Steve Liskow  

Can Writing Be Taught?

If you want to write nonfiction, especially essays, The Elements of Style probably gives you everything you need as a writer except ideas. Active verbs, positive form, specifics. Finding ideas is your problem.

So is learning to write fiction.

Classes and books abound, but learning to lie convincingly is an art in itself and not everyone can do it. The summer before my senior year of college, I tried selling encyclopedias, but I felt like I was victimizing people who were a lot like me. I told young married couples that I wasn't really selling the books; I was giving them away as a promotion stunt. They were simply paying for the yearbook that updated the set every year and to be registered on the information service. People actually believed me, which made me feel even worse. I quit after a month.

The best way to lie is to keep it simple, and that's the best way to write fiction, too. An ornate "literary" style turns me off because it's about the writer, not the story. If I want to know the writer, I'll ask for a date or go on Facebook. I want the story.

To be an effective liar-sorry, fiction writer-you have to understand plot, character, dialogue, description, setting, and everything else that English teachers like me used to put on quizzes to terrorize high school kids-or bore them. But understanding, which can be taught, is only the beginning. You have to internalize the stuff and use it so well that people look through it and see the story instead. It's like acting. Too many actors get hung up on showing their "process"-the garbage that made "Method" actors such an easy target-instead of telling the truth. Chief Bromden's line in Cuckoo's Nest says it all: It's the truth, even if it didn't happen.

That's what fiction writing is, a lie that tells the truth about people or life or both. And to do that, you keep it simple and hide all those techniques. After you chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant, you have to sweep up the debris.

That's why art is so hard. It's never about the technique, it's about what come after that.

You have to figure out that part all by yourself.


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