I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that how to write must be one of the most difficult things in the world to learn in a classroom setting. —At least, I never learned anything about writing that way, and I went to school for many more years than the law actually requires, and took a lot of writing classes. To their credit, quite a few of my writing teachers admitted this. “The only way to learn to write is to do it,” they’d say. And if they’d been more honest, they would have added, “But just in case some really pointed and brutal criticism of your efforts is also helpful, I’m going to give you a lot of that, too.”
This was bad while I was in school, since it amounted to me paying large amounts of money to hear my writing disparaged to my face; but it’s been great since I graduated. Whereas I not only ceased to learn any more mathematics once I got out of the classroom, but actually forgot everything I ever knew including how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, my writing has gradually, steadily, improved. In school, I wrote every day, and I have continued to write almost every day since; but I only do math when I have to.
People who generally prefer math—e.g., everybody I live and work with—tell me they want to improve their writing, too, but are stopped by the fact that, unlike with mathematics, there aren’t any books full of problems for them to practice on. They would write, they tell me, if they only knew what to write about. They seem to view plots as analogous to equations, and want a page of them to solve.
There’s something in that viewpoint, I guess.
I admit that I don’t really understand why they can’t come up with as many plots as they want all by themselves, though. As far as I’m concerned, plots are the easiest thing in the world. When all I want is some practice writing, I just rewrite scenes from my life—a short-cut that provides me with not only a plot, but also a protagonist and a setting, all ready-made. Then I can get straight into the much-harder work of describing them.
At first in retelling a story, I frequently succumbed to the temptation to turn myself into a species of Mary Sue*. There’s nothing wrong with “improving” on reality a little, I guess; but I got bored with being a hero all the time, and now I actually appreciate how my
occasional social ineptitude provides me with many excellent opportunities to portray humiliation (self-inflicted), and regret instead. (Life supplies plenty of material for scenes of hurt and loss without any help from me.)
And it’s therapeutic, too. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I would ever say the same about working a partial differential equation.
*For any who don’t already know it, a Mary Sue (as defined by Wikipedia) is “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.” If you have written a novel in which the protagonist is just like you, only better in every way, you have written a Mary Sue. Enjoy your work—but do not share it. Especially do not share it with me.