Thursday, April 18, 2013

Of Fiction Writers and English Majors

I was thinking recently about something John Gardner says in his book On Becoming a Novelist. He says that taking an English major in college isn't necessarily the best route for someone who wants to be a writer. He suggests instead that you major in another field in which you're greatly interested, so you have something to write about; or that you major in philosophy so you know what questions are important; or psychology so that you understand people; and that whatever your major, you consider aiming toward an occupation you like but that won't eat up all your time (or that can be part-time) so you can write. The main problem when writers major in literature, Gardner says, is that literature scholars and writers read differently. Lit scholars are constantly considering theme and symbolism, and say that writers are "showing" us things, or "demonstrating," "depicting," or "exemplifying" things. Writers consider the story, and read to see how storytelling effects are achieved. Lit scholars take literature apart. Writers put it together.

Gardner's book gave voice to a lot of feelings I had when I was a teen, secretly wanted to be a writer, and ultimately decided not to be an English major. Already, English classes had about destroyed reading for me. I could no longer choose reading matter that wasn't sufficiently highbrow, couldn't decline to read something that bored me silly, couldn't enjoy a story without dreading the questions about symbolism, theme, and what the author was "saying" that would be asked in class the next day. My jr. high English teacher, who mainly taught HS English, once assigned our class to write a "novelette." I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. In presenting this assignment, by way of encouraging appropriate length, he said, "Maybe you'll spend an entire page describing one little flower petal." Gak, I thought. No, that is not what you do. Another time, he asked the class whether we thought a writer invests great thought into placing every single symbol in the story just so. It was very hard for me to buck a teacher, but I said, paraphrased, "No, they don't. They write a story and some of it just happens." He didn't reply, just smiled the small amused smile he usually wore when a student stepped in it. But this was one of those rare occasions when I didn't care if I gave the right answer in the eyes of the teacher. I knew I had this one nailed. And even though I continued to ace his English classes and all the ones through high school, I knew I couldn't wait to leave formal lit study behind.

So what makes me think of all this now? I think it's the new emphasis I see on outlining and structure today, compared to the pantsing that most writers seemed to be doing when I started out. I remember reading an article in The Writer in which the author spoke of "how gropingly" her novels were put together. Most everyone else said the same. But now we are all about first and second plot points, midpoints, beating it out, storyboarding, six core competencies, Story A and Story B, and in some cases even declaring that, for example, the theme shall be stated on p. 5 (or 4.5% of the way in). Don't get me wrong: I find many of these ideas fascinating and helpful, and I've become more of a planner as a result. I suspect the emphasis has swung in this direction because we are looking for the key to standing out in this competitive market. But it also makes me wonder if the writer is thinking a little more like the lit student these days.

18 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Nice point. Just like with anything, we can't become too obsessed on one thing to make our stories better. :)

Barbara Watson said...

So interesting! I'm an English Ed major who also writes, albeit much more recently I write. The teaching goes way back. And I do enjoy a symbol that's well-developed or a theme that's presented in a way as not to beat the reader over the head. But...when I write I find that symbols (if there are any) grow organically. I don't think about them. And theme is what readers make of my writing. I don't write with one in mind. At least these are my hopes. :-)

Faith E. Hough said...

I was an English (creative writing) major for a few weeks...at which point I stopped myself and decided I wanted to spend all that tuition money on something I couldn't learn on my own. I know that sounds arrogant, but I knew I would always be reading and writing and analyzing my own work--on the other hand, I loved languages and knew that I would have a much harder time learning them proficiently on my own. So I majored in Spanish and Education--and learned something that expanded my mind in ways it wasn't already going.
I have to say that I love analyzing literature: finding themes, allusions, etc. BUT I totally agree that the author of a great book usually just writes and lets those things happen. Perhaps as a Christian I see this differently than some writers, but I think that if we open ourselves to the work that God is sending, He will make it so much better than we could ever plan for it to be. (You will recognize this idea from Madeleine L'Engle. :)
I do outline and plan...but I think plot planning is different than meaning or theme planning. I don't tend to notice themes (other than foggy ideas) until I've finished a few drafts of the book; sometimes I can go through and strengthen them at that point, but I can't imagine trying to pencil them in.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Everyone finds what works for them, I guess. I call myself a semi-pantser because I don't know any other way to describe how I put a story together.

Vijaya said...

Great post. I would never have dreamed of majoring in literature even though I loved it because I was far too practical -- and the love of science was too strong to do anything else really. Win-win situation, I suppose. So I was a scientist who read avidly, and not just research papers :)

I think you had it spot on about authors not consciously planting *everything* -- some of it just happens -- and I'm discovering this in my own writing. Now that I'm on my fifth draft of my historical, I think I finally *know* what it's really about. Okay, I'm slow.

Marcia said...

Laura -- That's so true.

Barbara -- Yes, symbols grow organically. I think there are probably symbols in our stories that we don't even catch.

Faith -- I think that's a really good point. Some subjects lend themselves better to self-study than others, and I think writing does.

Lee -- I think semi-pantsing is actually pretty common. Most pantsers seem to go with some sort of guidelines.

Vijaya -- Yes, I think it can take drafts before we know what it is we're dredging up!

Mirka Breen said...

This echoes my mind on every level. When it comes to art, I think you have to *DO*- not take classes "about," period. But being a culturally literate person is a treasure in itself.
This means you don't have to take how-to-write classes. But a curious person would be reading anyway.

Andrea Mack said...

Such a thought-provoking post! I was just thinking about how thinking too much about the mechanics and structure behind the story sometimes seems to take away from the raw emotion of the experience.

Marcia said...

Mirka -- Doing is essential; classes are often helpful but dispensable in a way that doing is not. I'm all for self-education in something a person is passionate about, though.

Andrea -- I do think it's possible to craft the heart out of something. We have to be watchful of that.

Kelly Hashway said...

English major here. LOL. I've heard if you want to go into writing, you should major in marketing. I think I agree with that.

Marcia said...

Kelly -- I think that opinion about majoring in marketing is becoming wider-spread!

Carmella Van Vleet said...

This is precisely why I didn't major in English either. Great post!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

When I started writing, all I knew was you had a beginning, middle, and end. Now I know it's more complex than that. I don't remember learning it in high school. All I remember was figuring out theme, which I could never do.

Marcia said...

Carmella -- I also didn't want to read "boring classics" or end up with a teacher who asked questions I didn't know how to respond to. Unfortunately, English classes had kind of killed reading for me. Ha -- maybe I just never really graduated past Middle Grade. :)

Stina -- Yeah, I was never very good at stating the theme, either. I could probably do better now. But it seems to me that studying both literature and history improves with age and life experience.

Medeia Sharif said...

I double majored in English and psychology. Looking back, English enhanced my love for literature but didn't really do much for my writing. Actually, in my teens and early twenties I tried too hard with themes and symbols, which made my writing unrealistic.

Marcia said...

Medeia -- My daughter double-majored in those same fields. :) I did the same thing as you when I wrote in my teens and 20s! I tried too hard with symbols and themes, because of that influence from English classes even though I didn't major in it. It really turned me into a bad writer for a while.

Daisy Carter said...

What an excellent point, Marcia. I loved the "lit" part of english classes, and I wonder if that doesn't affect my writing sometimes. I don't write page long descriptions of flower petals (yikes!), but I do tend to write with theme and symbolism in mind.

As for all the plotting, etc, well, I'm definitely guilty of teaching it over at my blog. But I am definitely a discovery writer during my first draft. I've tried so hard to follow a formula or outline during a first draft, but it always ends up stifling me. So, I write a draft and then implement all of the beats/points/etc.

Excellent, excellent post.

Marcia said...

Daisy -- I find that symbols surprise me in my writing. Something will come up and I'll go, "Oh, that's actually sort of a symbol." I find that themes are more planned, and symbols more spontaneous.