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.