By Virginia Parker Staat
“People seem to think there’s a magic formula to writing.
I just write one word at a time.” ~ Stephen King
Earning my college degree certainly had its fits and starts. David’s career sent us to six states and a foreign country before we landed for good back in Texas in 1991.
Over a twenty-year period, I attended five different colleges. Most of my writing professors taught me the craft. Because of one professor, however, I laid down my pen for nearly ten years.
David and I had transferred from Arkansas in December of 1981. I was eager to begin the spring semester at my new university, particularly knowing I was only three short semesters from graduating. Unfortunately, the only writing course offered that I hadn’t already taken was an independent study.
I met with the professor to discuss the course. She arrived at her office dressed in a boldly flowered blouse, gaucho pants, a leather vest, and matching leather knee-high boots – hardly normal attire for the Deep South. In her defense, she had just transferred in from Rochester, New York.
We sat in her cramped office, stacked high in one corner with moving boxes. I think we were both surprised to discover I was nearly her peer in age.
After cordial introductions, she handed me her recently published book of short stories and asked to read one of mine. I offered her Lovelady, a story that my Arkansas writing professor considered one of my best. My new professor and I were to meet again the following week to discuss our respective works.
That meeting is one I will never forget. The professor announced that the university was now, thanks to her, “perpetuating a certain style of writing.” She also told me in no uncertain terms that my style didn’t fit.
I asked her what she meant by “perpetuating a style.” She asked if I had read her short stories. I had. They felt strange to me, free flowing, circular and vague, with less of a storyline than an idea running through them. She told me her goal was to have all future university graduates emulate her way of writing. She said that I needed to change my style and use her formula.
The professor pulled my short story from a stack on her desk and handed it to me. She said, “Let’s start with this one.”
She eviscerated the piece. As an example, the story’s ending had an elderly woman rediscovering the beauty of a sunrise. My Arkansas professor had considered the ending poignant and beautiful. The new professor announced that it wasn’t realistic. She said bluntly, “Old people don’t dream.”
I noticed the pages had nearly a dozen small, red-inked circles throughout. I flipped the pages to see what she had circled and almost laughed out loud. She had circled every time I had used the word cow. The story’s setting began and ended on a dairy farm. She said I needed to find another word forcowbecause I had used it too frequently.
I admit I was fairly bristled and exasperated at this point. I asked, “Would you prefer that I use bovine?”
She looked at me over her glasses, pointed her finger at my nose, and said, “YOU have a poor attitude.”
Next she told me my independent study would focus on analyzing her short stories, defining her formula, and explaining her style. I was to keep a notebook listing the nuances for each of her stories so that I would understand what was expected of me in my own future writing.
Needless to say, it was a most difficult semester. Over the next several months, she tried to mold me into herself. At first, I experimented with her formula, trying to think of it as a venture into the writing unknown. It didn’t work for me. The more she tried to force fit my work, the more discouraged and withdrawn I became. I stopped writing. By the end of the semester, I had had enough of formulas. I left the university and put my college dreams and writing on hold. In 1991, when we returned to Texas after a three-year stint in Mexico, I earned my degree and rediscovered my writing voice.
To say the least, I am no fan of formulaic writing. In my humble opinion and experience, formulas stifle creativity, forcing writers to comply with an equation rather than a craft. There are dozens of different formulas to fit different writing genres. A few examples include the inverted pyramid (front-loaded stories with the most important facts first), the APE method (assertion, proof, explanation), the five-paragraph essay (introduction, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion), and even Arieti’s free flow formula (styled after observing his schizophrenic patients and how their thoughts morphed into related concepts).
I do believe that studying different formulas can be valuable for beginning writers. They can be building blocks to understanding writing strategies. Mark Wiley concurs in his article The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist). He writes, “To develop as writers, students must develop a repertoire of strategies for dealing effectively with various writing tasks presented to them in different situations. They must also learn to make choices about genre, content, structure, organization, and style; and they must learn to hone their judgments about the effects of the choices they make as writers.”
Author and teacher Alex Kameen in his article A Formula for Failure: The Problem with Formulaic Writingechoes the greatest problem I see with writing formulas. He explains that formulaic writing holds control over what, where, when, and how students write. Formulaic writing can also cause students to relinquish the formation of their own ideas. As a result of formulaic writing, Kameen believes “the beautiful voices of many students are systematically silenced before they have a chance to rise.”
Kameen continues, “As I have witnessed in my own classroom, writing formulas tend to strip the power of creation, discovery, and voice from writers, as my students are asked simply to ‘comply’ with the parameters of an equation, as opposed to generating innovative ideas. This can frustrate their ability to experience the power of true inquiry, which is a shame.”
If you are writing by formula, I beg you to cease and desist immediately. Instead, surrender to the story and see what emerges. Discover your style without constraints. Create something new. Allow yourself the joy of writing from the depths of your soul. Abandon the formula and hear the beautiful voice that arises from the ashes.
I don’t know if my old professor was successful in bringing her formula to the university’s writing program. If she was, I am convinced that many beautiful voices were silenced in the process. The good news is that I learned a valuable lesson from this woman: Never let someone steal your voice. There will always be people who will want to change you. Learn as soon as possible how to be comfortable in your own skin… and keep writing.Screenwriter David Seltzer says, “If you go in with a formula, you come out with a formula. The whole thrill of being a writer is to do a prototype every time out. And you can do it, something that nobody ever wrote before.” Perhaps it’s my poor attitude talking, but I agree with him completely.