I've started reading Dan Simmons' The Terror, a 784-page behemoth about a doomed arctic expedition in the mid-1800s. I've only just begun but I suspect Simmons has penned another amazing novel. Years ago, I read Hyperion, a Simmons science-fiction novel which I'm pretty sure my mother bought for me, and absolutely loved it. After starting The Terror a few days ago, I decided to do a bit of research on the author.
For starters, he is a prolific author, having written novels in science fiction, horror, and pulp crime genres (I just won a signed first edition copy of Hardcase on eBay). Apparently, the man was a successful teacher of gifted sixth-graders in Colorado, having been considered for the Colorado Teacher of the Year Award. His English students were writing at a 12th grade level by the time he was through with them! The curriculum he created for his writing students has been published on his website as a series of articles called "Writing Well", of which I have read the first two installments. The man doesn't mess around. He immediately blasts the empty self-help writing guides that encourage amateurs to dig deep and find that latent creativity that's aching to burst forth. "[Writing] is hard," he cautions, "damned hard. God-damned hard." He then goes on to discuss all the qualities a writer must have before they should even begin to consider putting pen to paper. As I read the list of things I should be, some of which I am not but can still strive for, I began to feel discouraged. It almost seemed insurmountable, hopeless. As I continued reading, however, discouragement became motivation. I found myself wanting to achieve all the things he said a writer had to be:
"Being a writer requires many subsets of skills – including the ability to observe closely and objectively, having a keen ear for language, understanding the structures and protocols of fiction, being a powerfully analytical reader, having the ability to bring fictional structure out of the near-infinite chaos that is reality, being intelligent and well-read, having the courage to be honest about things most of us would prefer to avoid discussing, and, for most writers, receiving a broad formal education even before you begin educating yourself to your own style as a writer."
Being a "powerful analytical reader" is the one that hit me hardest. I am not an analytical reader. At all. When I read a book, I read it for the pure entertainment of it. I never, not since college, deconstruct every sentence, dissect every scene or profile every character. Usually, my thoughts upon the conclusion of a book fall in the range of "I liked it" or "I didn't' like it". Clearly, that has to change if I'm going to pay any attention to what Simmons says in his first lesson. The problem is, I have no idea how to read analytically. In fact, I nearly actively rejected the idea in high school because I felt that, by asking us to analyze the use of every single word, my teachers were sterilizing everything I was reading, taking all the fun out of it. That opinion has changed 180 degrees since then and I now understand what they were trying to show me. I only wish I had been wise enough at that young age to understand it then. Goodness, I came extremely close to saying "if I only knew then...".
I think I've got a decent leg up on the broad education. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very good school system with talented and patient teachers. My parents, however, gave me an even more valuable education than that. From an early age, I was exposed to a wide array of cultural educational opportunities: live theater, symphonies, opera, ballet, films, a variety of classes including art, music, zoology and oceanography. They encouraged me to read constantly. Every night, thirty minutes before lights out, one of my parents would say, in the same cadence every time, "Time... to go to beeeeeeeeed... and READ!" We took family vacations, during which I pouted much of the time because I thought my whole summer vacation was being lost (in reality, we were never gone for more than a couple weeks, poor baby). We took tours of the American Southwest and American Pacific Coast, during which I got to see Native American cave dwellings, Montezuma's fortress, the majestic redwood forests, miles of lava caves, whitewater river rafting, too many American landmarks to count. I look back on these travels fondly and they instilled in me an interest in seeing new places; I've recently visited Italy, Ireland and England.
I'll have to work on the other stuff. Like any good teacher, Simmons' lessons have excited me and made me want more.