We all know about Tin House, Sewanee, Yaddo, the Vermont Studio, and the FAWC (which I get to attend in June! Woot!), and some of us, like me a few months ago, set our sights on those places for our summers and forget about the smaller, newer and lesser known summer writing conferences and retreats.
I just got back from the Seaside Writers Conference, which was my week out with a group of writers who workshopped stories, attended readings, and hung at the beach together. These writers were fun and helpful and not competitive, which was maybe my favorite part. The FL Gulf beach at Seaside, which also happens to be the set of The Truman Show, was beautiful enough to make me feel that twinge of “I can’t believe I get to do this” and “Why isn’t everyone here?” from time to time.
I have been writing for a decade and a half, but it hasn’t occurred to me until lately to do this kind of writer’s retreat. I have been out of school for a couple of years and I thought I was done with workshop, as a thing, but I learned more in this week than I have in certain semesters. This is probably thanks to Matt Bondurant, who led us through each other’s stories with the right amount of tough, encouraging, and helpful feedback we all hope to get on our work.
I also got to learn how to pitch a book at a New York agent, an intimidating experience that has now been de-mystified. Poets got to study with Seth Brady Tucker for the week, and I attended his flash-fiction talk one morning. Like Bondurant, he is also a tremendous instructor and worth the trip.
I’m curious if any of you writers have had your own great summer writing experience somewhere else. I can’t recommend this one enough.
Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people. Especially people who do well in the field. It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort. Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.
In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.
…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.
The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write. It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.
(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)
Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.
Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…
There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers. In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world. I could sort of relate. We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish. Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs. The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.
…complain about them all you want … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing.Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.
What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?
Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path. Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through. I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses. Why? Because, again, there is not one path.
A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career. Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.
Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking. Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.
The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you. Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous. If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing. Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers. Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.
Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.
Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.
Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.
I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.
Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels. I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.
Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore? Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor. The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.
I’m thinking a lot about awareness, lately. Self awareness. Knowing my flaws, being able to take criticism, and working towards self-improvement. Of course, as you can tell from the way I’ve been writing these blog posts, I believe that most life wisdom can also be translated into writing wisdom.
If you’ve been in a workshop, you know what it’s like to spend 45 minutes talking about someone’s work and then listening to the author for 15 minutes defend their work against all points of criticism.
Don’t be that person.
It doesn’t matter if the story “actually happened.”
It doesn’t matter if the characters dictated the story in some mystical writing process.
Part of serving the work is improving the work. A huge part, actually. I’ve seen writers get slaughtered in workshop and then limp around–I’ve been one of these. I’ve been slaughtered in workshop and then limped to the bar. I was less mature then.
It’s a matter of maturity, of course, but an ideal writer already knows what the flaws in the story are before anyone reads the draft. An ideal writer takes unanticipated criticism home, sleeps on it, and then, when the emotional response has dissipated, re-reads the story to see if the critic is right.
Writers must be ruthless at self-improvement–self-writing-improvement. A professional chooses story over ego. The critics aren’t always right, but a writer who defends their work to critics is always wrong.
This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.
I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers: hack and precious. I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards. I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god. See what I mean:
Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.
Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:
A hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?
Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one. Hence, my poverty.
I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack. I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative. That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer. If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted. I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place. I didn’t care that much about the characters. The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.
Today’s thought is about what to write. Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know. I don’t like that phrase much. Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.
If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it. You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write. That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know. Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”
No. Write what you’re obsessed with.
Write what you need to know more about. Write about what makes you curious.
My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”
There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read. I needed something funnier. I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.
I spent a day grieving. Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure. It’s awful.
I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me. But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy. I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*
Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot. A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)
*That paragraph is for the record. Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.
I am a day behind in my writing thoughts but I wrote two today to catch up.
Here’s the thought for yesterday:
Know what game you’re playing and know the rules.
This thought comes from this sermon Iyanla Vanzant preached called “Playing the Game”:
The speech is full of great metaphors about life from baseball and football. “You have to get all the way up the field,” and “You can’t get the house and the jaguar if you’re only on first base,” etc. The essence is, know what game you’re playing and know the rules. If your game is to publish a novel, you have to get focused on “where you’re going in order to get there…” A rule might be that when you’re trying to write, you can’t have Facebook open in your browser. It might be that you have to write for two hours a day. It might be that you have to accrue a team of allies.
You have to get educated. You have to figure out how the game works. When it’s time to find an agent, you have to figure out the rules to that part of the game. Know where you are in the game. If you’re on first base, don’t expect the celebration of a home run.
If you write science fiction, there are different rules to writing horror. You know this. I get a lot of complaints from my friends who write in genres that those of us (like me) who don’t write in genres take them less seriously. First of all, I do write in a genre, it’s called literary fiction, I guess. I have trouble with that word “literary” though, because there are tons of literary romances out there. There is crossover, but our job is to figure out what game we’re playing. I am currently writing a literary ghost story. It has different rules than the book I thought I was going to write–a transnational epic about human trafficking.
Do know that one game is not more valuable than the other. If anyone tells you that you’re style of writing, or your genre, or your interests, is less valuable, they are talking from a POV of taste preference, not capital T Truth.
That said, do know that the games share a lot of the rules. Don’t worry about whether or not other people think your kind of writing is valuable. Just play the game that makes you the most excited.
Authenticity is one of my favorite words. The people I get along with most are the ones that I feel like I don’t have to hide anything from. I don’t like hiding things.
Lucinda Williams, that blues-americana goddess, is a great example of artistic authenticity. If you want to “hear” authenticity, hit the play button.
I just want to live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it.
You don’t have to fake it, Lucinda. You prove that very well.
And so it goes with writing. Especially with writing fiction, which calls us to be more authentic than ever because we have to persuade the reader that the story they are reading is true. Not real, but true. There is a distinction and it’s our job to search out what that distinction is, exactly.
Part of being an authentic writer is to be honest with ourselves about where our story is at. We can’t fix its problems if we don’t acknowledge them. This means that when we get a critique, we allow ourselves to be pissed for a few hours/days/months until that negative energy rolls away and leaves behind a constructive thought we can take to the revision.
It also means that we are honest with our drafts about the paragraphs we’ve stuck there as place-holders so we can bypass the hard scenes to write–the ones that make us uncomfortable. Often those paragraphs are full of inauthentic sentences.
If you’ve taken a fiction workshop, you’ll know that a lot of time is spent on logic. Our colleagues scan our work with a BS radar and look for places where it seems like we’ve bent the truth to get through a scene that we don’t feel comfortable writing. Writing takes courage, folks. Meanwhile, our colleagues mark our drafts for the sentences that don’t convince them. (Robert Olen Butler, by the way, is a genius at this. I got to take a five person workshop with him here at FSU and he would go through our drafts, sentence by sentence, and point out where the words lost their contact with authenticity. It’s on the shortlist for best workshop I’ve ever taken.)
Part of the fiction writer’s job is to convince the reader, and that doesn’t come from learning how to lie real well. It comes from being as authentic as possible on the page.
Oh, and being authentic off the page is good practice for nailing authentic sentences.
I don’t know about other MFA fiction graduates, but I think the most daunting thing about not being in a workshop, and not having a committee waiting on a draft, is the fact that we have no deadlines. I’ve already written about this (Thought for Day Three), but today I’m thinking more about how the lack of having a deadline changes my attitude towards writing. Here’s my thought: embrace the waste.
(Just like it says on the title for this post!)
This thought came to me after reading Dorothy Allison’s interview in a book called Novel Ideas. Allison talks about different tricks she uses in taking a fresh look at her manuscript for a revision. She puts it down for a year. She writes entire sections in a different perspective (character or narrative perspective, like from first to third). She does a whole lot of writing and then tosses that writing away–none of it goes into the final draft.
I will remember my committee-chair (Elizabeth Stuckey-French) the most by one phrase she loved to say, again and again: “Try it and see where it goes.” This is a lot easier to do when we don’t have a deadline approaching. (ESF taught a really good class about novel writing that I was super lucky to take. In fact, that class is why this Novel Ideas book is on my shelf.)
Maybe other people had different experiences as students, but I wrote with a lot of pressure to get it good the first time. Not get it right, but get it good. Get it good enough so it wouldn’t get slaughtered during workshop. I taught 45 students and was often taking three classes at a time while I was completing my MFA. I didn’t really have time to waste a lot of pages trying things.
Writing while a student has shaped my perspective in a bit of an unpractical sort of way: I feel like I have little sense of how much work actually goes into completing an entire book, especially a book that I want to be not only right and good, but amazing. I think a big part of writing an amazing book is allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.
Let no possibility go unexplored.
This post, I suppose, is sort of a confession. I suspect that if I were a better student (and I suspect that if I didn’t take the teaching so seriously, which I just could not figure out how to do), I would have made more time to waste pages. Now, the ability to just write a bunch of pages for the mere act of discovery sounds like a tremendous gift. Nobody’s waiting on my novel (except my close friends and family). It feels luxurious.
It’s also really, really scary.
Being open to possibilities takes a lot of courage. This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is closely related to fear. Any kind of fundamentalism, religious or secular. Chin up, writers. And by writers, I mean me. Time to march into the unknown. And by the unknown, I mean, the possibility of making a discovery while wasting a bunch of pages.
And waste is probably the wrong word. Each sentence we write is productive, because it means, simply, that we are writing. The only waste a writer has is the sort of muck/guilt/fear that piles up after not having written in a while.
Recommended Reading: Novel Ideas (Second Edition) by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman, University of Georgia Press: 2009
I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).
Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’ He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros. The god himself lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.
–Chapter 18, page 126.
The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight. The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them. He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard. It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.
Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing. Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.” I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want. I cannot separate people from their places. I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.
Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings. Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course. Listening, we hear about often. Watching, not so much. Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.
I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home. She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.
Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.
(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit. My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)
And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.
So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling. It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.
This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA). It goes like this:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice. For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.
This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.
It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too. If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.
(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)