Abraham Verghese, doctor, Stanford professor and accomplished author (if you haven’t read his Cutting For Stone, a masterpiece novel, please do) once famously lamented about the endless writer workshops he has attended and how he now resists them with little success. I recall this as I embark on yet another course in writing that I downloaded from the The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) entitled Writing Great Fiction, Storytelling Tips and Techniques by James Hynes, a series of lectures by a university professor.
When it comes to artistic endeavor I have always been a lone wolf and shunned the company of others. My first foray into this was decades ago with photography. After teaching myself basic technique I sought my own expression and found it over the years. I also stayed away from such common outlets as photo competitions or formal exhibits, preferring to share my pictures with my patients in my own space, my office, and nowadays with my friends on Facebook.I now find myself doing much the same with writing.
The late Tom Clancy commented that writing is not some God given talent that strikes a lucky recipient like lightning.It is a craft that is painstakingly acquired through years of time consuming work and with repetition. As with any art, its foundation is in technique. Without mastery of technique a unique personal expression is impossible. That’s pretty much my story.
I started out in college as a terrible writer in English (I was pretty good in Turkish), and have, over decades, slowly transformed myself through hard work and an internal drive the source of which remains a mystery. I get no monetary reward from what I write, just the self-satisfaction of having surmounted a personal challenge and accomplished a hard-to-reach goal.
After I wrote the first of draft Dogmeat, my first publication, in early 2012, this being my first foray into a serious, large scale project, I decided to take my first writing course. Still shunning the company of others, I did this alone, through a Teaching Company course I downloaded. It was Tilar Mazzeo’s Writing Creative Non-Fiction. I completed it in July 2012 and found it immensely useful in assisting me with concepts of a story arc, how to build suspense and most important, how to write dialogue. A few successful dialogue driven short stories soon followed.
Then in 2013 I did my next course, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, also from The Teaching Company. It was over twenty lectures about the anatomy of a sentence, a boring, pedantic subject. As I endured these lectures while commuting, I wondered if I was getting anything out of them. The nadir was a lecture entitled Paragraph Theory, that I heard on a Wednesday morning before a long day of multiple surgeries at St. Joseph’s Hospital. My O.R. staff listened to my ruminations on this subject that day in disbelief. It turns out there is no paragraph theory. A paragraph is whatever the writer wants it to be. It was immensely boring but good to know.
After I completed the sentence lectures with a sigh of relief, I soon discovered a new output in my sentences. They had, much to my surprise, greatly benefited from the lecture series. Furthermore this course had also imparted in me an understanding of prose rhythm and how to manipulate it. More stories followed with a mix of simple and complex sentences with variable rhythms, as recommended by the teacher.
Now, after completing some seventeen decent fictional stories, having amassed an output that exceeds a hundred thousand words, I embark upon a lecture series on creative non-fiction. Do I really need it? Will it make a difference? Will it be boring?
While I don’t know how boring it’ll be, I know I’ll benefit from it, as I have with the prior ones. As to whether it’ll make a difference I will only know after writing a few pieces having completed the course. Stay tuned.