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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

know the rules

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Aristotle's Poetics. I found the book to be brief, bracing, even exciting. It made me recognize again how thirsty I am for instruction on how to pursue my art--so thirsty that I don't even realize how thirsty I am until I find a drink of cool water.

I have an arrogant and wayward streak with respect to my own abilities. This might possibly, partly, be necessary in order to develop and hold conviction in one's own vision and one's own execution of it. But such a person is also difficult to teach, and generally has to learn things the hard way.

In my own defence, such teaching as I received with respect to my art, creative writing, has been almost entirely informal and outside any institutional setting. By the time I had become a teenager in the 1970s, there had developed an ethos of "do your own thing" in schools, at least as regards creative expression. True, some technique would be taught in art or in writing, and of course you can't demand too much in this respect from public-school teachers; it's not their job to train "professional" artists for their careers.

And yet there was also a wider, cultural process at work. A couple of years ago I talked with an artist who, along with her husband-to-be, had studied at what was then the Vancouver School of Art. She told me that the school had been founded in 1925 by artists who had been trained in Scotland, and who believed in passing on a thorough training in the techniques of the Old Masters--techniques which the teachers were in a position to teach.

By the time that the art school changed its name in 1978 to the Emily Carr College of Art, the outlook was much changed. She said that the school had gotten away from teaching technique, and that students were encouraged to explore their creative urges in any way they saw fit. As a result, artists were emerging who had had only a piecemeal introduction to techniques, often self-taught. I recall too my late brother-in-law Freddie, who had been professor of art at the University of Victoria for many years, telling me that oil painting and other techniques could be learned fairly quickly from a book. He believed in jumping in with what you wanted to do, and gaining technique as you went, learning it or developing it yourself. Indeed, this had seemed to work for him.

There has been a pervasive sense that telling people, even raw newbies, how to do things crimps their creativity. Robert McKee, in his book Story, takes some pains to explain why this viewpoint is wrong and detrimental, which suggests that he has faced this criticism or objection many times. Telling people how to do things is not the same as telling them what to do. In the creative arts as well as in other things, the old adage applies: Know the rules before you break them.

My adolescent self would have bristled and fought against being told how to do things. I would have rebelled, refused, probably mainly simply not done them. I would have been a pain in the butt and might not have learned much. But if I had received that kind of technical instruction from someone who knew what they were doing, I would at least have perceived that there were proven methods, even if I was rejecting them. Later, I would see that I had fouled myself up to the extent that I had not paid attention.

As things stand, I don't think I missed much in the way of creative education. If I had spent thousands in tuition on a creative-writing degree, I probably would have emerged from the program knowing not much more than when I entered it how to execute an effective creative work. I would have read a lot of stories and novels, and discussed them with my classmates. In screenwriting I would have been trained in technique, and possibly also in playwriting. But fiction? The universities were already heading into the wilderness of postmodernism and Marxism, where, as far as I know, they're still lost.

Some of my best instruction was informal and outside the system. A big influence was the late Harvey Burt, who had been a writer and teacher of writing for most of his adult life. When I was a teenager he gave me my first "how to" book on creative writing: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, a text on how to write a stageplay, published in 1946. I was thrilled with the book, and got my first experience of drinking cool water to ease my thirst for knowledge of the craft.

I've still got the book. I just pulled it out, and flipped it open. At some point, on some rereading, probably around 1984, I highlighted a few phrases in it. Here's one that I opened it to:

What is a weak character? One who, for any reason, cannot make a decision.

Good stuff. It strikes me even now, today, as I read it again. (Does this mean Hamlet is a weak character?)

Here was a book that told you what kinds of effects you should be striving for as a dramatic writer, and how to achieve them. Fantastic! I downed it eagerly, and started making my first fumbling attempts at organizing my creative work around specific intentions, trying to give them structure.

I'm still at it. Aristotle's Poetics is another excellent "how to" text, not written as such, but maybe all the better for being the work not of an artist but of a thinker--one who identified more with the audience than with the creator. My copy is now liberally highlighted.

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  • Great post. My writing education is auto-didactic, but also I've read lots of "how-to" books, including Lajos Egri (In addition to the one on drama, do you know he has one on creative writing also?) Both are excellent texts and are among my treasured favorites. As with any art, one must practice, practice. While it is good to be unrestrained creatively, I venture to say that all great artists know the rules of their art; those rules are often their jumping off points. Knowing the rules and how to break them contributed to their artistic greatness.

    As for Hamlet, no, he's not a weak character; he could make a decision; but he wrestled with the decision he had to make 'cause he didn't want to face the truth, imho. d:)

    By Anonymous Debra Young, at June 26, 2007 12:49 PM  

  • Thanks, Debra--'preciate it. I didn't know about Egri's other book.

    I agree that technique is stimulating rather than restrictive. I could probably use more such rules in my own work--I might find myself more creative and at less of a loss. Maybe.

    By Blogger paulv, at June 26, 2007 5:35 PM  

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