Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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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.]
Tags: writing, writing reflection
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