Friday, October 30, 2009

Education (or not) of a writer

Russel D McLean

This week I saw Iain (M) Banks talking here in Dundee. It’s the first time the man has been on tour in a long time, and the first time I’d seen him since… oh, I think I must have been about sixteen or seventeen when Song of Stone came out. It was strange to hear him talk, especially when asked about his start in writing, because so much of what he talked about related to the way I had gone about this writing gig.

We’re talking:

Writing fiction every time at school when given the choice.

Constantly writing and not realising how big a novel was supposed to be.

The realisation that you could write AND BE PAID!

Choosing uni courses based on what a writer might need.

Yes, bizarrely* we had the same mode of thought when it came to that. I was sitting in my seat shaking my head because, yes, I too had chosen to do three undergrad courses in first and second year on the following logical principles:

1: English because… well, a writer needs it, right? And it’s a good way to check out the competition.

2: Psychology because…. Don’t characters need a psychology?

3: Philosophy because… a book has to be about something, right?

Weirdly, unlike Banks (or at least he didn’t mention this), I found doing English to be a detriment both in terms of my writing and my reading. Maybe it was the lecturers I had, maybe the choice of books, but I found that my reading for pleasure decreased markedly and that I wasn’t writing so well either when my brain was filled with “themes” and “metaphor” and all those other things that a critic might need, but a writer is better off without.

This really hit home when I did a single honours in Philosophy through third and fourth year. What I found was that I read more fiction when I was not studying English and, strangely, I connected with it more than I had ever done through the course. Perhaps because some of it took a while to rub off on me, but it was thanks to philosophy I realised something:

Studying English (or English criticism) will not (necessarily) help you become a better writer because it teaches you the skills of a critic, a deep reader, not those of a writer. And, yes, they are two very different fields.

The skillsets for studying English, for understanding a text are not the same as those required for creating a text. It took me a long time to realise this and to separate my critical self and my creative self. By freeing myself of pre-conceived notions of how a reader might interpret my work, I think I was able to create more natural stories that worked on levels I might not even be consciously aware of (certainly, some interpretations of both TGS and TLS have surprised and delighted me including a couple of political readings I would never have considered had they not been pointed out to me).

I realised that as a writer, I am not concerned with interpretation so much as I am impact. I want my writing to hit readers in the gut in some way, touch them on an emotional level. Anything else is just gravy and flows naturally from that.

As to the other two subjects, well, psychology was abandoned after first year for history. Partly because I never felt that confident in the subject and also because I confounded some of the department’s analytical computer programs that seemed to diagnose me as a neurotic psychotic.

(okay, get the jokes over with now, folks).

And philosophy…

I can never say for certain what impact it had on my writing, because the subjects I write about seem very far removed from what fascinated me as a student (I was never deeply connected to ethics, finding it as a subject too bogged down in details that detracted from the questions that genuinely impacted on day to day life). In fact, much of what I studied seemed more suited to my initial dream of becoming an SF writer (particularly working with the mind/body problem). But then, perhaps something about philosophy – about constructing an argument, creating a coherent and cogent worldview – is more suited to the fiction writer than studying how to critique and take fiction apart.

All in all, of course, I’m happy with the choices I made at uni. And despite some of my misgivings, taking English – even if only for two years – was something that helped me to understand the way my mind worked and the way that I saw fiction and my approach to it as a reader and a writer. And I have to admit that going back to the department last year to talk to current students about my work and crime fiction was a fascinating experience, and one I’m hoping to be able to repeat this year. Because while we work in very different ways, it is a very good thing for writers and critics to keep up a dialogue.

*Although I wonder how bizarrely – after the event, I remembered that I saw Banks do a gig back when I was about 17. Something about the way he told the story tonight struck so close a chord I have to wonder if maybe he told it back then and it wormed its way into my brain, playing a part in my weird logic when it finally came to choosing my courses.


Anonymous said...

John Scalzi said he took philosophy, not because it'd help his writing (though he says it did), but because it was a major that allowed him to take whatever classes he wanted. So he spent four years learning "stuff," then became a journalist, a critic, and now an author.

Notice he didn't take English.

John McFetridge said...

In Banks' Espedair Stree is one of my all-time favourites.

I also started in English and changed to history, though for different reasons.

I do think learning a little about deconstructionism and literary criticism has helped me, but it took a long time for it to settle in and have much effect.

There are some aspects of contructing a story and developing characters that can be like learning music. I had a guitar teacher once ask me, "Do you want to learn any music theory, ordo you just want to learn to play songs?" (it bugged me a little that I was twenty years old, had a daughter and a job and he was a high school kid, but I realized he wasn't being smug, he really just wanted to know)

Jay Stringer said...

I've definatley been on the 'learning stuff' route rather than following anything resembling a career path or a logical structure.

i quit uni six months from the end of a three year course. Clever choice that. I was mainley doing film studies, and i've found that the practical experience of writing, shooting and editing films has been far more useful to storytelling and writing than the theoretical analysis done in the classroom.