February 6, 2012

Exposing the “Big Lie”

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell talks about the “Big Lie.”

No, I’m not talking about the fact that Santa isn’t real. And I’m not talking about something that spewed from one of the Presidential candidate’s mouths.

I’m talking about the lie that tells us writing can’t be learned.

When I read the introduction to this awesome craft book, a bell (pun based on author’s last name fully intended, even if it’s lame) went off in my head.

Because I’ve believed the Big Lie my whole life.

Yep, I was one of those people born with a pen in one hand and paper in the other (my poor mother…well, you know what I mean). The quirky little kid with ink stains on my fingers who folded a stack of paper in half and stapled it at the edges. Who wrote and wrote and wrote. Whom everyone said was a born writer.

I was the high school sophomore who always exceeded the required page count on papers and creative writing assignments, because, well, I was a writer. That’s just what I did. (Later I learned that longer does not always equal better...)

And I was the college journalism major who practically crumbled when I got a poor grade on my first reporting piece.

For me, this was devastating. Miss-Perfectionist-Teacher’s-Pet-Straight-A-Student got a bad grade on a paper! It didn’t even make me feel better that that paper could be rewritten for a higher grade.

But that’s just the point.

I’d never written a news story before. All I’d written were essays, poems, short stories. But there’s a certain format for news stories (inverted pyramid, anyone?), just like there’s a certain format for essays, poems, and short stories.

Did my bad grade mean I wasn’t a good writer? That I’d never be a good writer? That because I wasn’t born knowing how to write news articles, I had epically failed and would never ever be published?

No.

Because that’s where exposing the Big Lie comes in.

Once I learned how to write a news story, I rewrote that sucker and got a higher grade.

I learned. How to Write.

I came. I learned. I conquered.

I try to remember this as I fumble along this path of novel writing, which is completely new to me.

I will come. I will learn. I will conquer.

Because I can.

Your Turn: Have you ever believed the Big Lie that Bell talks about? If so, how does hearing it exposed change your outlook on writing? What is one of the most important things you’ve learned about writing?

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for this reminder Lindsay. I actually had the opposite experience: I didn't feel like an "inspired" writer, just a decent one. I felt like I would always be able to write essays, but I would never be one of those creative types who seem to fill pages effortlessly. It took moving to a new city for me to start looking for the inspiration around me instead of expecting it to be innate.

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    1. Very cool, Shannon. I think we can definitely draw inspiration from the things around us, as well as the experiences we have.

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  2. One of the biggest things I learned was... well... to UNlearn many of the rigid rules I read about in all the bazillions of craft books I studied, i.e., drop every adverb from your story, never use anything except 'he said/she said' as a tag, etc. Those absolutes were paralyzing to me, but lots of the how-to books are full of them. Another biggie was how important it is to find your OWN writing voice (if you haven't read it yet, I recommend Les Edgerton's book, aptly titled, Finding Your Voice in Writing).

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    1. Barb, I really like your point about finding your writing voice. That has been something I am in the process of learning.

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    2. Barb, I totally understand this one. If you're always too freaked out to write because you're afraid you're breaking some rule, you won't get far.

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  3. No, I happen to believe I can learn from anything, to anything, and through anything...(kind of like God's love). Pretty sure there's a verse like that somewhere.
    ~ Wendy

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    1. Me too! I have taught kids how to draw. I believe everyone can learn to draw. But not everyone will have a talent for drawing. I feel that is something people are born with or without.

      Same with writing...I wasn't born with that talent for words, but I can learn to write.

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    2. That's why I love you, Wendy! You're so incredibly positive. You make me smile. :) <-- See?

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  4. Great post! Oh yes, I have bought into that lie. I am an artist, not a writer. I constantly feel I have to earn that title "writer" and haven't earned it yet.

    But one thing I have learned is that I can learn to write...and that's what I am doing! Revising, reworking, and re-reading my work along with reading books on the craft, has helped me become a writer.

    :)

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    1. Just from reading your work, I can tell how much you've learned and how much you've improved. Perseverance is a must!

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  5. I definitely believe writing can be learned. I'm proof of that fact, which would made clear if I were to let you read my earliest stories. =)

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    1. Ooo, can I take a peek? He he.

      I can't wait to read your book in July! Already ordered two copies (one for me and one for a friend).

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  6. a) I love that book by James Scott Bell. First storycrafting book I ever read and I return to it all the time!

    b) I definitely think writing can be learned. Absolutely. I especially think "storycrafting" can be learned. There may be somewhat of a "writer's bent" in some people - more of a natural tilt to writing. But anyone can learn to craft a good story and as you work at it, learn, practice, the word painting, "wordy" part of it grows as well.

    I'm so glad you decided not to believe the lie...otherwise we never would've met...well, virtually... :)

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    1. Totally agreed that some may possess a bent toward writing. The process of learning might be more difficult for some than others. But it is possible.

      And I'm SO glad we've met too. :)

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  7. Haha, I cracked up at your presidential candidate line! Too funny.

    And I'm not sure whether I believed the Big Lie or not. I'd lean toward not because I started out working hard to learn as much as I could. But then again, I didn't grow up knowing I'd be a writer either, so I guess it all depends on how and when we start. :)

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    1. Well, either way, I'm glad you're writing. I can't wait to someday hold a Sarah Forgrave novel in my hands!

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  8. I'm never been one to be afraid of going for things. However, the big lie creeps into my self-conscious from time to time. Then, I have to squash it, but it's hard!!

    Thanks for this awesome reminder! Love James Scott Bell's enthusiasm for teaching writers to write!

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    1. Even with evidence to the contrary, the big lie can still threaten to sweep us away sometimes. It's those times when we just need to sit back, take a deep breath, and pray!

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  9. I'm a journalist like you, Lindsay, who was lured to the Dark Side of writing fiction by, well, burnout. And the promise of gluten-free cookies.
    And there were times I wanted to bolt back over to the comfortable side of the writing road -- what I knew. Times I tried to squeeze my novel into that inverted pyramid and realized it was oozing out all 3 sides.
    So, yeah, sometimes I doubted my skill level.
    But I've always, always known I was a writer. And while I might go and sit in the corner and sulk for a minute or two, I wasn't quitting.

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    1. There is definitely a reward for not quitting, Beth. You only have to look at your upcoming debut novel to believe that! :)

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