.  That work might not be "practice" in the same sense as a cello player (though I think way too many writers think everything they write will be published eventually and don't just write things for fun) but rather in the form of more writing, getting feedback, and pursuing one or more routes to publication (be it e-publishing and self-promotion or short story accolades and agent shopping).

It's a bit like getting "enough" sex.  There isn't really a normal amount from person to person.  If you are good with once a week, you don't need to write any more than that to be content.  Or you might be more of a three-times-a-day person.  No one can tell you but you.

But writing is its own reward and the WRITING part is the best part, so if you're happy, then you win.  I think way too many people have a sense that they MUST pursue arts with the intention of making money and they get very frustrated when they find that to reach the success they want will take more than they are willing to give.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm guessing this is one of the people that wrote in with these questions. You're very welcome. If not...you're still welcome, but I will say it with a question mark at the end because I'm a little confused.

  2. Wow. A whole two comments? I've learned more from the ten minutes I spent reading this than I've learned about writing in the whole of last year. Chris, I originally found this blog because of your story about the woman you stood up for. I'm now following because I not only think you have a lot of good things to say, I also happen to think that you're a terrific writer.

    Is your grammar up to par? So what if it isn't? Most of the time, when I see a great writer give their rules of writing list it generally involves them stating that at some point, the best writers have broken the rules, some times all of them. It's about story over style. Rules of writing are like the pirate code, they should be guidelines more than anything.

    At any rate..thank you for writing. Don't ever stop.

    1. This was written back before I was getting much traffic. It'll come around again in my Facebook/G+/Twitter "reruns" and maybe get some more feedback then.

      But thank you for your wonderful thoughts!!

  3. Agree with Zid. This post is awesome.

    1. I only just noticed this comment. Thank you so much!

  4. Good stuff. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Just discovered my own interest in writing. I somehow stumbled upon this piece tonight. Thanks for giving a comprehensive answer. I'm looking forward to reading more!

  6. Yeah I can really see and feel more from books than I could when I was younger and less experienced. Good analogy with music, where, with greater skill and experience, you'll be able to discern quality better! I can also see instances where there are two books, A and B. I enjoy B more, but I can see that A has more skilled writing. Maybe it's good to distinguish between what you enjoy and what counts as "better writing". And just because our readers loved our story, doesn't mean we can't improve it! Thanks for the post!