On So-Called “Exceptional Authors”

Daulton Dickey.

{The following post is in response to this article.}

I recently read an article on the dos and donts of plotting novels. At the end of the article, the writer, Amanda Patterson, said, “If you are an exceptional author, you may not need a plot. The rest of us do.”

To my mind, this statement represents one of two—or one or two—attitudes: false modesty or condescension. And it also entails that those who aren’t “exceptional” are “not-exceptional,” which leads me to interpret the above statement as condescending, not falsely modest.

I reject the assertion that exceptional authors by nature don’t need plot, and I also reject the notion that everyone else does.

In fact, I’ll go one further: I reject the notion of “exceptional authors”—as popularly conceived.

In this context, “exceptional authors” must mean “people who don’t play by our rules.” I will use “exceptional authors” in that sense. It’s possible that a writer who doesn’t need plot is a writer who has spent a considerable amount of time reading books with no plot and writing books with no plot.

Like any other craft, writing requires practice. Also like any other person focusing on a single craft, a writer is a person who, at some point, emulates writers they prefer. This is a step writers must take in the process of “finding their voices.”

So an “exceptional author” is a person who writes different books from many other writers, but writing books differently entails a different set of rules. So-called “exceptional authors” still follow many rules that others do—such as syntax, grammar, or rules such as ‘show, don’t tell,’ and so on—but when the rules diverge, it doesn’t mean that one person writes without rules and the other doesn’t. It simply means that, when the rules diverge, they split off into different rule branches.

People who need plot, on the other hand, are, in all likelihood, people who prefer plot-driven books and writers who themselves write plot-driven books. And as I mentioned above: if those people tend to write the books they like by writers they love, then they will start off emulating them, including their proclivities for plot-driven narratives.

If your interest lies in writing plot-driven books, then you must master the rules of your chosen branch—and plotting is crucial to those rules.

If, on the other hand, your interest lies in books that aren’t plot driven, then you must master those rules—although they will, in all likelihood, minimize or eliminate rules for plotting.

There are rules that writers must master. The rules themselves don’t define a writer as “exceptional”; they just define him or her as different. The rules of plotting don’t define a writer as “not-exceptional”; they just define him or her as different from the so-called “exceptional authors.”

And there’s nothing wrong with being different from a writer who doesn’t write the kinds of books that you do.

I also want to reject the notion that the other people, those who supposedly aren’t “exceptional authors,” necessarily need to write plot-driven novels.

As I stated above: writing requires practice, writing requires emulating other writers, and writing requires mastering rules.

If a person doesn’t fit into the subset that Amanda Patterson calls “exceptional authors,” and if that person so chooses, then he or she can write books that don’t require plots, he or she can become writers who “may not need” plots, by following the above conditions a writer must meet.

In short, if a writer wants to write differently, then he or she must play by different rules, and he or she must master those rules by practicing and by emulating writers who play by similar rules before finding his or her voice.

It may not be easy—that writer will have to change his or her way of thinking when approaching books—but it’s not impossible. And it has nothing to do with being exceptional or not.

Confessions of a Failed Writer

Daulton Dickey.

They say “write what you know.” Sometimes I find that boring. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes when I hear that, I think, “How are you supposed to learn anything if you stick to what you know?”

For years now, I’ve extended beyond the simple forms of fiction, and I’ve tried to imagine new forms, or at least to re-imagine the old forms. Some people might call it pretentious or arrogant, but I simply tell people that that’s how my mind works, which is the truth.

I can’t write formulaic fiction. I’ve done it and it bores me to tears.

If I as a writer can’t generate enthusiasm for a book, then how can I expect anyone else to feel enthusiastic about it?

So I break forms or change them or alter them to generate enthusiasm, to retain and sustain my interest.

My books are puzzles to me; I write myself into a corner on a daily basis and then torture myself by trying to come up with solutions to the problems I’ve created. If I have a process, then what I’ve just described is it.

Whenever I try to write a straightforward novel, my brain gets the best of me and derails it. I simply can’t break away from my ambitions, and my ambitions are simple: to figure out new ways to tell stories.

To me, the point of telling a story is to create an experience, to manufacture one, and to manipulate emotions to heighten that experience.

But the way experiences are manufactured, the traditional forms used to manufacture experiences and to manipulate emotions, don’t work for me—as a reader and as a writer. For whatever reason, they simply don’t work for me. And so as a writer I attempt to write what I’d want to read, and considering the paucity of new novels that excite me, that turn me on, I set out to write one. Over and over and over again.

I don’t pretend to be a perfect writer, I don’t pretend to be a brilliant writer—I’m just a different writer: different in the sense that I can’t produce the kinds of fiction other people produce. For whatever reason, I don’t have it in me.

And that’s what has doomed me. Although I have many novels written, I can’t get anyone interested in them. There’s no market for them, I’m told.

So then why do I bother?

Writing is woven into the fabric of my being. I cannot separate myself from writing. It is as much a part of me as my RNA and DNA. I was born with letters and words and sentences in my bones, not marrow.

Everyday I don’t write I feel as though I’ve committed an act of self-destruction; and when I sit down to write, I torture myself, spending more time berating myself for not writing than I actually spend writing.

For years, writing was enough. Writing fulfilled me. But now, after twenty years, writing no longer fulfills me. It no longer fulfills me because I feel as though I’m shouting into a vacuum. Few things are disheartening as feeling you have something to say and having no one hear it—or, in my case, read it.

It seems as though there is no interest in experimental or avant garde fiction, which is the only fiction I’m capable of producing—it’s the only fiction I want to produce, it’s the only fiction that interests me. And it’s the form that few people want to publish. And it’s the form that few people want to read. Or so it seems.

Perhaps the way I approach agents and publishers lacks finesse. Perhaps my books are too radical or different for consumption. Or perhaps I’m an awful writer who produces rubbish and has somehow convinced himself that this rubbish is worthwhile.

Whichever answer is correct—and perhaps it’s not the case of an either/or—one thing is certain: I’m a failed writer. And since I define myself as a writer, I feel as though I’m a failure as a human being. I feel as though nothing I do is good enough. I feel as though I’m incapable of being the person I want to be; instead, I’m the one thing I’ve always feared: a complete and total failure.

On the Fictitious Nature of Memoirs, and why I’m currently writing one

Daulton Dickey.

Let’s get the point out of the way first, then expand on it: memoirs are works of fiction. Specifically, memoirs as artifacts of “truth” or “reality” are neither true nor real. They are constructions founded in subjectivity and the malleability of human memories; and as products of the written word, they are constructed using techniques similar, if not identical, to works of fiction.

At first glance, memoirs seem to hold a place separate from fiction and non-fiction. Memoirs appear to some as the vehicles through which truth, in some sense objective, travels.

Memoirs are strictly subjective, incapable of anything approaching objectivity.

How can I make such an assertion? Without giving a dissertation, I’ll sum up some findings of modern cognitive science: our experiences of everything are products of our brains; our sense of self are products of our brains; what we experience and how we experience it are products of our brains.

Since our experience of any given situation is a product of our brains, it is impossible for us to step outside experience to see things as they actually are. We may attempt to imagine what things might be like, but we can’t say for certainty what things are like—this is the goal of every field of science: to determine with certainty what things are like.

Since we can’t step outside of ourselves to see things as they are, isn’t it possible to view ourselves from a different point of view—a sober middle-aged man, for example, looking back at himself as a drunk in his twenties and seeing his previous self in a more objective light?

Although it’s possible to consider our younger selves and draw conclusions, it’s impossible to do so objectively. When we consider our younger selves we’re experiencing memories in our current state. That is, our current state frames the experience, even altering our memories.

Briefly: memories are not like Blu Rays; you don’t passively watch an exact recording; instead, memories are stored as information—specifically electrical impulses; not every piece of information is retained when a memory is encoded. When we retrieve a memory, we frame this information in our current state. If I recall a happy memory when I’m sad, for example, I might then view that memory as somehow sad of bittersweet.

Since we reconstruct memories every time we recall them, we don’t pack that information away untouched. When we put that memory away, so to speak, we’re actually re-encoding it, therefore saving the newly added information, including emotional information.

So every time we retrieve a memory, we alter it, and we save that altered memory and assume when we recall it again that that is exactly how we experienced that situation when we initially experienced it.

But even our initial experience of a situation is predicated on our sense of self, which is itself a product of our brains—probably evolved to bring coherency and to prioritize the overwhelming amount of information inundating us at any given moment.

Now back to the question of whether or not an older person can look back at his or her younger self in something like an objective light: as you’ve seen above, it is impossible for us to even reflect on our younger selves without integrating our current selves into the reflection.

When a memoirist writes about his or her younger self, the writing actually tells us as much about his or her current self as it does his or her younger self.

It’s possible that it even tells us more about their current selves than it does about their younger selves.

How? Literary technique.

Memoirs appropriate the rules of fiction writing—even non-fiction, such as history, does this.

The key to contemplating memoirs is to emphasis the fact that these are stories. The writer decides on a starting point and an end point, the writer adheres to traditional fictional structures—simply put: beginning, middle, end, with dramatic arcs built into the structure.

How a memoirist chooses to frame a situation within the context of the written word conveys information about the memoirist’s current state.

Literary techniques such as showing without telling can be found in memoirs. We can also find literary techniques borrowed from fiction to write dialogue.

How many people have read a memoir and encountered a scene in which the narrator, at an early age, has a conversation with someone?

This dialogue is, at best, a probable reconstruction. At worst, it’s a device meant to convey information, even if that information does nothing more than to establish the tone of the narrator’s rapport with various people.

These are situations recreated via the written word and, by employing various literary techniques, they’re transformed into “stories.”

So when you consider that experience is a product of our brains, when you consider that even memories are altered by our current selves—by the current self of a memoirist writing about his or her past, for example—since our experience renders everything in a subjective framework, and since literary techniques borrowed from fiction are used to frame situations as “stories,” it’s improbable to assume that a memoir is anything other than a work of fiction colored by rough approximations of situations the memoirist at one point experienced.

For years, I’ve balked at memoirs. But I’ve studied them recently, having read a considerable amount as of this writing, and now I’m in the process of writing one—about my experiences with bipolar disorder and PTSD.

What changed my mind? The above realization, that memoirs are works of fiction colored by situations experienced by a memoirist.

This realization is liberating: by understanding what memoirs are, I now understand how to play with, and manipulate, the form without consciously or blatantly lying.

Bracketing the cognitive science crash course for a minute, if we just consider that memoirs are structured and framed like works of fiction, and if we understand the rules of fiction, then we can develop new ways of writing memoirs.

We can only break the rules if we understand them. Understanding the rules of fiction, understanding literary technique, teaches you how to manipulate or break those rules.

By understanding the rules of the written word and by understanding how experience, the sense of self, and memories work, then we can play with the content and form of memoirs in new and different ways.

That is why I’m currently writing a memoir: to attempt to play with the content and the form. And I encourage anyone who’s considering writing a memoir to do the same. Just don’t consciously lie and create Continue reading