Creative writing is a rewarding activity, no doubts about that. Sometimes however it’s also quite demanding. In fact, it’s an activity so complex and multifaceted that escapes any attempt to simplify it into an easily manageable model.
This is why I believe a holistic approach to creative writing can be effective in ways others approaches are not.
However, with this holistic approach to creative writing I’m not trying to ferry creative writing into any mysterious or rarefied realm. On the contrary, my suggestions are rooted deep in what we all innately tend to do.
I mean, just look at kids. When they want to learn something new, they approach the learning process from a holistic point of view. First of all, they observe someone else doing what they want to. Then they go on trying to put immediately into practice what they have just learned from observation.
Really, it’s a simple process repeated over and over. They observe. They try out the process in first person; get feedback; evaluate such feedback and then try again. Over and over, till they get it. Or decide otherwise.
Really, the difference between great performers and below average ones is often just in the amount of time each devotes to this process. Nowadays we call it deliberate practice. And we work according to its principles, aware of what it entails and why it works.
However, discovering and naming a principle has almost nothing to do with rules.
Indeed, the truth is that we humans can at best come up with sets of rules that at the first chance get as muddy and contradictory as possible. Instead, principles never waver–they represent the skeleton the universe uses to go around.
For example, a rule can be as arbitrary as stating that you cannot eat apples when it rains. A principle instead is something that, irrespective of your following it or not, is always true. Just think of gravity. You can disregard it. But your disregarding it doesn’t weaken it in the least.
Holistic approach to creative writing
In creative writing I would say that rules want to control what you can and cannot do. Principles instead just guide you.
For example, the rule about split infinitives and how they should be avoided is arbitrary. Instead, the principle of clarity is not. I mean, you can always disregard the rule and still write excellent copy. But the opposite is not necessarily true. Indeed, you can follow all the rules and yet have a page that makes no sense at all.
Really, just think about prescriptive grammars. Or about the right side of the road you must drive on. Or the proper etiquette for eating. Or the divine right nobles claimed to have to become kings. And on and on. These are rules that can all be reversed, or erased. They are little more than social conventions.
Instead, when you crash into a wall at sixty miles an hour, the principle of impenetrability of bodies works always the same. Every time. In every place. No matter who is president, or the society you happen to live in.
It hurts, period.
In creative writing it’s the same. Rules can sometimes help us answer some questions about how to organize a sentence. But this is a limited way of looking at writing. In fact, if we wanted to write on purpose a passage full of ambiguous references we should break several rules to reach our intent. In such a case following each and every grammar rule would serve us nothing.
This is why we have to look for principles. Because in this way we can exploit rules–and not being dominated by them. In fact if we look at rules–grammatical, pragmatical or who knows what other kind of them–according to one principle rather than another, we can transform such rules into sort of switches, we can then flip on and off at will.
In fact, illuminated by principles rules cease to be right or wrong per se. They become contextual. Nimble horses able to jump beyond the most difficult obstacles.
To make the concept clear, this is what I mean with a holistic approach to creative writing:
A) The discovery that Marlon had been stealing money from the company for years left Andrew seething with rage.
B) Andrew could not believe what the ledgers told him. But numbers never lie. Marlon instead was an entirely different kettle.
C) Andrew couldn’t believe what he had discovered. His mouth gaping, he stared at Marlon.
We have three different versions of the same event. From a grammatical point of view they are all correct. But depending on the principle we are following we end up choosing one over the others.
Example A is the clearest. I name the thief, what he has done, and also describe Andrew’s feelings.
Reading example B we get to know there’s some sort of a problem with the company ledgers. And that Marlon is a liar.
Finally, in example C things are decidedly less clear. We only know that a discovery is unexpected and that it has most likely something to do with Marlon.
If we had to follow the principle of clarity, we might go for version A. But if we wanted to create suspense, we should follow the principle of vagueness and delayed information. So we might decide C works better.
In another situation, one having to do with the principles of propriety and etiquette we could have the following wordings:
D) Could you please call me back as soon as you have some news?
E) As soon as you have news, call me back please.
F) The moment you hear from them call me back
G) Shut up and call me as soon as you hear from them.
H) Shut up you idiot. And call me the moment you get word from them.
Again, we don’t have versions that are right or wrong from a purely formal point of view–grammatically they all work. But we have versions that are appropriate only under certain circumstances.
In short, grammar and principles have to work together, and principles have to take precedence over grammar if a preference has to be accorded. This is why Elmore Leonard said that proper usage might have to go if it got in the way. Because he couldn’t allow what he had learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
Creative writing and sport training
As we have seen, it’s therefore pointless to compartmentalize, to divide into small independent sections the creative writing process. To stifle it with endless lists of arbitrary rules and no principles.
First of all, learning doesn’t work that way. Not at all. Learning take place when we apply the same process kids instinctively tend to favor.
Sure, it’s a simple process. So simple indeed it seems banal. Yet there’s nothing banal in it. In fact, we as a species managed to survive and thrive thanks to our uncanny ability to observe the behavior of other animals and replicate it.
Most likely our society is the result of mirror neurons. A set of specialized cells able to make us metaphorically enter the mind of other living beings and vicariously experience the world from their point of view.
This is why if we want to improve the way we write, we have to follow in exactly the same way the learning process kids use.
Just as in training coaches and athletes alike have discovered that it’s pointless to force people to break down a complex activity into its elementary components and then only train each one of them separately in turn, I believe the same goes for creative writing.
Because if you write a twenty page story with the only declared objective of focusing on improving your descriptions you will most likely come up with an inconsistent story, full of holes, maybe with no dialogue, and a dozen of other atrocities no creative writer in full possession of his or her faculties would ever commit.
Sure, you would have written a lot of descriptions. And you would have marginally improved your ability to notice details and represent them in interesting ways. But in novels you don’t find descriptions in a void, by themselves. Descriptions have to work with all the other parts of the story you’re writing. And great descriptions in novels are so exactly because they work tremendously well while at the same time never getting in the way of things like story, dialogue, atmosphere, and so on. They organically contribute and adapt to the whole.
And, needless to say, to gain, to hone that kind of sensibility that allow proficient writers to put all those pieces harmoniously together, you have to do just that over and over again. Write a lot. Write for real.
It’s simple, but not necessarily easy
So, stop right now wasting time with narrow minded exercises that teach a little of something and make you lose your feeling for the right proportions you need for a story to flow effectively.
Just write a story you feel deeply about instead. Write it the best you can using the holistic approach to creative writing. Rewrite it as many times as you need. And then put it out there in the wild and ask for feedback.
For sure, some stories will look as curdled as milk sitting about in an unplugged fridge for three days. But even so you should always remember that with curdled milk you can still make cheese. In fact, you can always salvage most of what you write and reuse it for something else.
Lastly, principles are effective also because they can adapt to you in ways rules cannot. In fact, another essential principle of training–the law of individual diffrerences–requires that you know yourself as well as possible. Because everyone has different strengths and weakness, and these need to be taken into consideration. I mean, you need to know what you’re looking out for in your writing, if you’re to check you progress with accuracy.
One last thing. Marlon didn’t steal the money to follow a creative writing course. It was Andrew who misread the ledgers. You know, ignorance is really dangerous.