The flood threatens! Noah needs an arc. He hires a carpenter who constructs a roughly-shaped wooden cube 120 feet high, wide, and deep. To know the front of the arc, Noah has a figure of a maiden sculpted in flowing robes that is attached to a corner of the cube’s top and tilted forward, hair flowing, as if in a strong wind. Great. The bow!
Now Noah needs an aft. He fastens a discarded wagon wheel to the side of the arc opposite the maiden. Jumping Jehovah! The stern! And for passenger access, he cuts a large-diameter circle on the top of the cube. Superb! For passengers to see out he fashions four windows on each of the arc’s sides and bottom. And of course his passengers need “facilities.” He attaches a sturdy wide platform that extends over the arc’s side with a circular hole at the far end for potty use. Finished!
He advertizes with smoke signals for pairs of people, animals, and things to apply for vetting. But at his celebration party, the heavens split wide and a deep, and a loud, unfriendly voice tells Noah it’s a stupid idea and it will never work. “Do it right!” the voice booms.
Noah hires a consultant who destroys the figurehead, moves the stern wagon wheel up two feet, and occludes seven of the twenty windows. He enlarges the hole at the end of the potty plank to accommodate larger passengers.
Noah, happy with revisions, throws another party. But that loud voice squelches the reverie. “That’s not an arc, you degenerate nincompoop.” Noah trembles with fright; thunder and lightening prevail; the voice says: “To hell with you!”
WHAT is this ABOUT?
There is an alarming corollary between our Noah and beginning writers of fiction stories striving to be the best. Noah had no knowledge, and probably no ability, and built a cube for an arc. To distinguish the arc, he embellished it with useless articles. When he failed, he sought fixes here and there from a consultant when the basic problem was conceptualization and structure.
Compare beginning writers. They take a creative-writing workshop and submit manuscripts for critiquing. To the students concerns, fellow students critique the manuscripts while the instructor oversees discussion. At workshop’s end, students have copies of their manuscripts splotched with circled or crossed-out words, squiggly lines, arrowheads, and smiley or frowny emojis–hundreds of fixes that are mostly ineffective (like covering windows, removing a figurehead, and enlarging a potty hole to make a cube into an arc). Valuable instruction is almost never offered on how stories are structured and characters are shaped with action scenes and plots infused with drama.
Sadly, academic teachers often ignore fundamental concepts. Great fiction as literature: 1) is imagined and created, not just described from memory; 2) has strong characterization that drives plot progression, 3) is structured to engage, entertain. and enlighten; 4) requires concrete imagery, momentum, clarity, and meaning, 5) is revised with significant change when needed and not just fixed with an addition here or deletion there, or even just adding another hundred words.
After attending over a hundred plus creative-writing workshops, I believe academics has failed students with poor, unqualified, inaccurate, lifeless teaching that has resulted in the decline artful literary fiction–fiction that uniquely enlightens about human struggles in a constantly shifting culture and society. The quality of contemporary academic workshop teaching is a cultural tragedy riddled with memoir-based storytelling and prose generated from authorial ego, the “literature of self.”
ADVICE. Learning the art of creating fiction is best achieved by careful analytical study of the great, lasting stories the author admires while simultaneously finding talented, selfless, and enthusiastic instructors who both write and teach well, and will mentor the deserved.
The Spirit of Want is an acclaimed, award-winning novel by William H. Coles
that illustrates the ideas in the post above.