Sunday, September 6, 2015

Professional and amateur writers

My adviser in graduate school complained on several occasions that the dean of our college used to send random people to her to get advice about how to write a novel. One time, it was a surgeon sent to her, and my adviser was especially irritated by it. She ranted one day about how she couldn't understand why someone thought they could just pick up writing out of the blue. She didn't go to a doctor to ask advice about how to perform surgery. Didn't people understand that fiction writing was a specific skill, one that takes practice and discipline to get good at?

I understand her frustration. I've been working at it for years, and I still read things I've written and cringe. How does some uppity lay person think he can just march in and turn a novel into gold? That's actually the mark of someone who's never tried. Everyone thinks they've got a great story, and that if they just wrote a book--usually about their rather ordinary lives--it would be a best seller.

At the same time, I think there's a lot to be said for fiction--or any kind of writing, really--written by someone who isn't mainly a writer, or who could at least be thought of as a "slash" writer, e.g. a "surgeon/novelist." There's just an entirely different sense of things when a person is writing out of a love for the subject and trying to find the skill to match that love as opposed to a person who loves the art and is seeking for a subject to incarnate that love with.

As an example, I'd put forth Carl Sagan and Andrea Barrett. Both have written fiction about science. Barrett is known and revered in literary circles (are there enough people in literature anymore to form a whole circle? Literary crescents?) for writing long short stories where she writes fictionalized versions of real scientists at crucial moments in the development of scientific ideas. Sagan wrote a lot of non-fiction, but his best known fiction was Contact, about a radio astronomer named Ellie who finds the first message to humanity coming from a technologically advanced race of aliens.

Barrett is not a complete lay person--she was once enrolled in a graduate zoology program. But her work is more fictional writing that happens to be about scientists than it is fictional writing about science. As Juliet Lapados put it in New Republic:

Those who take to Barrett often stress that while she writes about science, she’s not really a science-writer because her stories are so emotion-driven. In a review of Servants of the Map for The Chicago Tribune, Dan Cryer argued that “to call Barrett our poet laureate of science is perfectly apropros, as long as we recognize that her specialty is the heart.”
Fine. I have no problem with writing like that, except that I'm completely not interested in her stories. (Well, I've only read two: "The Particles" and "The English Pupil.") If you love Barrett, and some people clearly do, I'm not going to argue that you're wrong. Part of my disdain is petty: I am always struggling to make my short stories shorter because of the low word-count limits of literary journals, but she, because she is established, gets to make hers into novellas and still get them into BASS anthologies. So fuck her.

But I also just didn't find anything in her work to be surprising in any way. In Sagan, I learned a lot of actual science while reading the book. Sagan loves science, and he can't stop teaching it even in the middle of a story. Sagan's themes are about how humanity's scientific and technical advances may ultimately change our perceptions of everything, including God, love, family, and our dreams and longing. Barrett's themes are about how great movements overtake the individual and about the self-delusion we practice and god I'm so bored just writing this I can't even finish this sentence about what her damn stories are about.

Literary people who make book lists, read a lot of fiction, and who think about the world in largely literary terms will get new subject matter in Barrett, but at the heart of it is a conception of the world that isn't really vastly different from what you'd get in any modern journal's short story about a Pakistani immigrant driving a cab in London or about an enlisted Marine in Iraq or about a morbidly obese woman looking to end her life.

Sagan, however, changed how I saw everything. He changed me. I wish I had read him a year earlier than I did. I read Sagan a few months before I got out of the Marines and before I started college. Because of him, I taught myself Algebra right before I enrolled and picked Chemistry as a major. But I really didn't know enough math to go right into Calculus, which meant it would take me longer to finish school than I wanted. So I took the easy road and switched to English. I often think that if I had read him earlier, I'd have had time to learn more math before college and stayed in the natural sciences. God, I loved those Biology and Chemistry classes I took. I still have a dream, when I can overcome my own self-pity long enough to conceive of a future in which I might yet accomplish something, in which I do the math, go back to school, and get to do real science.

But I digress. The point is that Sagan changed me deeply, altered my dreams. Barrett is someone you could read and go right back to being who you are. Barret is a "better" writer: her prose is sharper, more imaginative. But Sagan has more impact. I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis once wrote, something like "every artist, but for grace, moves from love of the thing he is telling about to love of the telling." This is why I think it's important to have surgeons trying to hack their way through novels. The country is full of people with M.F.A.s or similar. (I actually have an M.A. that just had a large writing requirement. "English with a concentration in creative writing" was the wording, I think. We also called it "English light.") There are thousands of journals full of writing from these people. Nobody is reading it except other writers, because it only speaks to writers.

I don't want to pretend that it doesn't matter how you write as long as you have a good story to tell. All those people who think their lives would make a great story think it sounds great in their heads until they start to write it. You've got to write at least reasonably well. But I don't think there's anything wrong with people who are in love with something in the world struggling to find the technique to express that love. I now conclude with a piece of impromptu flash fiction to embody this idea:

One guy wants to show his girl he loves her. He takes singing lessons for two months, learns her favorite song, and sings it to her as a surprise at karaoke night. He doesn't totally butcher it. They get married and live happily ever after. Another guy, a professional singer, writes a love song and puts his wife's name in it. It has an eleven minute long archipeggial run of notes where he shows off his virtuosity. It wins a Grammy. The couple get divorced two years later, and he writes another song about how that girl was a bitch and the new one is better. It also wins a Grammy.


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