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Trying to master complexity - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
Trying to master complexity
Further to this long discussion, I have been reading up on Gestalt theory and may have had a lightbulb moment regarding the lack of mutual understanding.

[personal profile] green_knight said, "one of the central intellectual discussions in the Weimar republic boils down to 'Gestalt vs sequential'." The page I found talked about "Gestalt versus stimulus/response training". But neither of these is what a creative writing tutor is doing when they get students to practise one aspect of writing, for example, description. Description isn't a simple stimulus/response skill; it's another Gestalt, just a bit smaller than writing a whole story. As I see it, writing effective fiction is a Gestalt made up of Gestalts!

There are many types of non-fiction writing that are composed more or less entirely of description. This ranges from estate agents writing descriptions of houses for sale to people writing copy for catalogues to restaurant reviewers and wine critics, fashion writers and people surveying terrain, wildlife and archaeological sites. Writing effective description is not a simple task, even if you focus just on describing your own surroundings.

Similarly, creating characters is a complex skill used by role players (the characters are created before there is any story) and writing dialogue and creating plots is done by script writers, who focus entirely on those two aspects and don't bother with description at all, apart from in any necessary stage directions.

But if you want to write a novel, you have to be able to do all these things at once. It's like a circus act in which you're juggling balls while riding a unicycle and balancing a spinning plate on your nose.

If you want to learn to do all those things simultaneously, there are two main approaches.[1] You could practice each skill separately at first, ie become so confident riding the unicycle that you don't have to think about it, meanwhile you learn to juggle, first with two balls, then three and you learn to spin plates. Then you try to do them together, which will involve initially making a hopeless mess of everything until you find ways to combine them.

However, though it may become more common in the future now all these creative writing courses exist, in my experience this isn't how most people become writers. In the 8 years I was a creative writing tutor for the OU, it was very rare to find a student who had never written fiction before, even if it was only when they were at school.

The other way to approach the circus act would be to ride a tricycle whilst throwing and catching one ball with one hand while steering with the other and gradually work up via bicycle and two balls to a unicycle and three balls. At which point you might add in spinning a plate on your nose.[2]

This is how most people used to learn to write before there were all these How To books, writers' and agents' blogs and creative writing courses. A lot of writers started when they were young, often even when only still kids. That's how I started. I heard Anthony Horowitz on the radio just a day or so ago talking about how (like J M Barrie) he told stories in school to amuse his classmates. I've heard of a romance writer who started by telling the other women at the factory the story of the last film she'd seen at the cinema. When she'd run out of recent films, she started making up her own stories until someone said, "You should write these down." A lot of young people these days will start writing fan fiction.

In other words, this type of writer starts out by writing stories that are usually straightforward, often plot focused and sometimes (as with fan fiction) using pre-existing characters and worlds. They usually get better with practice. They become more discerning readers of published fiction and spot techniques that they proceed to use in their own fiction. They receive feedback from their own readers which helps them improve the next story. Often they are perfectly happy remaining as purely intuitive writers and have no interest in thinking more deeply about how they do it.

But sometimes they become dissatisfied or impatient with the speed of their progress and want help. So what happens if they sign up for a creative writing course? What happens is that the tutor ends up with a bunch of people who have a wide range of pre-existing skills and who all want help with something different. How can a teacher deal with this? The usual way is by working through a set course, tackling each aspect of writing in turn and hoping that people will be able to get something useful from it. Mostly it works, usually by putting the student into a community of practice. Encouraging students to critique one another's work is a common technique in helping them to help themselves.

In an ideal world, each student would have a mentor who could tailor their help and advice to their needs.[3] This is the ideal situation that [personal profile] green_knight refers to here. But that sort of one-to-one intensive tuition doesn't come cheap. It's what you'll get if you sign up for a PhD in creative writing (and yes, writing a novel can be a Ph.D level skill!). Some experienced writers offer mentoring, usually to get one particular novel ready for submission, but you have to pay. You're not going to find this kind of help on the internet. With the best will in the world, even if they have the skills, people cannot afford the time.

And there is one major problem creative writing tutors face. While there is an agreed ideal that dressage riders can aim for (as exemplified in the judging and scoring of dressage tests) there is no similar agreed standard for what makes a good novel. This makes teaching someone to write far far more difficult that teaching them to ride...

[1]Of course there are actually a whole host of different approaches that mix and match elements of the two I've suggested and probably others as well that involve coming sideways at the task by developing similar skills elsewhere.

[2]In writing terms, this would be something like writing the whole novel in first person present tense from the viewpoint of a 500-year-old tree. :)

[3]Or possibly not. Many people learn best by being a member of a community of practice. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings didn't have a personal mentor devising a series of learning experiences for them; but being in a group enabled them to develop their skills.

[Cross-posted from Dreamwidth by way of a backup http://heleninwales.dreamwidth.org/69412.html. If you want to leave a comment, please use whichever site you find most convenient. Comments so far: comment count unavailable.]

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14 comments or Leave a comment
From: cmcmck Date: October 25th, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
My own first experience of Gestalt came via educational theory in my PGCE where my original intention was to teach English but then I segued into special needs work where it was less relevant.

These days, as you know, I write nonfic for a living in the form of historical research which requires proofs and documentary evidence as well as the descriptive skills you describe. My characters are there for me fully formed, but I can't make any assumptions about them other than from what is known.

This may explain why I don't want to write a novel- ever- which I suspect makes me a rare beast.

I want to write an autobiography even less, although people have told me I should! :o)

And then, we come to the gestalt of poetics and things get _really_ complicated.........

Edited at 2012-10-25 02:24 pm (UTC)
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: October 25th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've only ever taught practical skills, so my favourite approach is experiential learning. But I also really like the "community of practice" idea. At its best the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition functioned as a community of practice because participants ranged from established pro writers to newbies just starting out and all the stages in between. Critters and other workshops function similarly.

Regarding autobiography/life writing, when we came to that part of the OU creative writing courses I did as a student, I wrote autobiographical poetry. My life has mostly been too dull, apart from the bits that I didn't want to have to dwell on. You can get a decent poem out of something quite small, but writing 1500 words means you do need to reveal far more about yourself which I just wasn't comfortable with.
sartorias From: sartorias Date: October 25th, 2012 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
This seems to me an excellent summation of the exasperations (problems?) inherent in dissecting and or teaching process.

So many come to a writing course with process in place, and so trying to impose another process can be less than helpful.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: October 25th, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm nodding in agreement here. But even if the tutor has no intention of trying to impose another process and offers many different suggestions as to how you may approach something, there is no time with a class to teach every student as an individual, so the personalised teaching mostly occurs as feedback on stories written as assignments.
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: October 25th, 2012 10:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've read your discussions with green_knight with interest, respect for your patience and kindness, and not a little frustration. There are many ways to learn to write and not one of them is right and not one of them is wrong. Ditto there are many ways and styles of writing. Green_knight seems to want something very specific and rejects all suggestions that she doesn't feel appropriate to her particular learning needs. Unfortunately, though I've tried, I have now retired from her writing discussions as I don't feel I have anything to add that she will ever find acceptable.

Personally I feel as though my best writing tutors have been the writers of all the books I have ever read. My first attempts at writing were pathetic, cliche-ridden, had no sense of structure or any idea of point-of-view. (Hey I began my first novel at fifteen and my second in my twenties, but I was still in my thirties before I began to wise-up)

I did find a couple of how-to books that got me past the basics (Plot by Ansen Dibell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King) and after that I learned an immense amount from being a part of rec.arts.sf.composition (then a usenet newsgroup benefiting from the participation of first class professional writers and a bunch of people who really wanted to improve). From there I joined a small crit group which ran for eight years and gave me the biggest kick up the keyboard any writer could hope for. Once I sold my first story I qualified for Milford (http://www.milfordsf.co.uk) and both critting and being critted by other professionals really honed my craft. A bunch of us from Milford have now started a quarterly face to face group based in the north of England (http://northwriteSF.com) which keep pushing my limits.

Am I a writer? Yes, I am a writer because I write. Am I a good writer? Well, I'm better than some and not as good as others. I am considerably better than I was, but I'm still learning. I'll still be learning until I'm too old to hit the space bar without dribbling. I've sold quite a few stories, I have yet to sell a novel, but I've got an agent and I'm working on it (or I should say 'we're working on it' because my agent, Beth Fleisher, is brilliant.

I would find it difficult to take any aspect of writing in isolation, though sometimes a particular revelation about a particular way to tackle a particular problem will cause me to go back over a particular work and revise (and learn) accordingly.

Of course the next project may require an entirely different approach. There is no one true way. So much of it is instinct tempered by experience and squished through the mill of trial and error.
asakiyume From: asakiyume Date: October 25th, 2012 10:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
A community of practice is a wonderful thing--it gives you an audience to try your stories out on; it gives you examples of others' writing to read, enjoy, and learn from; and it gives you a group of people to talk about the whole business with. And learning by example is a great way to learn, through reading things you like.

But as you say, there's no one standard to aim for, with writing. There are so many different types of styles and stories, and audiences for all sorts of things.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: October 26th, 2012 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)
There are so many different types of styles and stories, and audiences for all sorts of things.

Which is where gestalt comes in again - they're all valid, so the writer needs to know what they're trying to achieve, and how their skills - and other people's advice - fits in with that goal. If you want to write a thriller, advice on writing picture books won't help you very much. If you want to write a picture book, thriller advice will be useless unless you can filter it for your medium. The differences between stories of the same length in the same genre are more subtle, but the whole working out what you want to do, and asking yourself whether new advice fits into that (or how it came be adapted) strikes me as _very_ gestalt-oriented.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: October 26th, 2012 09:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Indeed, gestalt, like experiential learning, is very student-centred. However, it also seems to be (to quote Carl Rogers) at the "I know I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only provide an environment in which he can learn" end of the teaching/learning spectrum.

As John Heron points out, learning is by its very nature an autonomous activity:

"...it is constituted by understanding and skill, retention and practice, interest and commitment...these are all necessarily self-generated: no-one else can do your understanding or retention or practice for you." [Heron 1993, p. 14]

So the points I was trying to make are:

1. You can't teach someone to write, it's something every writer has to learn for themselves.
2. I don't know a single writer who doesn't agonise over their stories. No one I know has a tried and tested method for deciding what should or should not be in the story or for coming up with ideas for scenes.
3. As there is no generally applicable method for deciding what kind of scene should come next, it's impossible to teach someone a general method, even if that's the advice they ask for.
4. Everyone wants specially tailored advice and writing exercises designed to suit their needs.
5. In a class situation, this isn't possible to provide because everyone will have different problems and need something different.
6. To make matters worse, writing is a particularly difficult case because there is no right or wrong. There is only works/doesn't work.
7. What works or doesn't work cannot be generalised for all stories, not even all stories of a particular genre.
8. Fantasy and SF are very broad genres and really comprise all the other genres. The only thing that makes them fantasy or SF is that they contain things that most people regard as impossible in the real world.
9. Ultimately, a teacher can only make suggestions. Only the writer knows what they are aiming for with any given story.
10. Once a story is complete, a teacher can give much more help because then the "Does this story work?" question has some chance of being answered.
11. Therefore the most effective way to learn to write is to join a community of practice and take part in the discussion and, most importantly, story sharing and critique.

So... based on what you say in your comment, we are in complete agreement, but you somehow still manage to ask questions that no one can answer to your satisfaction. Which is fine, some questions are unanswerable. But you seem to think that if we approached things in a gestalt way, to suit your way of thinking, all would become clear. Unfortunately, most of use believe that there is no "clear" for everything to become. Basically we all muddle through as best we can and we are never certain that we have it right.

Once you accept that writing is always muddly and you can never be certain you have the "best" solution, things might go better for your writing.

[Article on Gestalt approach to teaching here:

asakiyume From: asakiyume Date: October 26th, 2012 11:12 am (UTC) (Link)
*nods* Gestalt is a metaphor (or reality) that works well.
coth From: coth Date: October 26th, 2012 09:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for this. Your timing is brilliant...

This week daughter has started writing a novel (about the same age I was when I did that). She brought Prologue and Chapter One to dinner last night and read it out to us. I suggested she write the whole novel and then go back to make it better. B suggested ways she could improve specific individual sentences and paragraphs. So I said she could do either and learn something doing that, and come back to learn what she needed about the other later.

Your post gives me more to chew on for use in conversation with her.

P.S. I never finished any of the 'novels' I started as a teenager. Daughter's opening was pretty good imho!
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: October 26th, 2012 01:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Glad to be of use. I started writing my own stories (as opposed to things we were asked to write in school) around the age of about 11-12 and got more serious in my mid-teens. I didn't actually finish a novel until my mid-20s though. :)

After a year or so of not really writing anything, the urge to write is finally returning. However, I seem to have come full circle and at least for the foreseeable future, I have no intention of writing with publication in mind. I am going to write for fun and just to amuse myself.
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: October 26th, 2012 09:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I didn't finish my first novel until I was in my 30s. Not having a typewriter or being able to type (except very slowly, hunt and peck mode, didn't help). It wasn't until the mid 80s when I encountered my first Amstrad word processor, that I actually finished anything.
green_knight From: green_knight Date: October 27th, 2012 11:50 am (UTC) (Link)
This articleexplains where the 'gestalt vs stimulus response' thing comes from (should be 'cognitive learning vs stimulus/response').

I would argue that sequential learning is also a form of cognitive, just a different one.

That's that riddle solved, then.
endlessrarities From: endlessrarities Date: November 4th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh yes, I agree with the novel-writing being a Ph.D. level skill so much - having done both, I can really appreciate the comparison!!!

Interesting post - thank you!!
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