Good writing done me in

These days I sometimes recommend that psychotherapy clients start journaling in search of (to help create) that authentic self they can respect, but find so elusive. I ask that they not shape the writing. I suggest that when a thought seems worth it they jot down key words, phrases, on their phone or laptop. Don’t “write,” lose the restrictions. Match means to ends.
When I was 16 I behaved very differently. Before I wrote my first novel Aubade the summer I left school, I studied two thick manuals by Uzzell on the technique of the novel, and both Fowler books. (You’re reading this blog and don’t know who the Fowlers were? Enough of that 16-year-old schoolmarm remains in me to tell you to look it up.) All that studying (which I’d refused to do in school) resulted in a novel that the London Sunday Times later called “maturely sophisticated in style and structure.” (Which was probably what got it published and saved it from being rejected as filth. Though that happened: Dot, the woman who ran the railway station bookstall in Bangor, the Northern Irish town where I grew up, ordered some copies to make a few shillings and then sent them back when she read what she called “the dirtiest book I ever read.” Lives were sheltered in that benighted decade of the 50s.)
Fast forward to the 90s, and a New York agent explained to me why the treatment I’d written for a nonfiction book wouldn’t sell. “But it’s so well-written,” I complained. “Oh, well-written,” she said dismissively. (She’d been the same notoriously demanding Ph.D. student who gave me an unprecedented A+ in a lit course at Columbia.) Or to psychology grad school, where I couldn’t understand why a peer got an A for a paper that was full of typos and grammatical errors, whereas I got only an A-.
I was still focused on form, not content, and it took me a long time to begin to understand why murky clunky detouring allusive writing got the praise and my clear prose was rejected. For years I supposed that the murk was designed to disguise a lack of content, but eventually I was willing to admit that my transparent prose only served to reveal the thinness of my ideas.

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