Learning how to write is a lifelong process. I’ve been known to say that I wrote my first book at age nine (Big Blue the Elephant – still unpublished -ha ) and have been learning to write ever since. I am firmly convinced that I will continue learning to write until I die and will never master the craft. I accept this as my fate – the price of wanting to write well. This learning process includes a lot of living, working in the real world, and a lot of time spent living in my own head. It also includes joy, angst, toil, trouble, and reading about the skill of writing fiction. A big learning curve for a gal who’s never taken a formal writing class!
Some time before I published my first novel, someone referred me to Plot and Structure, a kick-butt guide to writing fiction, by James Scott Bell.
I’ve read other books on writing craft over time, but his remains – to me – the best bare-bones, practical writing guide I’ve ever read.
Laura Hile, a fellow author, shared on facebook a recent post from Killzone, a blog for mystery and thriller authors. The piece was given the enticing title “Story, Dammit, Story.” Again, it’s a snippet of practical writing advice about a writing skill I struggle with the most: making sure that something is always happening in my writing.
In this post, Mr. Bell refers to an amusing letter from Carl Jung to James Joyce, which I will cite from courtesy of Brain Pickings:
…I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer…
…I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…
Jung goes on to acknowledge the personal nature of his reaction and somehow manages to critique the work without damning the author – a skill some modern reviewers might consider developing.
What is so amusing to me is that I had a similar reaction to Jung’s the three (yes, count them, three) times I tried to read Ulysses. My reaction even made it into a blog post of my own a while back, where I compared various types of literature to foods:
3. James Joyce’s Ulysses = overfried pork chops. I apologize in advance to any James Joyce fans out there. I appreciate creativity and artistic expression as much as the next person, but I have tried to read this book more than once, and I can never finish it. Like an overdone pork chop, I chew and chew and chew and get nowhere. Finally, I give up because it’s too much damn work. A shame really, because there’s spicy coating on the outside and protein that’s good for me inside.
I don’t think I even got as far as Jung did before I put it in the Did Not Finish pile.
Now, I’m not one who has to have my literature spoon fed to me. I do read Austen, after all – and her prose style is pretty intense. But I do need the guidelines of paragraphs and punctuation to post a guide map along the way. I need a story structure, so I can fit the author’s genius into a frame and appreciate it.
See, there is a fundamental difference in the way Joyce tells a story and the way I want to tell a story – and it’s summed up in the last sentence of my amateur critique of Ulysses:
But storytelling is about communicating to readers and listeners, and stream of consciousness writing just seems self-absorbed and inconsiderate, in my humble opinion.
For Joyce, it seems the story is all about the author. That’s okay, I guess, as far as it goes.
For me, however, the story does not exist until it’s communicated to a reader. When a reader is engaged, even if there is only one reader, the story is born, and not before. James’s Ulysses is a promise of story, undeveloped – like a baby in the womb that has not yet breathed air or seen the light of day. It is a possibility, but a reader is required to bring it into the world and give it a whole new level of existence.
What say you, gentle readers? Fan of James Joyce? Or James Scott Bell? Feel free to leave an opinion below.