Literary Martial Arts

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

8 thoughts on “Literary Martial Arts

  1. The difference is in what your aim is – do you want people to walk away from a piece thinking: “Wow, that was very interesting writing!” or “Wow, that was a great story!”. Do you want them to think about the characters and settings themselves, or the descriptions of the characters and settings? I actually think they’re both valid approaches, based on what counts as “literature”, but one is certainly more marketable than the other.

    1. Great illustration as to the difference. I guess it boils down to being true to oneself… one’s own writing voice. I think we can stretch our boundaries, but we’ll never feel completely comfortable writing outside of our innate orientation. That’s one reason that writers like Lewis, who were so successfully in a wide range of genres, are rare.

  2. “When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.”
    WOW Singer’s quotes are so on target for me.
    When people nitpick about a causal/small piece here and there, I always feel like saying /defending a young writer or myself “You understood perfectly what the action/person/meaning was, so what if there’s a flaw in the writing? The whole point of writing is to get to the end and enjoy it…not to dissect every little thing (disclaimer: not for major publisher fictional works…great expectations there)
    But as you say it all depends on style and purpose of writing. My nonfiction and academic writing is very precise with much analysis of wording and phrases.
    Lewis was solid about clear and concise, words not drawing attention to themselves, but building towards the writing’s purpose.
    Words are a bit like puppies – fun to play with sometimes (when you don’t have to herd the livestock or fight the wolves?)
    (Thanks, another author to explore…And very cool about your own WIP!)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, if you enjoy legal thrillers, you’ll need to check out Singer’s books. My niche of preference is alternative histories (preferably, with an ancient twist). That’s why I found the one about the Roman courtroom rather interesting…

  3. And yet, Lewis adored the works of George MacDonald. He acknowledged MacDonald’s failures, but part of loving that man’s work is loving the language of it. The man was more than half poet, and so what Lewis.

    And therin lies a subtlety. Poetry is, I think, ultimately about refining word-choice. The exact word in the right place and nothing to spare. Prose gives a little more leeway, but the principle transfers.

    So… in one regard, I agree with Singer. If he means that, in writing, language should serve communication, not itself, then I agree. But just as there is such a thing as purple prose, there is also such a thing as beige prose.

    All depends on what one means to communicate, aye? Sometimes the flowery word is needed. The challenge is figuring out what is needed and what isn’t, and I think that comes with practice, reading, and getting feedback.

    If I want my reader to feel as if they are walking into a valley, I’d better communicate some of the richness of that experience. To under-describe would be a failure in communication. Like with painting, there’s such a thing as under-working, just as there is such a thing as over-working. ^_^

    1. Very thoughtful and astute. The only thing I’d quibble with is “the exact word in the right place…” I can agree with that, if the poet him or herself is the judge of what is exactly right. Not if the matter is left to readers. Poetry, more than other genres, is subjective. Perhaps due to the import of each word, it is subject to the “tastes” of readers. If not, we should all concur on what constitutes “good” poetry. And, of course, even poetry aficionados can voice strong differences of opinion.

      1. I quibble with my own typo… “so what Lewis” should be “so was Lewis!”

        This is one case where I’d prefer to err on the side of the writer being right and the reader mistaken. Not that a poet always uses the best word possible, but that he or she probably chooses the word specifically, and may, in doing so, effectively communicate to someone, though not to everyone. In other words perhaps, if I don’t like word “x,” it is because I fail, on some level, to understand what is being communicated, or my vocabulary comprehension doesn’t quite match up with the way the writer uses a word.

        There are sloppy poets out there, but I don’t mean them. I mean poems that, whatever our opinion of them, are obviously very intentional.

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