The other evening I taught a lesson at the Loft that was meant to help beginning memoirists distinguish between the character and the narrator in their stories. We create personas for ourselves on the page; the main character in every memoir is the younger self who experiences and is changed by events; we can also portray ourselves as a narrator looking back on these events. For writers who assume the “I” on the page is also the living, breathing self, the lesson was tough. Brows furrowed, baffled questions were asked, small groups struggled to figure out which “I” was which, and despair settled everywhere.
I’ve observed this happen whenever I teach some element of craft. Say I reflect on the value of using sensory details; suddenly my students are overly conscious about not using sensory details and assume they’ve failed, or their writing grows ridiculously burdened with sensory details and does fail. Or say I distinguish between prose that shows and prose that tells; suddenly my students’ acute desire to write scenes gives them writer’s block.
Craft instruction seems to set my students’ writing back a step. Before the lesson the other evening, students were easily zooming in on the character and zooming back to reflect as a narrator. Afterward they could barely function.
The funny thing is that most of us intuit what makes a good story and most of us come by strong story-telling skills naturally, effortlessly. Learning the craft of writing is really a process of growing aware about these natural elements so we can make intentional decisions about them. At first our stories control us. As we learn to write and as we take a piece through revision, making deliberate choices about language and perspective and structure and theme, we gain control over our stories. We author stories; we become authors.
The trouble is that the road to awareness passes through crippling self-consciousness. Take heart! This too shall pass. With practice, self-consciousness recedes into informed consciousness. The more you attend to elements of craft in your writing, the easier it is to return to that natural state—only smarter, and with more power behind your pen. Stick with writing and your awareness becomes your greatest asset.