Wise Words from Professionals about Writing Stories
Writers ask the same question, “how can my writing get better?” And every writer winces when they hear the answer, “keep reading and writing.” Writers are encouraged to read extensively because they show prime examples of constructing a well-layered character or intertwining detailed plots. They are also encouraged to write endlessly because they learn to work through their ideas on the page through the flow of their pen. While that answer is correct and a good way to achieve more polished literature, there are better ways to refine the writing craft.
Modern authors look to the literary Cannon and see all the influential writers and works, and they do not realize that the great writers before our time did not only leave prized works to mull over but their incredible wisdom on the craft itself. Writer's criticisms are more of a valued resource to learn from because they are the direct words of professionals who have struggled with the same questions and found the solutions. In this article, Margaret Atwood, Anton Chekhov, and John Cheever will speak to the reader about methods of writing, saturated description, and enjoyment of writing. From these critiques, the author can discern the methodology of writing easier than puzzling it together from reading and writing.
In Margaret Atwood's "Reading Blind" lBlessay, she states, “We don't judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair. We judge them by the way they strike us” (Atwood, pp. 1397). This criticism explains to an author that they can not go about writing a story with a set of rules and expect to produce a fantastic spectacle because our stories are not evaluated with just our eyes but with our minds. It is more about how the story has cadence and rhythm and how the reader moves with the story. Atwood describes two kinds of stories that we encounter, one being “real life,” where most writers obtain their material and the other “mere literature,” where certain events only happen in stories. “A writer with nothing but a formal sense will produce dead work, but so will one whose only excuse for what is on the page is that it really happened” (Atwood, pp. 1398-1399). If authors limit themselves to these restrictions, their work suffers because they try too hard to follow a “rule” instead of expressing the story. Following a formula is not how a reader deciphers a story; they see it as a good story when they feel the writer must tell them and they must listen.
The description in a story can be tricky when writing because it's subjective to the author. There is either too much or not enough description for the reader, and both end in the abandonment of the book. Anton Chekhov states that “the description of Nature should be brief and have a character of relevance” (Chekhov, pp 1411). Chekhov advises the writer that they must be simple and relevant, not trapping the reader with long monologues and superfluous words. When mentioning something descriptive, they need to keep it short and focus on the “little particulars,” which are the minor details. Chekhov advises this because simple description allows the reader to shut their eyes and imagine the scene easier than a lengthy, saturated paragraph. The description is to depict the hero's actions and not their state of mind, allowing the reader to judge them. If a writer is not careful of their description, they indirectly introduce subjectivity and blur the image they have created for the reader, expanding the story and erasing all compaction. While it is the writer's job to present the art to the reader, it is the reader's job to interpret and showcase their feelings.
Writers write for various reasons. Some to blow off steam from a hard day at work, others to relieve themselves of pesky ideas in their heads, and others because that is how their soul breathes.
John Cheever says that “without literature, we would perish” (Cheever, pp 1409); most people would agree with nods, but writers would stand and start a crusade. To write is to fight for one's freedom of speech with a pen. It is not necessarily about the subject of the material the reader has grabbed; it is about the fact that the writer has written something down. Cheever published a collection of short stories and described it as “a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay and lewd and ancient family history” (Cheever, pp 1409). Cheever recognizes that his feat may not be as outstanding as the others; however, its distinguished intensity and episodic nature have given him a sense of fulfillment and enjoyment in his achievement. Authors are often discouraged when approached with rejection or short listing, but Cheever encourages and pushes them to see the enjoyment in literature and feel the exhilarating feeling when writing. When a writer writes and feels the flow of energy and creation coming from their fingertips, the translated image is a “moving display of nostalgia, vision, and love” (Cheever, pp 1410), and it is a scene that could not be displayed anywhere better but inside a story.
Putting pen to paper is the easy part; producing meaningful literature is the hard part. Ernest Hemingway says, “the hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight, honest prose on human beings. First, you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn” (Hemingway, 2013). Hemingway tells writers that refining their craft is a long and tedious process, and there is no formula to create the perfect product. Instead, writers will learn through their life experiences, and their craft will continue to refine throughout their lives.
Writers may find multiple ways to refine their writing craft, like reading and writing; however, writers' criticisms are a more substantial resource to consider because of their insight and guidance. These criticisms provide better solutions and different perspectives than independent study to the writer because the criticisms teach writers new avenues and ideas to grapple with their craft. With the help of Atwood's words about disregarding rules while writing, Chekhov's advice about description, and Cheever's insight into why writers write, aspiring writers are left with useful knowledge that will further aid them when starting or refining their final draft.
Charters, A., Charters, S., Sheidley, W. E., & Atwood, M. (2015). Reading Blind. In The Story and its Writer: An introduction to short fiction (pp. 1397–1400). Essay, Bedford/St. Martin's.
Charters, A., Charters, S., Sheidley, W., & Cheever, J. (2015). Why I Write Stories. In The Story and its Writer: An introduction to short fiction (pp. 1409–1410). Essay, Bedford/St. Martin's.
Charters, A., Charters, S., Sheidley, W., & Chekhov, A. (2015). Technique In Writing the Short Story. In The Story and its Writer: An introduction to short fiction (pp. 1411–1412). Essay, Bedford/St. Martin's.
Hemingway, E. (2013). Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba .Esquire. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://classic.esquire.com/article/1934/12/1/old-newsman-writes
Hosefros, J. (1978). John Cheever at Home in Ossining, New York. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/18/john-cheever-blake-bailey
Karsh, Y. (1977). Margaret Atwood: The Last Testament. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://karsh.org/margaret-atwood-the-testaments/
Opitzca. (1900). A.P. Chekhov. [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.my-chekhov.com/foto.shtml