Once upon a time, when I was a snarky high school student–long before I became a snarky adult–I used to think that what my English teachers told me was pure myth. They used to say that all that symbolism, the rich metaphors, the characterization in the works they fed to us was written like that on purpose.
I disagreed. I mean, yeah, sure it took a few drafts to get something like that and a lot of thought and some planning, but did Salinger seriously sit there for hours and hours just to plan that Holden Caulfield’s hunting cap was symbolic of his hunt for…whatever?
I thought this because a) I was, as I mentioned, a snarky teenager and b) no matter how much I planned something I felt the urge to write out beforehand, it was only later on that I saw the clever turns of phrase or good dialogue. Surely, I thought, it’s impossible to plan every little bit of your piece and some things just come about by accident.
I still think that my English teachers were overzealously reading into the works they taught. It’s the reason why I didn’t (ironically) like literature classes much, even in college. Once a professor wants to dig into Coleridge’s motivations, you really ought to put the brakes on the whole interpretive thing. Just give me some context, help with the obscure references, help me figure out what the bloody thing could mean or why it was written, and then give me the essay question. Thus was my attitude.
That’s what happens when an English teacher has you reading Hamlet for four months. I kid you not. Four months.
Now, no doubt, Shakespeare took a lot of craft and care with his works. You don’t get verse without drafting the verse to see if it works. I imagine that his dialogue would be fine-tuned as the players rehearsed.
To be honest, of all the Shakespeare I was force-fed in high school, I actually found Hamlet the easiest to simply read and understand. It had nothing to do with having to deal with it for my last semester in high school either. My teacher asked some question while we were in the first act and I was able to answer it easily. Five acts, I thought. Maybe five weeks, then we’ll move on to something else…
But that’s Shakespeare. I certainly didn’t sit there back then and plot with any real serious care. I was kind of a pantser, a seat-of-the-pants writer, who let whatever roll out as I wrote roll out and then discovered, later on, that were some goods bit buried among the usually unfinished work.
In college, I tried to purposely write a certain way; maybe this setting symbolized the character’s inner struggle. Or maybe this object was imbued with the character’s longing. Then I went with what my fourth grade teacher called the “Sloppy Copy.” Sloppy copy was her term for the first draft, when you were supposed to take whatever you’d brainstormed in step 1 of the writing process and then just write whatever came out.
Neither of these methods worked for me in college. The purposeful symbolism, for instance, felt insanely forced, as it did the intentional heavy-hitting plot in one short story that went nowhere. And the purge-and-dump, sloppy method resulted in a lot of irrelevant crap.
When I began this blog, I was determined to finally write a book. I’d been talking about it long enough, I had the time, I had an idea. And it rolled out a little bit pantser-style, though there was a theme I wanted to explore and I had the characters in mind and there were a few other pieces that were very specific and intentional.
But for the most part, the things that came out of the writing felt natural to the character and the plot. That was what I was happy with.
I was writing last night and feeling quite pleased at how my protagonist was finally meeting a character who would grow to play a major part in his life. He’s also grappling with a new problem, one which came out of some research I did into the year the story is set in, and I thought, “Oh! I actually planned characters and a conflict and look what the research did to make this feel more realistic!”
To that end, I feel like I can still be a bit snarky toward my old English teachers–who, after all, were really there to teach us how to write a coherent enough essay to pass the New York State Regents’ Exam.
A great deal of a book can be planned. Eventually, the language and word choice will get crafted and shaped and become intentional, as the English teachers used to argue. I’m not quite there yet in my evolving process though; my second drafts, so far, still circle around bigger issues. You know, like endings that trail off, plots that make no sense and unlikeable characters. That sort of thing.
But I will also argue that there is still much that just appears on the page as one writes. At the best of times, it feels as if the words are being channeled from somewhere.
So I guess my writing process–to a second draft level, anyway–is part outlined, character sketch, historical research (the deliberate) and the other part is simply whatever comes out of the situation or the people you created (the inspired).
-What kind of lies did your English teachers tell you?
-Do you have a specific method for writing or studying or taking notes, for instance? How did you learn that method?
-Did you have to read Hamlet for four months?
Leave a comment below.
Edited to add:
A little contribution from a reader: