Thursday, September 22, 2011

Passion vs. Technique: Writing from the Heart and the Head

So I just finished Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Having quite enjoyed it (OMG ANN BRONTE IS AMAZING!!!) it got me thinking: why do books like the ones from the Bronte sisters and other writers hit you so hard and stick around so long, while others, if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht as an example, leave a little to be desired?

My conclusion is that the difference is in the passion. The passion the writer imbues into the story as well as the passion within the story itself. Anything written by the Brontes just oozes with passion, while Ms. Obreht's novel, though absolutely beautiful and technically stunning, feels a little manufactured. Passion is what grips readers and makes your story timeless.

Here's the catch: if the technique is too sloppy or obtrusive, the passion will not come across the right way. I don't doubt that Tea wrote her book with the same passion and feeling as any author; but her technique was so cerebral and precise that it kind of got in the way of a unique voice. On the other end of the spectrum, wannabe writers everywhere (and believe me, they are) who either don't know or don't care about technique don't give us anything but an abstract, angsty mess that is way too generic to be relatable or interesting. Readers want to be able to really see you, clearly and uniquely, meaning their vision must be neither pixelated or smeared.

Easier said then done. I think most of us err on the side of messy, but we can't beat ourselves up too much about that or we might over-analyze and over-write, and that's no better than if we left it messy. Writing is a delicate balancing act between being fake and being repulsive, which I guess isn't so different from real life. This is, I think, where knowledge and experience come into play. Knowledge of what the technical "rules" actually are, and lots and lots of experience reading different writers who keep them and break them in interesting ways. Then we can experiment and see what works. But the rules are there for a reason--they don't restrict our voice, instead with proper use they help our voice come across more clearly. That means that when the rules aren't used, its for a reason too.

Anyway, those are some more of my English-major-nerd-Bronte-sisters-inspired thoughts. But what else is new. Do you agree? Do you think I'm being the right degree of cautious about keeping the literary "rules"? And there are writing rules all over the place, so which do you think are the right ones?

Sarah Allen


  1. I think passion in a work is sometimes as much about subject as it is about whether technique is loose or tight, heart or head. If a writer is passionate about a topic they've used for the main problem or a subplot, I think that will still come across even with a strict interpretation of the rules.

    I'm also really glad your post gave nods to the importance of both creative passion and technical skill and the dangers of relying exclusively on one or the other. The refusal to learn technique, in particular, seems to be spreading through certain writing forums and blogs.

  2. I agree, if everyone followed all the rules 100% of the time, all books would sound the same, and that would be boring. However, that's no excuse to disregard proper technique. You're right, it's a balancing act.

  3. I believe that some of the more interesting novels were the ones that broke convention.


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