The one thing I have no recollection of is whether the conventional methodology as I’d been brought up in it had ever worked in a public critique group. All I remember in the years I was told that the foundational structures weren’t optional is how sorry I felt for the person trying to tell me such outdated nonsense.
It took watching eleven of those old guard around a really hot table one really hot August in 2005 when I was so bored out of my gourd I had to pay attention to something else or I was going to have to break out a notebook and write while everyone else paid attention to the current critiquer arguing that foundational structures are still important while the current author was arguing that yeah, structures are important, but they meant to not include them.
There were twelve stories, each being critiqued by twelve writers who all made the exact same points after the second speaker spoke. Not one critique I heard was wrong. Except mine of course. When everyone told me I’d not broken the rules effectively, they just couldn’t understand I’d meant to break them on purpose. I was just so much better at breaking the rules than my peers were.
But we’d turned those stories in months ago. If it had been hot copy as I sent it off, minutes before the deadline, it was cold as ash now. If I’d just written it recently I would have probably agreed with my self-accessment on its misunderstood brilliance, but I’d written so much since that I could read my story as someone else’s cold copy.
And all twelve critiquers were 100% right, as they had been on every other story we’d critiqued. If we all agreed while sitting in a greenhouse for two days while listening to a gross of critiques when we all thought we were the only ones who had broken the rules and still told an effective story, we were all wrong.
Then the reality of that fact that none of us had broken the rules effectively was undeniable.
Every story I sold to that point had broken a significant structure of fiction in a way that served the story meaningfully. All six of them. The other tonne only broke the rules because I couldn’t have shown what I was trying to tell.
I had thought I was just being clever. But so did eleven other writers and a gross of critiques told us we all really should have really shown the reader what is significant so they can attach their own significance to it.
If only it could have possibly been explained that way.
But that’s the problem with axiomatic advice. Once upon a time, back when writers learned to write on their own and learned how to improve as a group, ‘show don’t tell’ was the shorthand they all used because everyone around that table understood that what is told to the reader only asks the reader to remember it.
But teach “show don’t tell” to enough generations of writers under the ideological belief that ‘there are no rules applies to me’ and the axiomatic meaning behind the phrase fades out of existence. Instructors will eventually teach that showing is entirely optional.
Victorian authors sitting in the private salon of some master were there to learn everything they could from anyone they could and they actively strove to improve their craft, or they wouldn’t have been invited to sit in the salon in the first place.
As the creative writing ideology was veering straight for, “we’re all outliers, so this methodology works for us all,” I got off the bus.
There are so many foundational structures that are vital to the creation of deliberate work that can move a reader to continually seek the work out until the story gives them a sense of resolution worth their time invested.
Yet I have read so much work over the past fifteen years by authors absolutely sure that they had nothing left to learn. And yet their work is the model of what a story is. It has the shape of a story and the words of a story. And the characters of a story and the setting of a story and the beautiful language of a story.
But the story itself is too weak to support the beautiful prose that asks nothing from the reader but for appreciation as beautiful prose when buyer’s market of work that has beautiful language and asks the reader to engage with the prose on a deeper level than appreciation exists.
“Writing meaningful, deliberate prose: it’s a lot harder than it looks” is the “Buckley’s. It tastes awful, but it works” of pedagogical approaches, but it’s the only one that is honest to the average learner.
It works a lot better than hoping to be born with an outlier level of raw talent and innate learning ability, while still needing the opportunity to have an excellent education, the right guidance, the practice time to dedicate yourself to a task for hours a day over years, and a life that never throws you any more curveballs than you can handle.
Or be so driven that the need to write that life’s stumbling blocks can’t matter.
Because results may vary if none of those conditions are true. If writing deliberate prose is harder than it looks, the average learner can only succeed in producing it if they want a better reader’s experience.
Providing writers with the tools and craft necessary to evaluate their progress in producing more meaningful work for its ideal reader, even if that ideal reader is the author themselves requires a learner who desires proficiency in their craft.