Fooled by Mr. Keating (How I Learned to Love Structured Writing)

The Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite movies of all time. Even as a young kid I remember enjoying it. Robin Williams performance as Mr. Keating electrifies the drama, bringing passion and heart to a story which could have fallen flat. In the movie, Mr. Keating has several iconic scenes which argue against stale, passionless writing, but rather encourages all artists to not be bound by rules or structure. In essence, Keating’s message to his students and to the audience is: Be free.

From the scene where he tells the students to rip out the pages of the textbook to the barbaric yalp, in every way, Keating believes true writing comes from an unrestrained spirit. You can’t know or understand literature unless you really understand the passions of the artist. And you can’t create it unless you have passion yourself.

I can’t deny I was once seduced and taken by Mr. Keating’s belief that art has a soul and making it a slave will not work. I believed structure, order, and any kind of rules in my writing was anathema. I’d write however I wanted, making up things as I went, and when I finished a story, I’d call it art.

In my senior year of college, I took a creative writing course. The professor loved memoir and really didn’t know anything about any other kind of creative writing. So, we learned a lot about memoir. I didn’t really care about that though. I wrote my own work, following nothing but my own whim.

One story I wrote literally had no structure. I took my thinking to its logical conclusion. I wrote up a story and then I started mixing up paragraphs so that some of the ending would be in the middle, and so on.

At the time, I thought my writing was a masterwork and a piece of genius (my ego and arrogance couldn’t have been bigger). I submitted my story to my professor and expected a great grade. Of course, it didn’t come. Sadly, the professor didn’t understand structure either and couldn’t correct me on the core problem. As a result, my writing suffered.

Mr. Keating doesn’t tell you the full truth. While yes, a component of writing is digging deep within your soul and pulling out emotion and passion, many of the masters of literature had an outstanding education with a firm knowledge of structure, plot, story, rhyme, meter, and characterization. They used those tools simultaneously with passion and heart.

While structure and rules will inevitably lead to a stale piece of art, ignoring those tools will make your art pointless, ineffective, and frankly, bad.

I was fooled by Mr. Keating into thinking anything that came out of my skull could be something powerful. Fortunately, later, I read books on structure and editing, and it became quite clear like a light bulb. Structure, rhyme, meter, and timing is how you’re going to make your heart accessible and powerful to people.

So, yes, write with passion, fire, and soul, but keep it tamed and controlled so it can be harnessed to perfection.