If I had to pick a single reason why I think Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular is the best book ever written about storytelling, it would be that Rust Hills is entirely focused on liberating writers through craft. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you bungle the manner in which you tell a story it’s not going to have the intended effect. If what you ultimately want to do is express yourself Hills would never stand in the way of that goal, but he would expect you to master technique and craft as a means to that end. Simply gutting yourself on a blank page doesn’t cut it, no matter how vital the experience might feel or how much attention you might get as a result. (Rubbernecking isn’t only for car wrecks.)
In practice, however, I don’t think most writers start with a desire to make art. They begin, rather, with the humble objective of exploring the medium, while perhaps also harboring dreams of critical or commercial success. As with any craft or profession, what most students want are hard and fast rules that lead to success. And while Hills (and I) would say there are no rules, it’s understandable that many if not most beginning writers would like a few guideposts and markers to follow — if only to keep from getting lost.
My grandmother was a teacher for fifty years, mostly in junior high. One of her favorite stories concerned assigning a short paper on any topic students wanted to write about. Within minutes, she said, her desk was always surrounded by students looking for topic suggestions. If that’s where you’re at with fiction, that’s okay. It’s understandable the you might like some rules to follow until you decide to break them yourself. And if what you’re looking for is a step-by-step guide that’s okay, too. Whatever it takes to get you writing and exploring the craft of fiction is the right way to go.
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular is not a How-to book. It is not a step-by-step guide. It is, rather, a book about the conceptual physics that underpins all storytelling. When I read it I’m constantly amazed at how liberating and empowering it is, precisely because it helps me see my own work and efforts in a larger context. Like this:
The ultimate intricacy of even the simplest successful short story could never be imagined from its original conception.
Whatever the writing process is like for you — whatever fears you have that it will go awry, or that you won’t be up to the task — this statement empowers craft and diminishes demons. Writing is inherently iterative in every way. The draft process not only allows you to fix mistakes, it’s the only way you can ever hope to write something great.
No author has the power of conceiving an entire work in advance. It can’t be done. The best you can ever hope to do is minimize the amount of wandering you have to do on the way to whatever a story ends up being. And the best way to do that is to make good choices along the way. Which means, as the title of this section suggests, that choice in itself is craft.
What about those moments when you’re not sure what to do? Well, that’s where the gurus and How-to books make their money: they spell it all out for you. In exchange for embracing those constraints — and the the possibility that what they suggest might be wrong for the story you’re telling — you get to feel as if you know what you’re doing as long as you ignore your own budding instincts.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hills takes the opposite approach:
Whenever it seems to a beginning writer that he himself is in conflict with his own preconceived notions about what a story should be, he’s probably best advised to go along with himself, write what he “feels” like writing, and forget the preconceived plan. Chances are a new and better plan may occur to him as he proceeds.
This is why I say that half of writing is craft and half is learning who you are as a writer. You can’t plan it all out. You have to learn how to trust your gut because no matter how much formula you guzzle you’re going to be making a thousand independent decisions for every choice someone makes for you. Going off on your own instead of following someone else’s dotted lines may feel harrowing, but it’s where the learning is. And where the great fiction is.
It’s craft and experience that helps you make all the choices you need to make when you tell a story. That “better plan” that pops into your head comes partly from instinct — from seeing a new way through the tangle you’ve written yourself into — but also from craft; from knowing what your objective is and how different methods can take you there.
In compensation for Hills’ focus on liberation and permission and freedom there is an expectation that authors will take responsibility for the whole of each work. You get to write without limitations or rules or formulas in exchange for which you promise not to abuse that privilege. Because Hills assumes that art is at least part of any author’s objective, it’s easy to dismiss how relevant his advice and observations are for all writers. Which is precisely why I’m writing this series of posts: to extend the relevance to authors writing genre fiction, stage plays, screenplays, etc. I’m trying to connect the dots between writers who think in steps or formulas and writers who think in terms of art and expression because in the end all writers need to know how to think in all ways.
If he is to do his own unique and original and characteristic work, a short story writer must have at his command all the methods used by others. He must be able to identify whatever problems are blocking his work’s realization; must know all of the alternatives available to him to solve them.
Choice is a technique. Learning how to make choices is essential not only for any story you want to tell, but for your writing life. If you find a comfortable groove and want to stay in it that’s fine, but there are no shortcuts or formulas that will tell you how to answer every question. To get the most out of your gifts you’re going to have to ask the most of yourself.
Next up: Point-of-View Methods.
— Mark Barrett