I’m Not Here to Teach, You’re Here to Learn

I’ve read quite a bit on the subject of writing, everyday actually. I boot up the computer and check out writing sites, I buy a ton of books (new and from discount bins, because some of the best ones have discontinued printing) and I get the magazines. Writing magazines are wonderful. They give quite a bit of targeted advice but I learn the most from the fiction I read.

I write a lot myself, and I edit just as much if not more. Despite all of that, I can’t teach you how to write. I’m not qualified to and even if a piece of paper (doesn’t matter what college or university gives it to you) said I was, it would just be a bunch of crap written in fancy lettering lying and telling me I can do the impossible. Understand this first important rule of writing; no one can teach you how to do it.

You can be taught proper grammar (or as we liked to call it when I was a kid, “Proper English”) and the rules of how to formulate a correct sentence but most of those rules are broken at times by the best writers. For instance an annoying trait I see often is the usage of the word “off”, i.e. “He was off the hook”, when it should be, “He was off of the hook”. It screams lazy to me to leave the “of” out, but I’m sure I do many things others want to yell at me for doing. No one can teach you when to break those rules to create a string of words more beautiful than a Spring blossom covered in morning dew. When to break the rules and when to follow them is a skill you’ll learn for yourself on your journey. Hemingway loved using long sentences strung together with a pile of “and”s in Farewell to Arms and initially I was incredibly infuriated by it, then he won me over. The story was too powerful to let a three letter word hinder my reading it. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to inwardly cringe anytime I find more than one “and” in my own work. At times it is a necessary evil much like the other three letter bane of good writing; “But”. When I sit down to edit my writing I try and eradicate that sneaky bastard as best I can and I owe that piece of advice to Stephen King’s On Writing.

You can be taught the difference between tenses (Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages has a very decent section on the subject as well as the writing manual mainstay, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style). You can be taught the effectiveness of passive versus active sentences. You can be taught characterization or plot structure and it won’t mean you’ve written the great American/Canadian/Chinese/Russian/Etc novel. You can’t be taught that kind of magic. That’s something I’ve learned from everything I’ve read. I have a dozen favorite writers – whose works I feel compelled to buy when I see them on the shelf, without fail – and one of those writers is Clive Barker. Not so much his earlier works, the next statement applies to his later, larger volumes. Barker writes with a magic I cannot fathom. It is a mystery to me. I’ve studied it over and over. The magic is not the subject matter, though his books are filled with it, yet the words, each sentence is magic to read. Coldheart Canyon was lengthy and at times dragged on in despair. I can say that in confidence along with the fact that I could not put the book down and stop thinking about it. The words stayed with me, gnawed actually. His sentences leave me breathless and it has nothing to do with what they are describing. Ask me to explain it. I can’t. I want to learn though. Neil Gaiman has some of that magic in Neverwhere. Ray Garton has a way of making me care about characters that I never knew before until I read Live Girls. Stephen King writes characters that are depicted with a brutal honesty, I appreciate that and think to myself, “Yeah, that’s how I’d react if I were stuck in a store with monsters waiting to eat me just on the other side of the window.” I’ve never known helplessness when reading, the way I felt during my time with Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. These are a few of my gods of writing whose works I read like scripture, trying to glean that secret knowledge – not so I can write like them, so I can learn to write like me. I never want to be referred to as “the next Stephen King” and neither should you. It is perhaps intended as a compliment but don’t short yourself. Be the kind of writer that others are compared to. No one can teach you to be that. Stephen King and all of the other writers I mentioned earlier learned to do what they do by living life and learning from everywhere and that made them unique.

And that’s the thing of it.

I will spend a lifetime learning how to write. Learning everyday from too many sources to name, picking and choosing what will make me the writer I will become next week or the week after. The most important lesson I’ve learned from all of this has been that the writers I most admire have never stopped learning how to write.

They do it by writing. They do it by reading. They do it by listening, and by talking. They do it by doing it and never stopping. These writers devour the written word and regurgitate it onto the page so that what you have is one delicious pile of pages bound to contain it all for our pleasure. Reading it you can learn, become your own form of writer. It won’t be the kind of writer you were taught to be and you shouldn’t be.

Just remember the purpose of this blog series. I’m not here to teach; we’re here to learn. Together.


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