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Study with Integrity

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Last week, a writer told me about how he had written a story several years ago that went on to win a Finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. He then applied to a university to learn how to write, and his prose had gotten much richer and more powerful, but, increasingly, he no longer enjoyed writing, and couldn’t stay motivated.

I’ve heard this story from dozens of writers, time and time again.

I had a similar problem with college writing courses. I had long been a fan of fantasy and science fiction, what I prefer to call “Wonder Literature,” but when I went to college, most of my writing teachers tried to put a halt to that. Genre literatures—such as wonder lit, romance, horror, Westerns, and so on—weren’t considered “real literature.”

Instead, the teachers wanted us to write for the literary market—magazines like the The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. The instructors’ focus was often on learning how to write in a post-Modern realist style, where one ignored story structure and engaging concepts and instead focused at creating an elevated style.

Everything that I learned at the university was immensely valuable; however, I didn’t learn how to write fantasy or science fiction there. In fact, if I’d applied all of the principles I learned, it would have ruined me as a genre writer. I didn’t learn much about plotting or how to analyze an audience. Instead, I felt like this young author—as if I were slowly having the joy sucked out of me.

The problem of course was simple. I wanted to write stories that took readers on journeys through imaginary worlds. My interests were directly opposed to those of Realist writers like the Nobel Prize-winners Hemingway, Joyce, or Faulkner. Indeed, many educators denigrate all genre writers as being frivolous, despite the fact that most of their literary heroes—Milton, Homer, Dickens—were all fantasists. Even the great William Shakespeare experimented with it in tales like “Macbeth,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “The Tempest.”

As I got deeper into my studies, I found that many Realists not only detested all genre literature, some were opposed to the idea of telling “stories” at all. The very idea of a “story” you see, is a lie. A story is an ordered sequence of meaningful events. But how, they argue, can you have an ordered sequence of events in the real world, where the universe just throws randomness at you? And how can you find meaning in chaos?

In short, the whole idea of telling formed stories designed to arouse a sense of wonder, or romance, or horror, or mystery is all absurd. Okay, I decided, let’s agree to disagree about life. I don’t think it is random, chaotic, and meaningless.

Not only did I find that some instructors were opposed to teaching us how to write such stories, they couldn’t teach how to write them! They had never studied beyond the fundamentals. Asking a Realist to teach a fantasy writer is like asking a physicist to teach your alchemy class. The instructor will just stand there in a stupor.

Many writing teachers couldn’t teach how to write a beautifully formed story with a discrete beginning, middle, and end. Some of them had no idea how to make a character that readers would like and root for. Many of them were opposed to the idea of writing powerfully emotionally evocative scenes.

So, as a new writer I found myself struggling to write stories that I liked and cared about. Yes, I was learning to write better stylistically, but I was finding it difficult to tell stories that moved me. I might win awards and get the pieces published, but thirty years later, I’m not a fan of those pieces.

But why write stories that don’t engage you? It’s like cooking a feast that you wouldn’t eat. We have Thanksgiving coming, and to be honest, I don’t really care for turkey anymore. Should I spend a day creating a feast that I don’t want?

Why not cook a feast that I crave to eat? Why not learn to write from someone who practices the craft that you love?

Many new writers ask, “Should I go to the university to study writing,” and the answer is simple: With the right mentor, you can learn to write at a university, but watch out. If you get the wrong mentors, it can be soul-destroying. You have to know what you’re looking for.

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