Here’s a scary thought. When it comes to writing, you may have done everything you’ve been taught to do with utter perfection, and precisely because of that, it turns out you’ve written something that is flat, boring and uninvolving. This all too common phenomenon is something I’m going to be deconstructing, myth by myth, for the next several months in my columns here. I’m beginning this month with the overarching granddaddy of them all – the myth that derails otherwise riveting stories before they’re even created.
It’s this: The myth that beautiful writing is what makes you a real writer, and (an even more damaging belief) that the beautiful writing comes first, before everything else. Beautiful writing is often equated with talent, and without talent, why write at all?
It is heartbreaking how many writers suffer from the deep rooted, often crippling fear of not “writing beautifully” from the very first iteration of the very first sentence on the very first page of the novel. We’ve been trained to be so fearful of penning anything that feels like “ugly writing” that we often end up creating something far worse.
To be very clear, by “writing ugly” I don’t mean writing about hard things, painful things, or any kind of “ugliness” – which is utterly crucial to good stories. Otherwise, you’re basically Hallmark, which is to say, irrelevant, cutesy and dull. Story is about the exact opposite. In fact, story is often about how to dig out from under the sugar coated, stifling straightjacket of the status-quo, which almost always means diving into what polite society has deemed to be ugly, unseemly, and uncomfortable.
So hold on to your hat, because that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now – dive into something that is decidedly uncomfortable (yes, actually wearing a hat, so this isn’t really two metaphors).
The point is that surface beauty is not what it’s cracked up to be. And in order to write well – to create a story worth reading, a story that can be beautifully written – you have to first write ugly. It’s part of the process of creating a story.
You have to write ugly every single time you begin writing a story, even if you’re already well published. Even if it’s your tenth novel. Because, as we’ll be exploring over the next several months, the first step in creating any story has absolutely nothing to do with “writing beautifully.” It can’t.
So why do we think that it does? Part of the problem is that the things we’re wired to crave – the things we innately expect in every story (and beautiful writing isn’t one of them) – are tacit expectations. Chances are we aren’t even consciously aware of our hardwired expectations when we’re reading. After all, it’s not like we approach each new novel with our trusty list, and once we’ve checked off each expectation we think, Okay good, this is a story I can enjoy!
I mean, can you imagine your mom sitting you down at the age of five and saying, “Now sweetie pie, I’m going to explain what a story is, and what you need to expect in every story, and how they will make you feel, and what you should look for, so be sure to take notes.” If it worked like that we’d probably hate stories, because that sure sounds an awful lot like work.
No one ever has to teach us how to get lost in a story, for the same reason no one had to teach us how to melt into a hug. It’s biological. Ditto our innate response to story, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain very specific, very clear, and very concrete things that are triggering that biological response.
However, because we aren’t consciously aware of what our actual hardwired expectations are when we read a story, when we write a story we tend to substitute in what we’ve been taught those expectations are, which revolves around what we can see on the page – yep, the beautiful writing (among other things that we’ll be debunking in the coming months). This isn’t to say readers don’t like beautiful writing – they do. But beautiful writing is not what has us enthralled when we’re reading.
It’s not about the words, it’s about the story they’re giving voice to – which is why often “bad” writing has the power to captivate us: it’s the story that has us by the throat, not a bunch of million dollar metaphors. Without an actual story, “beautiful” words are empty, devoid of meaning.
It boils down to this: a big part of the reason so many writers believe that “beautiful writing” is the defining trait of a “real writer” is because while our love of story is innate, writing is taught. And from kindergarten on, that teaching tends to focus not on the story itself, but on the words used to express it.
Who among us hasn’t heard people talk reverently about their “love of language.” Let’s think about that for a minute. Words. Language. What is language?
Language is nothing more than sounds when spoken, visual symbols when written. By itself language is merely a conduit, an empty vessel. The goal of language is to convey meaning, and meaning comes from the story itself. Which, by definition, means that you have to unearth the meaning – the story — first. Then and only then do the words matter. Otherwise it’s like trying to hold a conversation when you have nothing to say. And so matter how beautiful the language, it’s meaningless – and it soon stops being beautiful and becomes annoying, as the person you’re talking to madly sifts through the verbiage, trying to figure out what the hell your point is.
And yet, we all tend to fall prey to wanting to “get it right” even before we know what it is. I didn’t realize just how insidiously damaging this is, and how constantly writers must battle against it, until recently, and that’s why I’m hitting so hard on it now.
Here’s when the full weight of it hit home for me: Book coach and author Jennie Nash and I teach an online course based on my upcoming book, Story Genius, and as part of the course, we host several live online Q&As. That’s my favorite part of the class — there’s nothing I love more than talking story with writers, because I always learn something new (plus it’s fun). But during our beta test of the course, what I learned caught me off guard.
A writer began talking about a problem she’d been having — a problem that had dogged her during the class as she worked to dig deep into her story. She said that it was a problem she’d been fighting throughout her entire writing life: the debilitating fear of “ugly writing.”
She believed she had to hone, polish, and present everything in luscious prose right out of the starting gate — and since what we were asking her to do had nothing to do with the kind of “beautiful prose” she’d been taught mattered most — she felt that what she was writing was too ugly for, um, words. Every week she questioned her ability to write at all. She was distraught.
Several other writers chimed in, saying, “Me, too.” They all thought there was something wrong with them.
There was a deep collective sigh of relief when we said, “Writing well is not the point – not by a long shot.” The first step in developing a great novel is to develop a story that does what all stories are meant to do: instantly grab the reader’s brain, pulling them out of their “real reality” and catapulting them into the world of the story – so that when they emerge on the other side, they see their world a little (and sometimes a lot) differently. The irony was that each writer had developed exactly what would allow them to then create a novel with the potential to have the reader at hello. It turned out that the “beautiful writing” they’d been striving for was what had, in fact, been standing in their way.
After all, how can you write beautifully when you don’t know what, exactly, you’re writing about? It’s kind of like if you were mining for diamonds by keeping an eagle eye out for exquisitely cut, honed, and highly polished gems. Sheesh, talk about missing the pay dirt! After all, diamonds in the rough look like big clunky hunks of rock. In other words, they’re kind of ugly when compared with the sparkly diamonds you see gleaming in a jewelry store window. But here’s the thing: there’s actually a strange, hypnotic beauty in the raw material. Same with the “ugly writing” these writers were worried about.
It’s the story that spawns the beautiful words, not the other way around. And ironically, when you have dug deeply into your story, expressing it in the simplest words is what often conveys the most meaning. In other words, beautiful writing is often the direct byproduct of the story itself, rather than the other way around. Just like out here in real life, it’s not the external “beauty” of the writing that matters, it’s what’s inside that counts.
As proof, the next time you’re lost in a novel that has you up long past your bedtime because you just have to know what happens next, ask yourself: am I ever thinking, “I can’t wait to find out what exquisitely beautiful sentence this wordsmith will serve up next!” or “I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for a glimpse of the next lovely, luscious metaphor. Be still my heart!”
The answer will always be no.
So, my advice? It’s time to stop trying to get a gold star from your seventh grade English teacher for writing the world’s most “perfect” sentence (or maybe that’s just me). Practice silencing the “pretty writing” voice. You know the one. That shaming little voice that whispers, “You think that sentence is good? Seriously?”
Writing pretty comes last. Creating a story comes first. Otherwise, it’s like trying to frost a cake you haven’t baked yet.
Now the question is: how, exactly, do you bake the cake? What are the foundational ingredients, if what we’ve been taught they are is wrong? That’s what we’ll begin talking about next month.
Meanwhile, what’s your experience with “writing ugly”? Do you have any advice on how to make that remarkably resilient passive agressive voice in your head shut the hell up? Do tell!