-Phyllis A. Whitney
As writers, it is easy to fall into the myth that inspiration is a necessity of the profession. There is a misconception--and often, an expectation--that good writing simply flows from the writer's pen onto the page and is never again edited or trashed. Writers are, in both stereotype and perceived tradition, inspired beings, men and women who see the world as a beautiful place when others cannot, who are so compelled towards writing that they are not able to function unless their stories are told. Outsiders who subscribe to the stereotypical view of the writing world imagine scenes of candle-lit, fervid scribbling in leather-bound notebooks that contain all the emotion and urgency of Mozart's death scene(essentially) in Amadeus. They believe writing to emerge, fully grown, from the writer's thoughts, perfect manuscripts spouted from the mouth of angels. I know this because it is the exact mentality I once had, before I became a writer.
John Gardner says within The Art of Fiction, "...it comes about that books are taught (officially, at least) not because they give joy, the incomparably rich experience we ask and expect of all true art, but because, as a curriculum committee might put it, they 'illustrate major themes in American literature,' or 'present a clearly stated point of view...'."
We are conditioned, through the American education system, to believe in the perfectibility of the novel. We are given the examples which have risen above, and, whether or not they apply to our lives as 21st century teenagers, they are the model works of literary history. As a teacher myself, I can see the benefits of such a system. Students learn the standard by which to uphold other work, and understand what a picture of a great novel looks like.
But, for the burgeoning writer, this system does a disservice. It is my opinion that the debates which occur around fiction are the most beneficial literary lessons for a writer to be a part of. By hearing both sides of an argument, the writer begins to see that fiction is wholly subjective, which is most of the beauty of it. And there is little opportunity to critique a novel if it has been revered as an example of classic literature for hundreds of years. Students are spoon-fed academic support for classic novels. They are told to applaud its elements, and rarely focus on scenes or plot points which do not work. They may not find the plot twists of Pip's mysterious benefactor to have much verisimilitude, but their opinion rarely has a place in their English classroom.
By focusing on the classics for the sake of their teachability (their ease of being deconstructed and re-built time and again), young writers do not see the process of writing, the possibility for failure and the struggles of an author. Because they only critique the best and most academically acceptable works of fiction, students can easily believe novels to be easy to write. As they become familiar with literature, they are encouraged to hold authors up to a standard of excellence, lauding their genius. They are taught that Twain and Shakespeare were exceptional human beings, chosen ones who were given a gift which high school students studying their work can only dream of (Can you tell that Heroes has been my go-to instant streaming chioce on Netflix lately?).
I am not urging teachers to swap out their ...Red Badge of Courage lesson plans for weeks devoted to Twilight or Harry Potter (Although there is of course an argument for both sides). Nor am I blaming my teachers or education system for the fact that I walked away with the impression that writing was somehow a holy, inspired act. I am simply realizing, in my own transition from reader to writer, that I had built up writing as something unattainable, a profession which I was not worthy of being a part of. I knew that I didn't have the next Wuthering Heights roaming around inside my mind, and so found writing inaccessible.
What I did not realize throughout most of my high school career was the structure required to write great fiction. Because I analyzed each book in my high school class not for its parts but for its success as a whole--the recurrance of its motifs, its affect on culture--I retained the misconception that writing is not hard work. I did not see that, just like everything else, writing takes education and practice. It is only now, while on the verge of being swallowed whole by the disorganization of my own manuscript, that I realize the process of writing a novel. I realize that if I wait around for that myth of inspiration, the voice from above calling me to fufill my duty as the next nobel-prize winning author, the work will never be finished.
Some days, writing does feel like an inspired act. We are eager to wake up and get to work on the manuscript, we feel encouraged by the world around us and ready to tackle our own vision on paper. But those days are few and far between. I have come to learn that, even on the days I dread working out the small kinks in my novel, on the days I run into a wall and become wholly discouraged, the work itself brings about inspiration. If I start typing, the ideas will come (cue voiceover from Field of Dreams), and I will feel accomplished not because the chapter was a breeze to write, but because I was able to work through the issues until they became manageable; I was able to throw myself into the work with all the fervor of Mozart's brilliance. Because, when you know the building blocks and are dedicated to their lessons, you can make it all look easy.
Photo Credit: Gregory Colbert