Learning to unwrite, writing to unlearn

As I learn to write narrative fiction, what I find to be the most frustrating aspect and what I continuously ask myself, over and over, is:


I can write. I write rather well. But not narrative fiction. I was taught, primarily, to write expository argument. Essays, essentially. The dreaded five paragraph missive designed to vex every fifteen year old attempting to avoid failure of English, period 3, room 218. (I only just.)

Literary fiction is a whole other swim in the swamp. There are gators and flesh-eating bacteria and rednecks in there. And they all want their pound of flesh. And I never learned how to appease them.

So now, I have to unlearn all that factoid driven, introductory sentence followed by supporting facts followed by conclusion shit. Scrape that crap from inside my skull and then, with a bone clean slate, reintroduce proper, evocative, engaging, thriving narrative. Narrative with an impossible number of rules and nuances that must be learned before you can actually write anything that anybody would ever want to read.

Ugh! It’s the unlearning that is killing me.

I would have loved to have someone, thirty years ago say, “Here, Mole, follow this simple step for dialog — never break it up with exposition. Dialog needs to escalate the tension, back and forth quickly, peak and then release to build again. There’s a rhythm to it. Alright? Okay, let’s practice. Good. Now again. Better. Now again. Excellent!”

Phew! One lesson down. 999 to go.

Oh, wait. Before I continue, I have to get the bristle-brush and cleanser out in order to bleach-clean all the droll research paper trash that litters the inside of my head. Damn! Will I ever be rid of this shit?







11 thoughts on “Learning to unwrite, writing to unlearn

  1. https://aeon.co/essays/writing-essays-by-formula-teaches-students-how-to-not-think

    “Schools and colleges in the United States are adept at teaching students how to write by the numbers. The idea is to make writing easy by eliminating the messy part – making meaning – by focusing effort on reproducing a formal structure. As a result, the act of writing turns from moulding a lump of clay into a unique form to filling a set of jars that are already fired. Not only are the jars unyielding to the touch, but even their number and order are fixed. There are five of them, which, according to the recipe, need to be filled in precise order. Don’t stir. Repeat.”


  2. This is not the main reason I left my job to write full time, but it is on the list of reasons. The way they were trying to retrain me to write was, in my opinion, not good. They obviously would beg to differ; I’d say even for their purposes it wasn’t ideal. But even if it was, it wouldn’t work for narrative writing. And narrative writing is my most authentic skill. It would have been a huge loss to have that trained out of me.

    While I do essay writing on my blog, it’s at least creative nonfiction and more free-form, allowing for my tangents, so there’s that. But even now I need to read more fiction and get warmed back up to get back into it. It’s on my list for February!

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    1. Acknowledging that there are vastly different writing forms, I think, is one step to enabling oneself to learn the variations.

      I keep telling a story as if I’m writing a research paper; all grand, omniscient knowledge of THE WAY IT IS! Like I’m Aesop or something. It’s a hard affectation to quit.

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    1. Oops. The blind belief that fiction exists in a vaporous muse and is somehow a thing on it’s own, it’s simply a story. And to tell a good story well involves the same type of craftsmanship employed in an essay. It starts somewhere, goes somewhere and gets its premise validated along the way (even in slice of life or stream of consciousness or episodic forms) and comes to an end that ties up the premise or elucidates an emotion or throws everyone under the bus. However the proper start, fulfill, finish form is there. Sonatas have form, regardleess of how exotic or different they may be. Beethoven got busted for wandering around in the first 12 bars or so of Symphony #1 before he stated his key. Much like the opening of “Gatsby” which is all backstory prekude. Beethoven responded by blowing everyone out of their chair on the downbeat of Symphony #2 leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind where he was going. He often broke the rules of structure by inserting more BAM forms for accepted “now you go larghetto.” The same is true of fiction, Form must be enforced to a degree or the reader will toss it in the trash. How the story is told validating itself is up to the author, and it has to end somewhere. Introduction, filler, conclusion. Honestly? Most novels could be told in a decent sentence. It’s all the promise loaded up in that sentence that forces us to write. Anybody can get 50 people to slam on D major all at once. Great the key of D Major. What happens next is magic, and that magic is up to you. Write magic and your stories will tell themselves.

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      1. They may be both writing crafts, but they are quite different in their treatment of technique and forgiveness of errors.
        One can learn to write informational exposition by following a formula. Sure one can add nuance and craft to the output, but the bottom line is getting info out of your head and onto the page in a cogent, logical manner.
        Like every blog post I’ve ever written — nothing narrative fiction about them. They’re just pleasantly (usually) packaged brain dumps.
        In contrast, those first 500 words of BATS — Dayumm, what a chore. But the result is so much finer than the way it started. All of that nuance and skill and awareness of a dozen or more aspects of writing (most of it yours bytheway).
        I could have banged out the info in that intro in 50 words or so and the data would have been there. But none of the charm. Yet it would have worked as a research subject.

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        1. But the process is the same, is it not? Merely expanding the exposition. Tillion sat on the beach. Tough to write what’s in his head until you add “spice” like a broken boat, a dead campfire, a pelican. Expansion is adding awareness of an adventure. I have abook called “The Lie That Tells a Truth” by John Dufresne. It’s a fabulous book. Not that I agree with all of it, (because I only read the bits I was interested in at the time), but it’s worth the price of admission for expanding exposition and building a scene and picking up anytime you look at your work and go “Duh.” Because he’ll trigger an exercise that you overlay on your work and see it in a whole new way and see the process you were looking for. Up to you to say something worth reading, of course, but I highly suggest it.

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  3. Hahaha! I guess mastering some writing styles does tend to burn our flair for the other styles, like an opportunity cost of some sort. It’s hard or even impossible to be great at all writing genres, I think.

    So if the kind of writing you wanna do isn’t the one introduced early and drilled incessantly in school (yes, THE essay), there will have to be some painful unlearning. This makes me wish more fiction-writing was introduced early or encouraged in school. Who knows what would’ve been the number of creative fiction-writers produced.

    But then again, too many forces (in the academe!) just want the “efficient” essay. Essays could be creative, too, in terms of style. But the basics of the same old essay structure get drilled into us like crazy. I like writing essays, but I’ve had to learn there’s more than one way to do it.

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