Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Writing Scale: An Exercise in Brutality ~ by George Wier


First  of all, I don’t put any stock in articles about the mechanics of writing, so we’re not going to go down that road here. But first, let me tell you a story from the purely mechanical fringe to illustrate the exact reason why I don’t (and won’t) write an article on the mechanics of writing. 




There was this guy from the Alaskan outback—I’m not really sure what you call the vastness and fastness of that frontier wilderness where you could wander for years (if you knew how to survive in such an unforgiving environment). I’m pretty sure it’s not called ‘The Bush’—without seeing another human being. I can still imagine this guy in a cabin somewhere on the outer edge of some minute settlement where the only way in and out is by canoe, or dogsled, or seaplane, banging away on an old-style typewriter. He’s got about two hundred reams of paper he somehow inherited, along with a few cases of typewriter ribbon, and he’s even got a set of repair tools for his exact typewriter brand.

This guy sends me four hundred pages of manuscript (single-sided, double-spaced, one-inch margins all the way around—the standard thing), and the entire novel is one run-on sentence. I kid you not! The one period was at the end of the last page, and every phrase between the first page and the last was occulted fore and aft by a comma, the typical comma-splice malady. This fellow wanted my take on his masterpiece. And God Bless him, but let me tell you that I tried. I seem to recall I got through about fifteen or twenty pages before I had to give up, lest my brain ossify, crack and little crystals start spilling out of my ears onto the carpet.

So, what did I do? I’ll tell you. I re-packaged the thing and sent it back to him and wrote him a note letting him know that I applauded his amazing output, and further told him that I liked his storyline (which was the truth, as much of it as I could read past the rocky road of his punctuation). I further told him that he should hunt up someone good with punctuation, preferably an English teacher, and maybe a retired one, and if not get them to edit the book for him, then to at least drill him on how to properly write sentences, paragraphs, sections and chapters.

About four months later he wrote me back, thanking me profusely. You see, he had indeed found a retired English teacher; the very teacher who had tried to teach him in junior high school before he dropped out. She was tutoring him, and she was also helping him re-write the book from the beginning.

So, if you want a treatise on the mechanics of writing, please note that they teach that in grammar school, in junior high and high school, and if you still didn’t grok after all that, they surgically open up your skull and pour the information in until it’s brimming with diagramed sentences in freshman college English. Also, for mechanics, I strongly suggest reading, by which I mean READING!

Okay, we’re going to launch into this here thing. Expect brutality. It’s going to get bloody here, so my apologies in advance. Fortunately, though, this will be brief.

All great truths are simple ones. Show me something complicated, and I’ll show you a thoroughly booby-trapped against the unwary and uninitiated. A 20th Century philosopher once wrote something to the effect that a thing is complicated to the exact degree that it is not confronted. Let me say that again, but in slightly altered language: anything you care to take up that is so overly complex that no two manuals on the subject will agree as to its fundamentals, is a thing that has not been actually looked at. It has not even ever been seen. Now this applies as much to writing as it does math, nuclear physics, economics, government, and interpersonal relations.

So, here’s the news. The first thing you have to confront about the subject of writing happens to be yourself. This can be done while driving down the road, it can be done in a quiet space somewhere, it can even be done in front of a mirror. This is the question: “Am I willing to BE a professional author?” That’s not just your first and most important question, it is, in fact, the ONLY question, and it doesn’t get any simpler than that.

All of our lives we have tended to waste hours uncounted trying to become...something. Anything. I’m telling you right here and now that you can save yourself a great deal of time, effort, and heartache by making a simple decision. And whatever that decision may be, make sure it’s thoroughly and complete made, and then don’t bother to look back.


If you decided to be a professional writer, you are ARE ONE. Congratulations. 


In one of my books, my main character says this, “There is nothing more freeing than not knowing your limitations.” That’s a far more truthful statement than I knew the moment I wrote it. When we don’t know that we can’t do something, it makes it far simpler, by hook or by crook, to forge ahead despite all the obstacles (that we can’t see because, remember, we don’t know they’re there) and actually DO what others think is impossible.


Now, the decision having been made with abject finality, it’s time to sit down and write.


And don’t stop writing. Don’t even stop when you’re ninety-nine years old and your grandchildren are considering retirement. You’re a writer now, a real, live, breathing writing machine.

So...WRITE.

And thus we come to the scale I promised you all about in the title.

What would a writing scale look like? Is it like a musical scale? A temperature scale? What could it be?

No, it’s not like any of those things. The writing scale is a scale of truth. Your truth.

For the sake of illustration, let’s envisage what a writing scale might look like. It would have to contain the process of writing, the factual nature of writing, the nuts and bolts of existence when it comes to writing. It would encompass...well, everything. And it would be simple, too. It would be so full of truth that some would be blinded when seeing it.

In fact, I believe it will have that very effect upon some of you.

So here goes.

Let’s start at the top of the scale and work our way downward, and let’s put the one thing we know about—that one action that encompasses what it means to be a writer—at the very top of the scale. Here it is:

WRITING (ACTIVELY)

I think you know what that means. I think you can look at that and see it for what it is. It means a writing project that you are working on in present time. A time such as this very day.

See, we started at the top. That was easy. You can thank me now because you will not be thanking me later.

So, what would be a step down from WRITING (ACTIVELY)? I don’t know, but I suspect it might be something like: PLANNING TO WRITE (IN THE FUTURE). Now I happen to know you don’t need an explanation for that one. All of us, at one time or another, have engaged in this one.

What then, pray tell, might be some of the other slots on this graduated scale from the heights of heaven down into the abyss? Maybe something like:  GOT A WRITING IDEA, or possibly, downscale from that: GETTING A WRITING IDEA, closely followed as we get closer to the precipice that leads ever downward by: WANTING A WRITING IDEA and HOPING FOR A WRITING IDEA.

You get the drift. Now, this isn’t my scale, it’s yours. You bought and paid for it the moment you made the decision (remember that?).

But see here, I thought this whole thing was supposed to be about truth!

Okay, good point. Let’s look over what we have so far one more time.

We have:
WRITING (ACTIVELY)

and then we have some other things pretty blasé things: PLANNING TO WRITE (IN THE FUTURE), GOT A WRITING IDEA, GETTING A WRITING IDEA, WANTING A WRITING IDEA, HOPING FOR A WRITING IDEA.

Oh boy. So long as we’re being truthful here, I think we can sum up everything here below WRITING (ACTIVELY) as one thing. And here it is:

NOT WRITING

Okay, that’s pretty brutal.

By way of a review, we have thus far for the scale only two elements (or you could call them conditions, or anything you choose). We have:

WRITING (ACTIVELY)

NOT WRITING

But that’s not much of a scale, now is it? I mean, it’s like there has to be something else here, right?

Well wouldn’t you know it, I found one. Ohh. Ahh. This one’s the most sinister one of all, because it’s so far down the scale that it comes out the other side of the Earth, heads out the atmosphere toward the fringes of the Van Allen radiation belt, and floats back around and settles in right above WRITING (ACTIVELY), and makes jokes about it being so far down there.

And here it is, the most brutal thing of all:

WROTE

And it really is WROTE, as in, “Hey, look at me! I wrote all those books!”

“So what?” the pragmatist in me says, which begs the questions, “What are you writing, actively, right now?”

The real reason that WROTE is so utterly evil, so unabashedly insidious, is that it becomes the complete justification for NOT WRITING.

You see, I have this policy. I don’t care the situation or what time it is of the day or night, but when I write “THE END” or otherwise put the final period to anything, I don’t bother to revel in the accomplishment, but I immediately open another blank file and start writing. It’s a professional thing, and all the mechanics of writing in the world don’t matter a damn if you’re stuck at WROTE on the scale. You have to jump back up the scale instantly or, let me tell you, you’re lost, buddy.

All right.

I just wanted to share this with you, possibly give you a little attitude adjustment here.

Why?

Here’s why. That first-time writer friend of yours who is struggling (but actually working on) that first book of theirs is far senior to anyone out there, no matter how many bestsellers they may have gathering dust on their shelf, who is NOT WRITING. Can you see how that might be so?

By the way, circling back around here (my professor always tried to drill “you’ve got to circle back around to the start” into my head way back in freshman college English, and I always damned him for doing so—last time I checked, there was no such thing as always, but I digress), that fellow up in the Alaskan outback was, I knew it at the time, senior to me with all those books I had written because as he told me in the cover letter that accompanied his sans-period-four-hundred-pages, he was already writing the sequel! And me? I wasn’t actively writing dang-ditly-dang-ditly ding dong ding! So, this is my way of saying, please, drop the attitude if you’ve got one, and either write something or help somebody else up the ladder, because if you’re factually not creating or helping others, then you’re of little value to yourself or anyone else.

One last time, here’s the scale.

WRITING (ACTIVELY)

NOT WRITING

WROTE

I’m afraid it’s the only scale, but you may have more entries. If you do, please drop me a line. I’ll at least listen.

Okay, I guess that’s it. I hope this may help you in some small way.

Peace.


Listen to George Wier's podcast here.



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