Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to Write

Recently, I signed up on a website to serve as a tutor in English and History in my area. Doing this got me to thinking about teaching methods and how I'd teach someone to write or remember historical dates and some such. Since this is a writing blog, however, I'm figured I'd tell a story about my own education in how to write (since, you know, this is my post and all -- if you want proper analysis of a good book on craft then wait for the Supreme Dictator's post tomorrow).

I grew up in Upstate New York, and there weren't a whole lot of kids my age around during my formative years. Sure I had preschool and kindergarten, but a lot of those kids had already been neighbors with each other or their respective parents had been friends or whatnot. My folks had moved to the area I lived in from Pennsylvania (by way of Oklahoma, but that's another story), so suffice it to say I was pretty much an outsider as a kid. My parents weren't that social (no fault of theirs, they just weren't), and the people they were social with didn't tend to come over to our house and bring their kids.

Being the youngest of three (sister is 5 years older and brother is 9 years older), I was left to entertain myself. This first took the form of making up stories with my action figures, and then quickly turned to reading all sorts of interesting books. I had a fascination with the Goosebumps stories when I was in third grade, and became convinced that I could write one myself. That story wasn't the best in the world (it sucked honestly), but it has the marquee of being first.

Fast-forward a few years to my discovery of The Hobbit during seventh-grade English class. And yes, folks, that one book set me off and running. I read Lord of the Rings, and tried to write an epic fantasy not long after. All through high school I worked on several versions of that story and a series of shorts based around another character; meanwhile my appetite for novels just wouldn't stop. So while I was learning how to write research papers for my classes (something I found crazy easy), I was also learning the facets of good writing by reading copious amounts.

I'm convinced, by my experience and what I've heard from others, that this is the only proper way to learn how to write. Read a lot, practice writing, and repeat. The "grammar rules" that I'm supposed to know as an editor are more or less lost to me. Hell, the only reason I know what a compound modifier is is because someone explained it to me while I was working at the job I had before my current one. I edit on instinct, and I learned to write on the same. Granted, I lucked out that my instincts are darn good (this is gleaned from what other people have told me -- I tend to not think highly of my own skills, but what writer does?) because of the wordsmithy in my family history, but still.

I've taken precisely one creative writing course in my life, and I'm more or less convinced that I can learn whatever courses like that purport to teach me from reading books like Bickham's Scene and Structure or Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel or King's On Writing.

I suppose I'd better answer the question I started with: How would I teach someone how to write? By teaching them how to read with the eyes of a writer.


Kelly Breakey said...

Can't wait for the next installment. I really liked this. Oh, and I want the Oklahoma story too.

Joshua McCune said...

Just make sure they don't lose the love of reading in the process. I know I've become overly critical when I read now... sometimes so much I don't just enjoy the story (that being said, I know it's a good story when the write-brain part of me lets go)

Matthew Delman said...

Kelly -- My folks lived in Lawton, Oklahoma for a little bit after they got married. My father'd been drafted during Vietnam (he never saw combat), and was stationed there teaching meteorology to soldiers.

Bane -- Oh you definitely have to make sure they don't lose the love of reading. But my point is not to dissect the imagery or the "meaning" of the passage, but rather to use it as an example of cadence in sentence structure and so forth. I don't care about analysis of the author's message. I care about how the sentence sounds.

L. T. Host said...

I learned everything I know from reading other books, too. Well, most of it-- I learned quite a bit from my critique group, to be fair. But I was a spelling bee champ in middle school and I blame that on pure rote-- reading words over and over in books will engrave their spelling on your brain.

Joshua McCune said...

LT just got a new nickname -- (though LT was pretty cool b/c that makes me think of all those war movies)... new nicknames - Scripps, or perhaps Lieutenant Scripps ;) Yep, it's Wednesday.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Excellent post!

When grad school finally released me, I resolved never to set foot in a classroom again. I had filled my lifetime quote of classroom learning. I figured I could teach myself anything else I needed to know - meaning learning by doing, reading, observing. Hey, wait, that sounds like science. Hm... :)