Rules, Tools and the Power of Narrative

By CM Taylor

CM Taylor is a novelist and a screenwriter. He teaches on the new mentored Retreat West course ‘The Novel Creator’. Here, he outlines his approach to teaching writing.

Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

Above is a (slightly excised) quote from T S Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men, and while Eliot was writing more broadly about the human condition it seems true that in so doing he also knowingly defined the central burden of the writer. Namely: how do you move clearly from intention (the idea, the motion, conception, the motion) to the finished work (the reality, the act, the creation, the response)?

How do you turn that itch, that distant glimpse of shy meaning, that feeling that every writer has about wanting to say something far off; how do you turn that into a sculpted, true, finished thing?

How do you move from inspiration to form?

Please, let me tell you a story.

In the year 2000 I was sat in my then lounge in Brussels in a patch of sunlight and the idea hit me that I was going to write a book about cows. Thunk! The inspiration came down, and as someone who believes in honouring inspiration, who has some pure, Jungian faith in messages received from inside, I went with it. As I always do.

Six years later, after researching natural history, domestication, evolution, agriculture, bleeding etc, I had finished a book which had cost me countless hours of cursing and swearing and research and discombobulation. Crucially, the book was really bad.

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.

Fast forward to 2014, and I’m sat in a taverna in Spain and – Thunk! – suddenly I know I’m going to write a book about an expat couple, one of whom wants to move home and one of whom wants to stay on.

Four years later, after doing barely any research at all, and I’ve written the most emotionally-satisfying and honest piece I’ve ever written and it’s out, published by Duckworth.

What’s the difference?

In a word, structure.

Between those two dates – as well as having kids and jobs and such things – I had worked extremely hard to develop an understanding of the underlying principles of story structure, and – this is the crucial bit – I had worked out how to use storytelling principles in service to my inspiration.

I’d read the works of story-telling theorists (Aristotle, Jung, Campbell, Booker, Field, Snyder, Vonnegut, Marks, Pixar, Yorke, etc) many – but not all – of whom said or implied or assumed that you must tell a story one way, and your story must have certain elements. I’d wrestled with act structure and the mid-point and point of view and the crisis and the inciting incident and the act one turn and the death experience and the character arc and the hero’s journey and the monomyth and the archetypes and the difference between story and plot – and I found what I read to be formative and useful and fortifying. But some of the approaches outlined left me cold, while some lit me up; plus, much of it seemed contradictory, arbitrary, brimming with macho stipulation.

I realised that writings on the underlying structures of story were tools not rules.

These tools either helped fan the flames of my initial inspirations, or they did not. My initial inspiration which emerged from my feelings and my experience was the cardinal thing, the sacred fuel, the whole reason and justification and motivation to write, without which I had no reason at all to write, and if the things I was reading from story-telling gurus did not back that up, then I just walked away.

That’s why almost every lecture I give begins with George Orwell’s rules of writing from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Now the first five of Orwell’s rules warn sensibly against the passive voice and cliché and against verbosity and shallow intellectualism, etc, but then the sixth rule says this: Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

And I love that. It has helped me immeasurably.

That’s my attitude to teaching and practice.

Use the rules, don’t let them use you. Break any of them rather than allow them to falsify your experience, your truth about life. Knowledge of storytelling craft is there to endorse and develop your unique perception. Craft should be a buoyancy aid not a millstone, to help your personal artistic truth from falling lost into the shadow.

That’s why I make theme – what a writer’s work is about – central to my storytelling teaching and practice, and why I develop character and plot from theme. Theme, meaning, inspiration is the soul of the work.

So, can creative writing be taught? Some say no it can’t. But as someone who has seen with his own eyes many, many writers develop thrillingly through the application of craft to their art, I know it can be taught. Absolutely.

But I think it can only be taught usefully in a non-stipulative way which privileges and endorses the writer’s personal experience and bears in mind that the more formulas you apply to writing the more formulaic the writing becomes.

Oh, and there’s a second condition needed for creative writing to be usefully taught – that the writer has to absolutely work their arse off. And there’s not one single thing any teacher can do to guarantee that.

Find out more about Retreat West’s mentored ‘The Novel Creator’ course, and check out testimonials from previous students, here.

Head to CM Taylor’s website for more on his writing, editing and teaching work.