Over at his blog right now, I’m explaining why you should write what you want, and right here bellow, the Hyperteller explains how to successfully pull a porridge heist. Also, something about writing…
Learning to write: the ‘Goldilocks Effect’
I’m pretty sure no one ever actually wrote down that you shouldn’t steal porridge from bears, but it’s generally considered a bad idea.
Similarly, writing a book by copying down the patterns that get made when Alphabetti Spaghetti is thrown at a wall is another thing that we subconsciously know not try. Now, considering Goldilocks didn’t get caught and ripped to pieces (someone probably thought it might scare the children, for the same reason, Hansel and Grettle’s dad didn’t ring up the witch and give her Liam Neeson’s speech from Taken), she probably knew a thing or two about stealing bear-porridge. But they did still find her, so she wasn’t perfect.
What’s this got to do with writing?
Well, Goldilocks experiences a lot of triads, two of which are too extreme, and one of which is just right. Our own writing goes through the same three phases. When we get good, it’s because we’ve found Baby Bear’s porridge, as it were. But whatever you do, don’t have a sleep after writing a good sentence, or bears will return home and eat you.
When I first started writing – and I expect this is the same for everyone – the results were rubbish. Unfortunately I’m not a keeper of things, so I do not have any of my early writings with which to embarrass myself in the course of supporting my point. I think we can all agree that, no matter what you learn, you start off terrible. Just ask those poor parents of kids who wanted to learn violin…
This is, to some extent, because we don’t know the rules. I’m not very good on the guitar, because I have no idea what keys really are, I know only two scales, and the top E string seems intent on cutting my little finger open. On the drums, however…well, I’m slightly better. That’s down to practice, and through practice, the evolution of knowledge.
When we start, we probably write things like ‘It was dark because the sun had set and now it was night so that’s why it was dark because there was no sun but there were stars because it was night now.’ We don’t know the rules of writing (incidentally, check out Tirzah’s guest post on my blog, where she continues my tradition of hating on writing rules) and we haven’t had the practice. We don’t know about the not stealing bear-porridge, and we’re still scraping spaghetti off the walls, wondering why we don’t have the next 1984 copied out on our pads.
Repetition is key. When we repeat things, our brain forms new neurological pathways to make that same process easier in the future. Here’s a little drum pattern (called a rudiment) for you to try. It’s called a paradiddle, because it’s phonetic. Tap your hands on your knees in this order; right, left, right, right, left, right, left, left, and back to the start. To begin with (and still for me; I never practised these sorts of things when I was young, and now it’s coming back to bite me), you’ll be consciously remembering the pattern, maybe saying it aloud. You’ll be aware of the fact you are instructing your hands when to tap. Keep doing it, however, and your brain shifts into cruise control; people can paradiddle as fast as a straightforward drum roll, because their brains have created the pathways, and doing the pattern becomes as second nature as breathing.
So then we learn all the basics, like grammar and spelling, and move onto the next stage. But this stage is the ‘too much’. We get obsessed by the artistic side of writing. We try too hard. We rewrite the same sentence as I gave before as ‘The moon ironically threw voluminous light down upon the Earth, spraying its every surface with light that laughed at its own source; a dead ball of rock all alone in the cold dark of space. Stars shone like tiny rips in the fabric of space, points of brilliance in an otherwise cold nothingness, hope in the void, salvation in the lonely dark of the night sky.’
There may be some poetry in there (who knows? I threw that out as an example), but overall, we’re taking too many words to say, well, not very much. We think that good writing is cramming as many similes, metaphors, hyperbole and subtext into each sentence as we can get away with. The romantic idea of the writer prevails in our minds; we think about big puffy shirts and thoughtfully sniffing roses. Every now and then we sit at a window, stare out at the world, and sigh.
Definitely too much. But it’s not our fault, we’re still learning. To go back to drumming, we’re at the stage where we think speed is everything. Fast drum roll beats slow drum roll, right? By the way, how’s your paradiddle coming along?
Finally, like Goldilocks, we get it just right. Or we come close (we all still have our flaws after all). We realise that less is more. It’s ironic, but often in learning, we go from one extreme to the other. In many ways, perfecting a skill is the art of unlearning some of our preconceptions. Lyrical prose isn’t necessarily good writing. A touch of imagery can go a long way. We end up with something like ‘Moonlight settled on the ground like a dusting of chalk.’ I’m in no way saying that’s perfect writing, but it’s late, I need an example, and I’m not entirely sure which part of the porridge I’ve reached with my own writing.
Each stage of the process is vital in building the finished product; great writing. In the ‘too little’ phase, we start to understand and discover the basic foundations that all great writing needs. In the ‘too much’ section, we learn how to add beauty to our writing. The problem is we just don’t know when to stop. In the same way giving someone too many roses could flatten them, you overdo the good thing.
Then, finally we get it just right. Most of us may not even get there, but it’s the dream, so we’ll all keep going regardless. And when we get there, just like the perfect porridge, it’s good.
Speaking of which, I’d better go. I can hear me some bears coming…