Can someone learn how to do creative writing with exercises and dissection, or is the muse too ephemeral to be pinned down this way? Is imagination a quality like quick reflexes or a good vertical jump—you’re either born with it or you’re not?
I’m reading two books right now that argue that writing is something that can be improved with instruction: A Novel in a Year, by Louise Doughty, and The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell. On the one hand, of course books in the how-to-write genre would hold that there’s something to be gained by further study. On the other hand, I wonder if the debate would even exist if it were framed as “Can art be taught?”—even Mondrian knew some technique. Doughty and Bell describe enough method in their early pages that surely they demolish the idea that a good book is the result of a single lightning bolt of imagination, never to be prompted or replicated.
Bell describes a wide variety of methods: people who write lean and add in detail (I do this) versus people who gush forth and then cut. Some people outline first, some don’t. Some mull over ideas a long while before putting anything on paper and then change very little of what they finally write, for others the noodling occurs on the page and involves much more rewriting. Whatever the tactic, she (and I) believe consciousness and practice can be brought to the effort. Her book offers more than the usual beacon to the struggling: its subtitle is “On the Practice of Editing Yourself”—if you don’t get what you want in this draft, revise it.
Doughty has a blunt summary of the idea that writing must be learned. Those “false starts… are a necessary part of the process…. Mr or Mrs Great Dead Author burned the early stuff because it was rubbish.” The exercises she offers are from the noodle-around-on-the-page school: develop some fluidity in prose in general and create a milieu where a specific idea can coalesce. You can follow this method or use the exercises as warm-ups for the project you’ve got in process.
For someone who has a clear idea of a story and how to proceed, the book nevertheless makes an interesting read, first because of her vehemently democratic attitude, second because of the way she explains the elements of a story, and third for the sense of esprit de corps, of joining a collective endeavor rather than sequestering yourself in a garret.Tweet