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YOU ARE BOTH STUDENT AND TEACHER

By H. P. Oliver

The craft of writing fiction may be learned, but cannot be taught.

These words express a very significant point about writing, especially for those who are new to our craft. The thought comes from Robert Heinlein, so while I can't take credit for the idea, maybe I can earn a few points by explaining what the heck Mister Heinlein meant by those seemingly contradictory words.

Successful writers of fiction (meaning those who sell scads of books) consistently demonstrate three sets of skills that, in combination, define the craft of fiction writing. My terms for these skill sets are word crafting, imagination and inspiration.

Word crafting is the ability to put words together in a way that stimulates experiences in readers' minds. The experience might be mentally seeing images of a place, person or action, or the experience could be the sensation of a feeling or mood. Whatever the desired result, the specific types of knowledge that must be learned to achieve successful word crafting begin with basic grammar, vocabulary and style.

Now, you might be thinking, and rightfully so, that grammar and vocabulary can be taught. A good old fashioned English teacher can teach you where the commas and semicolons go, and vocabulary development has been a basic component of elementary and high school English classes since the dawn of time or thereabouts. Good point! Enjoy it, though, because we have just exhausted the writing craft skills that can be taught.

What about style? Don't literature classes teach style? Not in the way the term style applies to your skills as a writer. English Lit classes teach the styles employed by successful writers of the past, but they cannot teach you to develop your own style of writing. That is something you must do on your own, and that brings us to the basic truth of Heinlein's quote: Beyond basic writing skills, everything you need to become a successful writer of fiction must be learned through your own experiments and experiences. Yes, others may give you their opinions of what you've written, but the selection of the next words you put on paper is a decision only you can make.

This truth becomes even more apparent when we consider the other two skill sets in the fiction writer's toolbox. For example, the skill of imagination includes learning to be open to what your imagination is telling you and discovering how to control the direction of your imagination. Who could teach you such things? Your powers of imagination are unique to you as an individual, and since you are the only one who can see what you are imagining, you are the only one who can figure out the specific methods needed to productively apply your unique imagination skills to your writing.

Writing fiction is storytelling, and before you can imagine a story, you must first rely on your inspiration skills for the elements of the story--location, characters, plot, and so on. In this instance, I've used the word inspiration to mean the process of drawing story ideas from your personal life experiences, regardless of whether those experiences were firsthand or witnessed through a medium like film, books or television. Either way, your life experiences are stored in your head and are unique to your way of seeing things. No one else has access to those experiences, so once again you are the only one who can figure out how to replay the memory tapes and isolate bits and pieces as elements of the next story you tell.

As I hope I've made apparent, the fiction writing craft relies heavily on the unique ways in which each individual develops and employs the skill sets of our craft. What was unique about the way Hemingway saw the world and interpreted what he saw is exactly the thing that made Hemingway successful at our craft.

In a nutshell, fiction writing is becoming aware of the world around you and translating your unique view of that world into a story using the skills of our craft. The first step to cracking that nutshell is learning those skills, which you see by now, can be learned, but cannot be taught. You must learn them on your own.

Now, in parting, a word of caution. Because the teaching and learning processes occur in your mind, there is a tendency to think of fiction writing as a lofty intellectual pursuit involving more thinking than doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning our craft is damned hard work. Honing your particular writing skills is a lot like finding your way through a tricky maze of promising paths that lead nowhere. Frustration abounds and egos get the stuffing beat out of them. Worse is the knowledge that only a very small percentage of those who enter the maze make it out the other end with the skills necessary to become a successful author.

Are the rewards worth all that frustration and hard work? That's something else you will have to decide for yourself. As for me, after more than thirty years of writing, I can honestly answer that question with a resounding YES!