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The Formulaic Art

July 5, 2010

This month, I’m taking a speech class to cover some general education requirements that I probably should’ve gotten out of the way far sooner in my educational career. I’ve had conflicting feelings toward this class…I feared it would be too “basic,” that I would have nothing to learn from it. I like to think of myself as a decent speaker and presenter. If nothing else, I enjoy speaking in public, and I enjoy the process of crafting a speech and presentation. So, at the very least, I apparently have jumped over the greatest hurdle and fear of many Americans.

I’ve had a contradicting fear, however: the fear that the class would be too “difficult.” I am not in any sense a trained speaker; I say what I want to say in the way that I want to say it, and although I think plenty of people appreciate my style, my delivery, and my speaking personality, I have fears that any “professional” speaker or “professional” rhetorician could point out how unprofessional I am in contrast.

We’ve gotten through one week of the class, and I feel like both sets of fears are being vindicated. The second day of class, we had to give a short speech of introduction for another of our classmates, and I was dismayed to see so many people clinging to the podium, clinging to their notecards, clinging to their masses of facts about their assigned classmate. There was no sense of organization, no sense of data processing to determine which data would be most interesting and which data would not be relevant, no sense of story or theme.

And when our teacher discussed metaphors and similes on the third day, and repetition and alliteration and all of these devices in speech, I thought I was back in an English class. An English class that I had learned well in the first time, thank you very much.

Yet, as we move forward in our four week class, crunching in four major speeches, at least two “minor” speeches, three tests, and who knows what else that should actually have a semester’s worth of attention, I feel challenged.

For the first time, I have to outline my speeches. I have to mark the transitions and signposts I use, the evidences and supporting points I raise, and the very introductory and concluding techniques I use.

What’s difficult about all of this is not in coming up with these, but in consciously thinking about what would come naturally to me in developing a speech.

I used to look with disdain at these kinds of “outlines,” as I looked at disdain with sentence outlines or paper outlines in other classes. Why can’t everyone just feel things out?

…but now I realize that for many of my classmates, these things cannot be felt yet. In such a case, teaching the building blocks, formulas, and structures of characteristically “good” speeches is far more effective in training people to “hear” and “feel” a good speech than is simply demanding that they hear or feel out the traits of an ideal speech with no training.

What I’ve realized is the same can be true of any art. I have in the past looked at disdain at literature analysis. Why must I be trained to look for “good writing”? Why can’t good writing be what entertains me?

What has awoken me from this thought process is realizing that I can be entertained by what isn’t necessarily good, and without an appreciation for time-tested structures, I am utterly unable to craft a decent story. So, in my attempt to become a better writer and storyteller, I must begin from ground level and first learn how to see the mechanical pieces of good writing.

Two pieces have made me confront this recently. The first was Francine McKenna’s recent commentary at Sundayed on the formulaic nature of many young authors’ works. The second  was William Morris’s interview with Stephen Carter on his new collection of personal essays at A Motley Vision.

McKenna laments:

The Editors tell us that: “What was notable in all of the writing, above and beyond a mastery of language and of storytelling, was a palpable sense of ambition.” They also say: “…the diversity of origin is striking.”

I would agree. All but one of them – C. E. Morgan was a divinity student – were ambitious enough about their writing career to matriculate with an MFA in Creative Writing. Six of them, seven if you count an Iowa undergraduate degree in English, attended the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, a.k.a. the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For all their diversity of origin and myriad previous degrees, they ended up more or less in the same place – the modern day writers’ finishing school.

I noticed a pattern. The stories all seemed to start with staccato first sentences. There’s very little content but the dramatic lack of context draws you in.

…The endings of the stories are the worst. They’re so unsatisfying. They just stop without resolution. There’s no exhale after holding our breath for five thousand words. It’s hipster ambiguity, as if the writer were saying to the reader, middle finger extended, “Whatever.”

A pattern to beginning and a pattern to ending. A pattern in where these aspiring writers end up — schools for writing to learn the mechanics of storytelling.

But what Stephen Carter said in his interview intrigued me most:

…Before I started my study of fiction, I was a terrible storyteller. Despite all my reading and my English degree, I could not write a story to save my life. I’m kind of like my son who has Asperger’s syndrome: he had to learn to read emotions by making a study of the human face. He doesn’t possess the mental tools most of us have that allow us to read emotion innately. That’s me with stories: I had to learn the mechanisms that run a story, because otherwise I’d never be able to write. You people who have a natural ability to tell stories, I honor you and would like to throw a maltov cocktail through your window.

My dad, who is a computer scientist and an inventor, tells me that once he understands a program or a system, he can picture it as a working schema in his mind and manipulate it to see how it works, and how to improve it. The same thing now happens to me with stories. I can read a novel or watch a movie and all the pieces of the story will come together in my head. I can see how each part affects the others. I can see what would happen if parts were manipulated. It’s like having a Terminator brain.

…I do use a set of storytelling principles when I write. It’s impossible not to, they’re hardwired into my brain now. They take the anxiety out of writing and open up creative space. I know my work will stand up the way an architect knows that a building he designed won’t fall. Someone may not like my style or my content or whatever, but I can always demonstrate the soundness of my structures.

The analogy to the architect, and its final relation to Carter’s own writing, chilled my bones.

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  1. I think my ending here unwittingly captured the sense of hipster ambiguity.

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