Sometimes, not too often, but still often enough, I get a student who believes that what you say in a work is less important than the way you say it.
“It’s all style, man! Who cares what it’s about?”
Yes, dear friends. These poor unfortunates are still with us.
Stories, if they’re to be considered at all, are just excuses to exercise one’s style – or should I put quotes around that word? Because what “style,” as these students practice it, consists of, for the most part, are certain distinctive traits of other authors placed in other contexts by the students emulating them. They insist they’re being “themselves,” but they’re really trying on stuff, experimenting, exercising – trying to figure out not who they are, but who they want to be – which is perfectly okay. That’s how you do it. That’s how you find out who you are: as a person, as a writer – as a person who is a writer. They don’t know it yet, but they will eventually.
How do I know?
I used to be one of them.
Back in the 1970s, when there were so many styles to choose from, like so many different hats to try on. And the “literary” side of the street had grown bored with telling stories. More so: they believed it was all in the technique, that the pyrotechnics was the show, and to settle on telling a compelling story to an audience was to lower yourself as an artist. It was like designing a chair that someone might actually enjoy sitting in. How dull! How utilitarian!
The artists above, the rabble below.
Usually, I shrink back from using terms like “elitist,” because they’re usually engaged in political forums and take on political taints that can’t be rinsed off. But one cannot view aesthetics that distinguish “highbrow” from middlebrow, to lowbrow, to no-brow, without feeling a sort of tyranny of exclusivity. “Don’t try this at home, kids. This is high art we’re talking here. Go back to your comic books.”
Well, move over, literati! I was going to show them what real art was all about.
Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a mind that was particularly attuned to nuance. It wouldn’t surprise me if I wasn’t alone in that, back then, for kids my age, with overactive imaginations and a great yearning to be nearly anywhere except where they were. I wanted spectacle and pyrotechnics and just about anything that blew a hole through the status quo.
I liked the nouvelle vague movies and experimental films that were all quick cutting and filters and effects and jumping around in the narrative, and interminglings of fantasy and brutal realism. I liked the dynamic perspectives of Jim Steranko comics and the surrealism of Steve Ditko (I was more in love with his work on Dr. Strange than anything he did with Spiderman). When I discovered New Wave science fiction, I was all for it. The less I understood of what I read, the better I thought it must have been.
“Wow! This is totally incomprehensible! It must be a work of genius!”
I wanted literature to be a huge ladle dipped into the unbridled unconscious, spread out on the page without benefit of organization or interpretation. The stranger the better. In music, I was thrilled by Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, The Stooges. I was looking for new languages and new grammar in visual expression, in sounds, in written works. No boundaries. No horizons. No walls. No “end” title.
Problem was, I didn’t know what I was rejecting, or if I was rejecting anything by embracing all these apparent manifestations of “the new” (And some of it, in spite of my generalizations, really were brilliant and wonderful; on an instinctual level, I was pretty good; on an intellectual or aesthetic level, I was a complete idiot).
I learned the history of literature backwards – of culture in general. I started with experimental writers and worked my way, years later, back to Chaucer and Beowulf.
Problem was, I didn’t know shit. I didn’t care, either.
But the further my interests went, the further I wanted – needed – to know more of that history.
One of the insights I picked up, as I increased my knowledge and experience, was that much of what I thought of as innovative had roots that went back to the very origins (or as far back as we could find) of the forms that interested me. For example, no postmodernist impressed me more than Sterne, Fielding and Cervantes.
Every age is an age of innovation and discovery. Some of these eras get more attention than others, and the attention varies from subsequent era to era. One period of the past speaks, or reflects, or echoes, a later age more directly than others. That’s when an author, or a whole era of literature is “rediscovered.”
Eventually, it became clear to me what had probably been clear to most of my contemporaries all along: innovations and experimentations in art forms are a means and not an end. The most successful explorations of “style” are the product of necessities driven by other needs. Something we want to say or tell can’t be told any other way.
We do what we have to do to make the work of art we want to make. While we’re doing it, we call it, “getting the job done.” Afterward, we may call it “style,” but rarely before. Style is something someone else calls your writing. You just call it “work.”
Simple enough, but it took me about thirty-one years to get there.
Now, it becomes my job to guide students away from the excesses in which I indulged, and produced reams and reams of unreadable drivel.
Can I do it? Maybe with some students. With others, no.
This is both good and bad. Good because the itinerant student in question has the intrinsic stubbornness that makes for a good writer. But that only works when the writer is, well, right. If not, the writer will spend a long, long time (like me) finding out that the hill chosen to die upon is actually two hills over.
We all live and learn. Some faster than others, but we learn. If you ever stop, it’s almost as if you’ve stopped being a writer. You’re just going through the motions.
Never sacrifice clarity to style. Style should enhance clarity, otherwise it’s holding you back.
Never sacrifice story to style, otherwise you’re just putting fancy wrapping paper around an empty package.
So I think: what the hell do I know? I’m just a guy who stumbled into a teaching job, and what I know about writing should be considered suspect at best. What does someone who really knows about writing have to say?
The nearest book on writing at hand is Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold. I open it up at random and the gods of serendipity smile upon me.
You have to know what you want to say.
If you have no clear goal, then you’re just fumbling around, smearing paint on canvas, pounding randomly on the piano keys, and throwing yourself about on the stage in semblance of a performance. If you don’t really know what you’re evoking, then all the exercises of style and form and tense and person will not disguise it.
On the previous page (233), in describing the New Wave sf writers:
In the breakaway from traditional form, what had also occurred was a disinheritance of the storytelling structure. Much of this experimentation was necessary, creating an important expansion of the range of ideas and treatments available to authors, yet it also gave comfort to the idea that traditional forms were worthless and should be discarded. The result, for a while, was a nihilistic abandonment of story.
Fortunately, this trend didn’t last long –
That’s the word from David Gerrold, and he does, without dispute, know a thing or two about writing.
So – do what you have to do. And may the light shine upon you sooner rather than later.