New Story in REDIVIDER 14.2

This one, “Next to Godliness” is a flash story that came from a prompt from my Fall 2016 fiction workshop at Georgia State [Write a story that takes a saying literally and use it for the premise of a story].

I think I must have submitted at least 20 stories to this magazine before they finally took one. Writing ain’t nothing if it ain’t persistence.

The Seaside Writers Conference

seasideWe 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.

What Boudinot Got Right about Teaching Writing

If you have friends on social media who are writers, writing teachers, or writing students, then you probably came across this article by ex-MFA instructor, Ryan Boudinot, about his frustrations with writing students. Examples include: they don’t read enough, they complain about not having enough time, they don’t have anything interesting to write about. He also starts off the article saying, “Writers are born with talent. Either you have the propensity for creative talent or you don’t,” which is about as effective as starting off with “there’s gotta be life on other planets,” or “the Beatles will forever be greatest band of all time.”  I mean: cool if you want to believe that but actually, nobody cares if you do because you can’t prove it.

I feel the same way about his second statement: “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.” Um. Not helpful.

While I, like most of the people who commented, am relieved that Boudinot is no longer teaching (for example, read this thorough rebuttal from Laura Valeri), he did write one thing that has stuck with me since I read the commentary a few days ago:

It’s not important that people think you’re smart.

After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.

If he’d only written that, I would have told everyone to read that article as the best writing advice I’ve encountered in a long time.

That said, I’m not 100% what Boudinot means by “entertain.” You don’t want to just write the first act of Into the Woods, you want to write the second act, too–the one that challenges your reader.  I would add the words “and challenge” to Boudinot’s “entertain.”  You want to write what will help enhance the reader’s experience in the world, even if it means giving them a good kick in the rear end with what happens to your characters. (See: The Wire.)

Never mind about when you started writing, or whether or not you have talent. These are things that don’t actually matter.  What matters is the doing of the thing.  The practice. Write about what obsesses you, entertains and fascinates you*, challenges you, convicts you, pisses you off, and makes you cry or laugh or both at the drop of a hat.  If you write for validation or anything else besides the chance to make connections between the people, ideas, and things you care most about, you are cheating yourself out of the Life (capital L) that the writing practice has to offer you.

But Boudinot is so right when he says: don’t write to make yourself look smart.  If you are writing because being a writer makes other people think you are smart, you are cheating yourself.

Write because you want to share something with your readers that will somehow enhance their lives.

*For instance, this blueberry flavored popcorn I spotted at a movie theater in Bangkok really fascinates and entertains me:

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Miracles and Writing

I’m teaching Isaac Bashevis’s story, “The Little Shoemakers” in my literature class today.  In preparation, I came across this interview from the Paris Review.

It is true that I believe in miracles, or, rather, grace from heaven. But I believe in miracles in every area of life except writing. Experience has shown me that there are no miracles in writing. The only thing that produces good writing is hard work. It’s impossible to write a good story by carrying a rabbit’s foot in your pocket.

another old writer (i’m newly obsessed with)

Toni Morrison is 80.  She published her first book at 39.

I’m taking a ton of summer classes (by ton I mean three) and for two of them I had to read Toni Morrison novels–A Mercy and The Bluest Eye.  I’ve sort of bookended her career, I suppose.  Now I’m tearing through Beloved on the side of all my homework (i.e. write four response essays and read two other novels by Wednesday…) and I think it might very well be the best book I’ve ever read.

I love that I can go through nearly two decades of school (counting kindergarten) and still pick up new writers to be obsessed with.  This reminds me of why I think it’s silly for writers to be competitive–sure, our own success and glory is pretty great, but isn’t it also great to read good books?  Don’t you want publishers to release as many good books as they possibly can? Don’t you want the people who write these good books to be your friends?

I will probably never “know” Toni Morrison, but for the record, she did recently appear to me in a dream wherein we were going out for pizza and bowling and she was really nice. And now that I’ve transitioned back to the main subject of this post, I am going to say, once again, that we can learn from writers like her that there is no need to rush our writing careers or put pressure on ourselves about how much we should have published by when.  Just write well, live a long time, and write a lot.  And read Beloved if you haven’t yet.