The one and only creative writing class I took was in third year of my undergrad studies. I was taking play/screenwriting from the Drama department at the same time, but I wanted a rounder view of storytelling to accompany learning how to construct a script. I signed up for a short story writing course – where, let’s be honest, I handed in a lot of thinly-disguised fanfic – and looked forward to finding the deep, intellectual, creative camaraderie that one sees in films about groups of writers.
There were eleven of us, and I remember four other people from the class distinctly. Two, because they were fanficcers like me (and friends to this day), who also like me learned some things from the class but mostly had been taught all the basics of storytelling and grammar from the online fanfic community.
There was an older woman who really should have been in a memoire writing class over a short story class. I always got partnered with her because I seemed to be the only one who bothered to take the time to explain to her that just because “that’s how it happened in real life” doesn’t mean that’s exactly how it should happen on the page, especially when you only have 5 000 words and no space to waste them.
And then there was him.
You know who I mean.
The self-important, ego-centric, hipster (though we didn’t have that word yet) cis straight white guy who idolizes Hemingway and reads Mein Kampf in public as a deliberate act of protest and discusses Hitler’s wordcrafting as if his politics were never the problem, and doesn’t believe that Writing is a skill you have to practice and improve upon. Someone who doesn’t use an editor because “every word out of my pen is perfect the moment I set it down” and who thinks the publishing industry is just a sad money-grab for hack writers getting suckered by greedy agents, but still not-so-secretly desperately wants to be an Oprah Selection, a New York Times best seller, and Nobel Prize winner.
At the end of the semester, we had to write a short story using some set of elements, which we would all then spend the last few classes critiquing for one another. I left That Guy’s for last because I know I would enjoy it least.
When I finally got to it – printed out, typeset in courier new and bound with a brass brat – looked like this:
Onceuponatimetherewasacircusclownwho jumped all day upand down ona trampolinemadeoutof thehair of a beautifulgray mare whoneverletanyone brusherhairbuttheclownHelloOldGirlthe clownsaidto heronedayas he pushedbacktehdustyredflap of the circustentinwhichthe oldgraymarelikedto spendhertimebetween herperformances
But it looked like that for five goddamn pages.
When it came time to discuss That Guy’s story, everyone looked around the table, not wanting to go first. Someone said something about the metaphor of the clown, someone else said something tentatively about the color of the prose, and then everyone looked at me.
It was awful, their eyes said. You do it.
(I had, at that point, garnered a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a Stone Cold Bitch when people were Trying To Be Clever in class. At that point I was writing, reading, and critiquing for two creative writing courses, as well as somehow writing a play for the theatre department and maintaining a mildly successful fanfiction series on Fanfiction.net, and providing Beta Reads for other folks in the fanfic community, keeping up with homework for three other courses, and working part-time at McD’s and another job postering for the Centre for the Arts. I think this was also the Year of LARP. I had No Time For Shenanigans.)
I hesitated, and then I finally said, “To be frank, I never read the damn thing.” There were gasps around the table, and the professor murmured something about it being part of the course. I held up the page – more black than white – and said, “It’s unreadable. It might be a great story, but I will never know because he has intentionally made it a frustrating, difficult experience. I got eye strain trying to figure out the sentences and fatigue from the mental work of understanding. I was so caught up in translating the text that I missed what the story is completely.”
There was some bluff and bluster about the story maybe just being too clever for me from That Guy, and the professor smirked and then looked away quickly.
And I said: “Listen, you ever wanna make money on this? You never will. Not if you pull stupid stunts like this. It feels like you’re condescending to your audience, you’re trying to trick them, and it’s too hard to read. Nobody will pay for you to laugh at them.”
“But the story is good!” someone else in the class protested. (I was perhaps being a bit too harsh, and I think they were trying to soften the blow.)
“I never found a story,” I replied. “The text wouldn’t let me into it. I was locked out by the style. I’m sure there’s a story on the other side of this brick wall of words, but I couldn’t get access to it. And if it’s that hard for me, and I am paying for the privilege of being in this class and reading these stories, imagine how much less inclined a paying audience will be to spend the time to understand it.”
The Guy huffed and crossed his arms and slumped and said, “So, I should dumb down my work?”
And I said, “No, you should work on your work. Standardized punctuation and grammar exist for a reason. They exist so the words don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell. Not knowing the rules and not even trying to learn them is not the same as making a deliberate stylistic choice to break them.” (I might have had a chip on my shoulder from earlier in the semester when I had to teach the fool what a bloody hard return was actually for in dialogue.)
That Guy starting pouting and everyone looked to the Professor. He shrugged and said: “She’s not wrong.”
I don’t know what mark he got on the story, but I do know that he was made to rewrite and hand it in again.
So what does this anecdote illustrate? Why did I bring this up?
Because when I think back to that story, when I think back to what happened, I still get angry and frustrated. I feel like a child trying to express the way-to-big-emotions that are filling up my still-so-tiny body and just crying and screaming because that’s my only tool of communication. I hate the story, and I hate that writer, and I hate the fact that he was trying to trick me in some way and it was all just so weakly obvious and condescending.
Now do I really hate his story? No, I never read it so I don’t actually have an opinion of it. Do I really hate That Guy? No, of course not. Do I really think that he was trying to deliberately trick me? No.
But it feels like it.
I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his story. I don’t even really remember what he looked like. But I remember how he made me feel.
And for readers, how a book makes them feel is so much more a part of the experience of reading than the wordcrafting. People talk about how stories make them feel all the time – in reviews, in blurbs, to friends and neighbors. Writing sells because of how it makes people feel.
But a story can’t make anyone feel anything if they can’t figure out how to read it.
Now, I’m not advocating for ‘lowest possible denominator dumb it down’ writing. I’m advocating for clear, easily understandable communication.
“Style” is word choice, and imagery choice, and how long your sentences are and where you break up paragraphs. It’s about how you write out dialogue and accents, and what parts of the story you choose to tell, and whose POV you tell it from. It’s about how you play with the musicality of the rhythm of the words. Its about which rules you decide to break, and how, and how consistently you do so in order to convey something extra and beyond in the prose. (Breaking a rule should always be a consistently-applied deliberate choice that adds something to the reader’s understanding of the story, rather than taking away).
I’m not saying don’t have style.
I’m saying that the moment style gets in the way of story, then it’s gone too far.
Style should always add, and not detract.
Think of a story like a set of stairs. Style should be the escalator going up, helping readers get to the destination smoothly. It shouldn’t be an escalator going down, so your reader has to huff and puff and fight against it to get to the end of the book.
When figuring out a style for your tale, build an uppy escalator. Not a downy one.
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