A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop on effective characterization. The speaker talked about how he reads books on writing on a regular basis, to work harder on his craft. I came away primarily with the thought that I should do likewise. And I should. But I looked at some of the techniques he suggested, in light of the book I’m writing right now–and lo and behold, I use these very and varied techniques. Without being entirely conscious of them.
I often have a strange reaction when I listen to Writers and Company on CBC: rather than envy or a longing to be on the program, I feel a certain degree of dread about What If I Were Ever On This Show? Because, it seems, good writers know exactly what they are doing, well enough to be able to explain it, to parse it, to theorize and extemporize about it.
This may mean I’m not a good writer. As I’ve said, I do think I would benefit from reading more theory and technique on writing. Whenever I do, I do benefit.
I also think something else is at play, however. And that is a combination of osmosis and intuition. Osmuition, if you will.
What I read, constantly and voraciously, is fiction. I read nonfiction and memoir occasionally, particularly if there’s a good story in it, but I read fiction at about the same rate and frequency as I eat meals. I live a kind of fiction immersion. Like other immersions–I think of French or other languages — there is something that is caught more than taught, just in the process of letting it wash over you. (Again, I feel a need to emphasize that it isn’t either/or; that I know that the workshop speaker reads and reads all sorts of fiction, that all good writers do.)
When it came to parenting, I actually read very little theory–until I needed it. I know people who were paralyzed by conflicting Parenting Experts, people who disobeyed their gut instincts to follow said experts. I didn’t want that to happen to me and my kids, and I don’t want it to happen to me and my writing.
Listening to my gut has stood me in good stead on a number of occasions, in life, and also in story. I listen really hard to dialogue, to characters, to plot, to story arcs. I listen for what rings false — in someone else’s writing or my own.
Fiction immersion makes me think of what I read once about anti-counterfeiters: that what they do mostly is study intently genuine legal tender so that when a bill is in question, they immediately know whether it matches that thing they know so well or not.
How about you? When you read or write, are you informed more by theory or by intuition?