So I’m reading the London Review of Books, and an ad leaps out of me. This is unusual. Ads don’t usually leap out at me. I don’t notice them. For that matter I don’t notice much in the visual landscape around me. One time, visiting my mother, who wanted to buy me a bathmat to take home to Vancouver, and who asked me what colour my bathroom was, I was reduced to saying, “Well, I’m pretty sure it has a colour.”
A former hockey buddy once told me that of course I noticed ads, because everyone notices ads. I was quite bemused by the notion that he could know me as well as he professed to and also that he could pronounce on what everyone does. He should read Montaigne, but he won’t because he also announced that it’s pointless to read old books: Didn’t I believe in progress? Every age was an advance on its predecessor, so we know so much more now than people of earlier ages that it’s utterly pointless to read them.
But in this case I really did notice the ad. It said, “Ideas are easy; writing isn’t,” and was an ad for a writing academy that promised Structure, Feedback, and Support.
Well, I’m all for support and even for feedback, as long as it consists of, “Sheldon, that was great.” People ask for criticism, as Somerset Maugham says, but all they want is praise.
He also said, “There are three rules for writing the novel …” I quoted that line to an English 100 class I was teaching years ago, and they all picked up their pens in anticipation. However, they were most disappointed when I finished the quote by saying, “… but nobody knows what they are.”
Students like rules. Well, I shouldn’t generalize. Students who have been trained to write five-paragraph essays like rules. I made the mistake of trying to unteach that formula and had anguished students approach me to say, “But the five-paragraph essay is the only way I know how to write.” Or, “I understand that that’s a bad formula, so can you give us a good formula?”
Sigh. Good writing is not done by formulas or rules, unless you think paint-by-number is a good way to go, and maybe it is. Who knows? But I tried to teach my students to think for themselves, to follow their ideas, and forget about structure. “Grasp the subject, the words will follow,” as Cato said.
(But I did relent in later years and tell them that if they really had to they could stick to the five-paragraph structure they’d been brought up on. I only cared about results, I said; if they could write a good essay following the formula, what did I care?)
Structure is not what writers need (or students). Ideas are what’s hard to come by. The ad has it exactly wrong. Writing is dead easy (well, for writers); it’s finding something to say that’s the problem. Thackeray used to envy Dumas for being able to produce so many new plots (though maybe he had his factory doing that for him). I like stories that are “hot with,” he said, lamenting the fact that he himself could not invent like that.
Jonathan Swift once told a friend that he could write an essay on any subject. On a broomstick then, said the friend, and so we have an essay by Swift On a Broomstick. I used to think of that as a piece of bravado, and maybe it was, but maybe it was also a plea of desperation: Give me an idea, a subject, something to write about; anything, it could be anything. Please.
Andrew Coyne in a recent column talked about improv comedians needing to start off with a suggestion from the audience in order to narrow their options. It’s impossible to write about anything; you need something to write on (or do improv about).
Some people have chided me for not writing a blog post for a while, but now I’ve decided it’s their fault; they should be giving me something to write about. Send me some ideas, anything, please.
People used to do that when I was writing my novel. That’s the other sort of feedback I liked. I didn’t like people criticizing. Praising was great. And even better was people saying things like, “Why don’t you put something about quilting in the novel?” (a suggestion from a co-worker). Or “Why don’t you write more about tigers and elephants?” (a suggestion from my mother).
So there you go, people, send me your ideas.