On the Periphery

Things change. Life throws us curves and changeups. It's good to have a place to vent.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The more I study writing (other people’s and my own), the more I get confused. What is really good? What is really bad? When do the rule apply, and when do they change? Must you write in a style that is not your own to satisfy someone else’s tastes? If so, maybe nowadays a writer has to be a whore to sell, a shape-shifter who has no real form of his own, but who writes to sell, not to tell.

My writing style has always been totally organic. I sit down and my gut takes over as the words appear on the screen, my fingers guided by some unseen force that integrates proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while logically moving from one sentence to another. Transitions. Clarity. Plot development all grow, designed to combine into a clear, cohesive piece. At least, that’s how it works most of the time. My real strength is in my revising, but even there, an innate urge to move and rework determines my style.

But while my creativity is inborn, it is combined with my background as an English teacher. I have always taught that a story must have an arc: a beginning, a middle (complete with complications) and a satisfying, logical ending in which the hero either learns something or dies. Period. Nowadays, I find I am reading fiction that makes no sense, does not follow any specific pattern, and is basically a Kandinsky painting put into words: blobs of letters randomly placed for effect rather than logic. We are in an era of abstract writing, and a carefully-honed style is suddenly archaic.

I appreciate the fact that creativity changes, that we can no longer write in the same way Dickens or Austen did, that our changing society demands relevance in its literature. But, I ask again, what makes a good story? Stories lacking development, or even clarity, student stories that I would have handed back marked with a big “See me” sprawled across the top, are appearing in prestigious magazines and hailed as cutting edge. No character development, no plot, just mad ramblings of a disorganized mind are applauded, while stories with an arc and human meaning never make it past the slush pile.

So I come back to the initial question. What makes writing good, not just “modern?”