Ralph Wiggum

Me Fail English

Like many twentysomethings, I am writing a novel because it has never been done before. My book is filled with big themes and motifs:

  1. The declining privilege of young, white men in the modern economy
  2. The mind-body problem, particularly in regards to human extensibility with mechanical tools
  3. Sexual frustration and its relationship to power dynamics

But, mainly, what the book is about is giant robots fighting each other. Bottom line, it is an Americanized version of mecha anime. Granted, Guillermo del Toro beat me to it with Pacific Rim, but this is still a Harry Potter-level book idea.

An artist’s rendition of the Next Great American Novel.

Only one obstacle can stop my burgeoning career as an author: an inability to write fiction. My writing is repetitive. My characters are bland. My plot is uninspired. These failures feel especially potent because I think of myself as a good writer. After all, I have been writing for most of my life.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims the key to mastering a skill is putting in 10,000 hours of practice. While there are some flaws with this theory, putting in extensive hours of deliberate practice certainly leads to an improvement in a skill. However as a teenager, accumulating several thousand hours of practice at any skill is difficult and rare to find. If you want to be a good violinist or basketball player by the age of eighteen, you had to have dedicated a large chunk of your after-school-time into an extracurricular activity. Usually, such dedication requires financial and social support from your parents. And so, most students fail to develop such a skill by the time of their graduation.

Except with writing. Learning to write is one of the first goals of early elementary education. From there, students take English class every year. Essays on literary symbolism and historical events are common homework assignments. Plus since reading involves being exposed to writing, all those hours spent turning the pages of The Scarlett Letter must count towards practicing writing too. For those that go off to college, even more writing is expected. By college graduation, a student has spent ostensibly thousands of hours on the craft of writing.

Of course, everyone that has graduated high school has that same set of experience. Most people are not actively trying to make a comic book or a rock album because those require artistic and musical skills respectively, and those are abilities most do not possess. But so many white dudes have incomplete novels because they believe they have the innate talent and developed skill set to write a great work of literature.

We are all wrong. Our novel writing abilities are vastly overestimated. Fiction writing has nothing to do with what we learn in school. English class does not teach you how to write natural sounding dialogue or outline a coherent narrative. The link between literature and essay writing is tenuous; Paul Graham explains:

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

Writing nonfiction is completely different than writing fiction. Implementing well-researched sources into your work is useless in fiction where you can literally make up whatever you want. Furthermore, nonfiction teaches you to write concisely which is virtually anathema to the common fiction advice of “Show. Don’t tell.”

And so I am not going to be able to write a great fiction novel anymore than I could make a hot hip hop mixtape or paint a beautiful landscape. I have not put in a sufficient number of hours at fiction writing.

But I have done so for nonfiction. Thus, I am going to play to my strengths and double down on this blog. I want to write more frequently and post better essays on this site. Nonfiction writing is a skill I have been developing all my life, but I can still become so much better at it.

I am never going to be David Foster Wallace, but I have a shot at being Chuck Klosterman.

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