Matt Briggs
It's About Time Writers
Competency vs. Incompetency


There can be two ways of looking at the process of writing. There is a sort of writing as competency way of approaching it. A writer says, maybe, I want to learn how to write the kind of short story published in The New Yorker. So the writer learns all the components of the kind of story published in The New Yorker. Once she has them safely mastered she considers she has finished learning and begins to produce her stories. I think of this kind of writer sitting back once she is writing her safe stories, saying, "and it was during those years that I learned how to write." The process of learning has been accomplished and put behind the student writer. The writer has a confidence that when she sits down to write she will produce a finished short story that conforms more or less to her ideal of what a story ought to be.

The other kind of writing, I guess, could be called writing as incompetency. A writer might start from scratch or she might already know how to write the kind of short story published in The New Yorker, but the writer feels there is something about slapping together a story that produces a predictable, disingenuous result. This writer begins to mistrust any story produced using predictable routines. She understands that each time she sits down to write no matter how many stories she has already written, she is starting fresh and therefore risks failure. It isn't the product writers are relying on to validate their enterprises but their fluency in the writing process. They never finish learning, and would never consider themselves anything other than a student writer.

Naturally, I tend to admire writers who keep pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones as writers; however, I'm sympathetic to the impulse to write the kind of stories a writer already knows how to write. As a writer I hope to juggle these two competing impulses; it is simple to write the first way because the writer has successful models to examine and past successes to back her up. The second method is difficult to accomplish because the writer is the only one who can discover stories that haven't been written yet, but sometimes a writer just isn't interested in discovering anything new and just wants to tell her reader a story.

Literary fiction writers must understand it is all right to feel like they don't know what the hell they're doing; it is the sensation of incompetence, or as Donald Bartheleme calls it "Not-Knowing" that leads to original work. I understand the term literary fiction to be antithetical to genre fiction. One of the blunders a writer can make, I think, is to develop the genre of themselves. It is exciting to see writers escape themselves as writers. Thus Raymond Carver's short story "Errand" feels like an explosion from his self-imposed limitations as a writer producing readily identifiable stories in the Raymond Carver genre of short fiction. Or Rebecca Brown's story, "A Good Man" at the end of "Annie Oakely's Girl"  where the sudden realism and depth of literal prose in Brown's normally lush metaphorical prose feels like an entirely new, clear-eyed universe opening up. Where, most writers develop into story-generating machines pumping out stories using identical modes of telling what they need to tell, writers like Borges, Ken Kalfus, Rebecca Brown, Ben Marcus, Melissa Pritchard, Donald Barthelme, and so on seem to struggle with fundamental issues of how to write what they write.

Seattle August 8, 2002

copyright2002Matt Briggs

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