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Author Topic: Folklore of Writing
extrinsic
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I'm curious about traditional folklore beliefs you-all hold regarding creative writing. For prompt purposes, consider folklore as any utilitarian or aesthetic, or both, artistic expression traditionally held by a culture, creative writing's cultures specifically: writing culture itself, publication culture, literature culture, and audience culture.

Putting words into a pleasing syntatical arrangement, fame and fortune will ensue is one widely held within the greater human culture, for example.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Putting words into a pleasing syntatical arrangement, fame and fortune will ensue is one widely held within the greater human culture, for example.

Gosh I feel sorry for anyone who takes up writing because of *that* belief.

I'll throw out some candidates for folkore which may be controversial. The first is "write what you know." In most folkore there is a kernel of truth, and the kernel of truth here is that it's helpful to draw upon your personal knowledge. As corollary would be to develop broad personal knowledge of what you write about. If you write about guns, visit the shooting range. If we obeyed "write what you know" as an absolute rule there would be no science fiction, or fantasy, or any literature to be read for pleasure except memoir. A better version of this would be: *write about what intrigues you*, but make sure you do your research.

Another piece of folklore that is only partly true: "show not tell." This is a reliable piece of advice to give beginners, because they always do too much "telling," but taken as an unbreakable commandment it produces inflated word counts and lots of pointless detail (intriguing detail is something else entirely). I don't need to know every turn your character makes on the way from the bridge to the transporter room. "She went the transporter room," works well enough, thank you. I think a better guideline would be "If you find yourself telling, consider showing instead."

For my next candidate, I'd nominate an entire book: Strunk and White's "Elements of Style". This book is popular with teachers and students because it is so simple, unequivocal and clear. Unfortunately, it is *always* simple, unequivocal and clear, even about issues which are complex and debatable.

The advice "Use the active voice," is a good example. The passive voice is the grammatical construction where the subject of a sentence is the target of the verb's action, and like almost any other grammar can be used stupidly. Take the sentence, "The car was stolen." It is in the passive voice as is natural in many contexts. What happened to my car? It was stolen. To say that in the active voice you'd say, "Somebody stole the car." That's not really any better. Actually, I'd say it was worse.

You use passive voice when who did a thing is unknown or relatively unimportant. People *overuse* it to evade responsibility ("Mistakes were made...") or when they're adding a layer of obscurity to their writing for corrupt style reasons (bureaucratic or academic writing).

In any case, White was asked to rework his old teacher's personal style guide for republication, and he was well aware of many of its defects. He was a wonderful writer who didn't follow the book's recommendations much, except the ones that were irrefutably vague ("Be clear") or tautological ("Do not explain *too much*").

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Brendan
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quote:
People *overuse* it to evade responsibility ("Mistakes were made...") or when they're adding a layer of obscurity to their writing for corrupt style reasons (bureaucratic or academic writing).

That's a generalisation that doesn't really pan out. In academic writing, passive voice is used to make a break between objective and subjective styles. In science, for example, passive voice is a simple way to declare factual evidence. For example:

The rod was strained until the point of fracture.

Could have been written.

We (or I) strained the rod until it fractured.

However, this unnecessarily incorporates a non-salient point to the argument - the fact that I or We did the action. If it were salient, then there are serious doubts as to the scientific nature of the enquiry. This isn't creating obscurity - quite the opposite, it is paring it back to its simplest form.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Brendan:

In academic writing, passive voice is used to make a break between objective and subjective styles. In science, for example, passive voice is a simple way to declare factual evidence.

True, but not the whole story. I was one of the authors of a proposal that landed a $750,000 research grant-- in fact I wrote about 80% of the content. I sent it off to our partners at Harvard for editing, and was appalled by the way they inflated it with dreary, overblown language and unnecessary complexity, including switching all the active voice to passive. Where I had, "Lab X will then model value Y using method Z," the Harvard team would have "Using method Z, value Y will be subsequently modeled by lab X."

"Yeah, it's cr*p," the Harvard lead said, "but trust me, this'll sell." And he was right.

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extrinsic
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Okay, a bit on the technical side. Maybe asking insiders what traditional notions they accept about their art is too close to see the trees for the forest. Maybe writing-related mythology would be more suitable for my curiosity's sake.

My example before is sort of based on the myth that if you write it it will be read widely and respected.

What about writing superstitions? If I outline a story I'll have exhausted my excitement. If I use a word, say the four-letter word for air movement, I'll be cursed by my muse, who has forbidden me to use the word in that context. If I have to do research, it will impede the writing as much as it will impede readers' reading.

What about luck rituals and lucky charms? Wishful or magic thinking? If I do this this many times, sink a waste paper ball into a waste paper bin, that outcome will result.

Proverbs, and by proverbs I mean popular maxims with underlying meanings and wisdoms. Like Sir Walter Scott's notorious "What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Recast to apply to writing, that proverb might read What a mangled thread we leave when first we practice to conceive. Or maybe writing is like . . . "a box of chocolates" (Forest Gump).

Maybe the very craft of writing itself as a form of folklore expression? Like quilting is a folklore craft expressing various cultural traditions.

Foodways are a folklore craft in that one culture may believe that anything with tomatoes in it must be spiced wih cinnamon. Maybe any kind of porridge must have a fat added, like butter or suet. Beef must be served with potatoes. Applied to writing, a foodways or other context area, a proverb might be metaphorically adjusted, like a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. Every action must cause a reaction. Portraying the causal stimuli necessitates portraying the reaction. What goes up must come down. In one ear and out the other. And so on.

I like foodways metaphors for writing. A folklore derived from another folklore and become idiom. Foodways and writing have basic similarities. Writing for one's self is like cooking for one's self. It's basic sustenance with a touch of emotionally comforting satisfaction. Cooking for others calls for a degree of appealing to other's tastes and providing sensory stimulation for greater satisfaction, and a measure of tender loving care.

Mom made punishment dinners when we and them, the family, didn't show our appreciation for all her caretaking and caregiving, functional or dysfunctional. Dad grew to like them punishment dinners. I didn't. Yet they were metaphors I've applied to writing. Even the most unpalatable food, prepared according to tradition, appeals to someone's nostalgic sensibilities.

Mom's favorite punishment dinner was the same one in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, also a metafictional novel full of writing metaphors. Fried-to-shoe-sole-leather calve's liver and onions, slimy collard greens, and torpid mashed turnips. Yu-ummy. Yuck-ick, actually.

Applied to writing, punishment dinners are what writers do to protagonists. Not readers. I think that one's misunderstood.

Mom sent a subtle message we didn't get when a punishment dinner was before us on the table, each of us in our turns over our childhood years sitting on a stack of thick dictionaries, atlases, and scriptures to reach the table, forelorn with a dinner that was inedible, left too long and gone cold, lost for what little appeal the food might have had when served fresh, sitting alone at the table after everyone else has finished dessert, cleared the table, and left, obliged to finish regardless, prisoner to Mom's willpower and not but one way out. Mom will prevail.

Seeing my youngest by sixteen years sibling sitting alone on the books before a cold punishment dinner broke my heart. It was a harsh and hard object lesson those punishment dinners, one that could only be learned by acquiescing to Mom's will.

That's a family foodway folklore tradition. Interpreting it for writing, instead of forcibly ingesting a punishing dinner, putting the hard and harsh writing tasks to work is the only easy way out. The easiest way is the hardest way. The hard way is the easy way. A proverb and a paradox. Writing folklore, I believe.

[ August 14, 2012, 12:30 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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It would seem there are a number of things in the "how to behave as a professional writer" category that fall into this "folklore" category---some of which seem dubious to me on reflection.

What comes to mind also falls into the category of "things I've bitched extensively about before," so be warned that some of you older folks on the boards have seen me say these things before.

Some things are reasonable---like, if you want the MS back, it's important to send a stamped and self-addressed envelope with it.

Other things seem less so. Markets (or editors) insisting on quality of paper the MS is printed on, or particular kinds of typefaces. Or a habit one market has gotten into of stealing the first page of the MS without comment.

Form rejections are sometimes odd---it leaves the long-term writers like me in the position of reading "there's nothing wrong with this story, but for reasons I won't go into I'm not buying it." Irritating, to say the least.

Then there's also the "grin and bear it" attitude that's condoned among the "professional" crowd---if "professional" is defined as "someone who's sold a lot," I doubt the markets would reject something from one of the Grand Masters if it came printed on basic multiuse copy paper...

(Please note that I have so little experience with electronic submission that I know little of any conventions in it---though some that have been reported to me seem odd and pointless.)

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