Hey, writers…

This is a quick post. A sort of poll question, if you will…

What service or resource have you tried to find to help you with your writing, but have been unable to find, either on-line or in person? Or, another way to ask: What is something you’ve said, “If only I could find _x_ it would help me be a better writer!” but have been unable to find?

If something comes to mind, feel free to post it below, or send me an email. Ask other writer friends to chime in. I’m curious to hear…

There are no wrong answers. 🙂

I Give Up.

“I thought you’d already given up blogging,” some of you might say. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been actively engaged in maintaining this blog, so your reaction is justified.

No, what I mean is, I’m giving up teaching writing.

This is a tough decision, because in the last few years, I’ve seen some really amazing things with my writing students and private instruction clients.

There have been people in my Legacy of Words classes that swore to me they couldn’t write a thing, and yet they hand me these pages full of lovely words that make me laugh or cry or sigh with contentment. I’ve had fiction writers whose eyes flare wide with that moment of recognition and epiphany, then come to me and tell me they finally figured out the ending to that story that’s been bothering them, or that they started a new novel and wrote seven chapters in one week.

So, I thought I was doing a good job. I thought my words, my encouragement, my excitement for the written word was spilling forth in ways that brought people along to their “next level.”

But I found out today: I’ve been doing it all wrong.

How do I know? I stumbled across a video titled, “How to Effortlessly Write the Perfect Short Story in One Hour.”

I’ve been ripping these students and clients off, apparently. I’m a charlatan. A scam artist. Because, I was working under the wrong set of assumptions. Here’s what I believed about writing fiction, which is contradictory to this new method:

1) Writing fiction is hard. The idea of “effortlessly” writing anything is foreign to me. Drafting is hard. Revision is hard. Getting feedback is hard, and knowing just what to do with the feedback is even harder. I don’t even make a shopping list effortlessly. Practice and evaluate and revise. Repeat. Repeat. That’s what it takes. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.

2) There is no perfect story, or novel. Naeem Murr is a great writer, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the joy of knowing. He told me, and I believed him, that there is no perfect work. That there is always something that could be done better. That even the best story will seem, to the writer, deficient a few years later, when he or she looks back at the piece and sees how the problems of the story would be tackled differently now. Which leads to…

3) Learning the craft of fiction is an ongoing, never-ending process. The best story you can write today is not the best story you can write. Next month, next year, in twenty years, this “best thing I’ve ever written” will seem a little stale, full of holes, naive, and clumsy. That’s because the more we write, the better we get, and the more we are capable of.

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But all three of these assumptions are destroyed with a title like, “How to Effortlessly Write the Perfect Short Story in One Hour.” There is no effort needed. There is no growth in craft, because you can’t improve on perfection. You don’t need years of practice and learning and synthesizing knowledge: it only takes an hour to be set.

I hope this guy is charging at least $30,000 for this information. If he’s able to do in one hour what an MFA program only PREPARED me to do, then he deserves it.

My apologies to those of you from whom I’ve bilked money. I’m chopping my snake-oil wagon up for fire wood and shaving off my handlebar mustache and cutting my plaid-striped carnival barker’s suit into strips to be used as prayer flags for the yurt where I am planning to retire and write, effortlessly, one perfect story every day for the rest of my life. I may take the day off, occasionally, for holidays and such. There is no reason to over-burden the world with perfect stories.

Change Your Actions, Change Your Results

As I mentioned early in the week, I hit a creative wall in the second quarter of 2013. Things weren’t happening, for me, and as the transition into Summer came around, I knew it was time to re-charge the process.

We all know, on some level, that if we keep doing things the same way we’ve been doing them, we’ll continue to get the same results. When things are going really well, that’s a good thing. Keep plugging along. Keep drawing on those reserves until they give out.

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Community Is Important for Writers

To be honest, I’ve been pretty down for the last week or so.

As I’ve shared before, I have been teaching Legacy Writing classes via the Lifelong Learning Academy here in Sarasota-Bradenton. It is a great opportunity for me to share some of my knowledge about creative writing and meet some really great people. The most recent academic quarter, I had a class filled with writers who had taken earlier classes with me and were eager to keep their writing momentum moving forward. This was a great group of adult learners who had some really magnificent stories to share.

Near the end of the eight weeks of class, several of the students were fighting various illnesses: a broken knee-cap, vertigo-like symptoms, heart problems, and other medical issues.

And then, I found out one of the students passed away last week, only hours after our last email exchange. He was a student with a long writing background, and his work showed it. The selections he brought to class to share with the group were outstanding. I had been hoping that the two classes he’d taken with me were just the beginning of an ongoing literary friendship. I was looking forward to many years of chatting about writing and sharing work together.

And then, he was gone.

It wasn’t as if we were great friends. And yet, his passing has left me very sad. I wanted to know more about his life; I wanted to read more of his words.

Putting down some literary roots can help encourage and deepen your writing.

Putting down some literary roots can help encourage and deepen your writing.

Just last week, I was telling my writing students about the need for a writing community. We learn and grow best when we are surrounded by those people who can offer us a healthy balance of support and critique. One of the reasons I teach classes like the Legacy of Words class is because I gain more knowledge and experience in creative writing every time I teach. And, I gain new literary friends.

Tonight, I met a new writer friend. She reached out to me, having stumbled upon my website, because she is at one of those points all fledgling writers get to: she’s in need of her own literary community. We talked for an hour and a half, and I walked away feeling re-energized and excited having spent time with someone who has such passion for the written word.

It doesn’t matter if it is a client/student, a writing peer, or someone whose masterful knowledge of the craft I hope to learn from: having other writers to talk to, share with, help, and learn from is a key ingredient in my development as a writer. We don’t have to be in the same classroom, at the same coffee-shop, or even on the same continent, but putting down those literary roots so we can soak up the nutrients around us is a valuable thing.

I hope you are writing, and that the words you write matter.

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As I finished this post, I was reminded of this line, from the song, I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time, by Over the Rhine. (Link to YouTube video version.)

But I don’t wanna waste the words
That you don’t seem to need
When it comes to wanting what’s real
There’s no such thing as greed
I hope this night puts down deep roots
I hope we plant a seed
‘Cause I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need

Read the lyrics to the whole song at Over the Rhine’s website.

On Edge or On The Edge?

Over the last few days, I’ve felt a little nervous. Sometimes I get this way, when I have this lingering feeling that something is about to happen, something is about to break free.

This nervousness certainly manifests itself in several ways, for me: irritability, shortness, lack of concentration, and feelings of ambivalence. (And that’s even when I think the “big break” is going to be something positive…)

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How in the world can I ever expect others to understand this novel if the one person in the world who should be able to decode it (ME!) finds it confounding?

Yesterday I sat down to work on my novel-in-progress. I’ve been chipping away at this thing lately, moving into the next phase, the final phase of the first fully-realized draft. The scene I needed to write was a flashback scene, and in order to do it justice (as well as ensure it had all of the right information in it) I had to go back to an earlier scene and find some very specific things I had written. Years ago. Literally.

In that process of digging around and trying to remember what I’d already revealed in the earlier bits and trying to pin down all that I wanted to reveal in the scene that needed to be written yesterday, I found myself bogged down in the pure insanity that this novel is.

I was, to put it mildly, quite discouraged. So much so, that I wasted away the one day this week I actually had a full day to work on the book. So much so, that I contemplated drop-kicking the whole thing into Tampa Bay and starting some new endeavor, like “Fast Food Technician” or “Domestic Cleanliness Aficionado.” Surely, God, if I’m supposed to be a writer, I wouldn’t be writing books that confuse the only person who might reasonably have a chance of figuring this mess out: ME!

It was evening, it was morning: a new day dawned. I took a deep breath, remembered how some of my favorite writer friends—those writer friends whose words make me swoon—have been discouraged lately, too.

No drop kicks. No giving up. A day away, and maybe a weekend of hammering away at organizational issues, but no giving up.

I’m on the edge of something much bigger than the little pieces that have been floating around, and that puts my personality on edge. “Hold on,” I tell myself. “Hold on for a wild ride.”

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photo credit: Rennett Stowe via photopin cc

David Jauss and Knowing Too Much

Sometimes I come across an article about writing that I know I’m going to return to again and again. David Jauss writes just such an article in the March/April issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. (I’m clipping it out and saving it, AND making a link to the digital version of the story a permanent computer bookmark…)

In the article, Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus, Jauss explores (deeply) the differences between “real people” and the characters that we bring to life in our fiction, and in doing so, he takes on some of the most well-seasoned writing advice most of us have received, either from fiction writing instructors, workshop participants, other writers, or books forever enshrined in the Creative Writing Instruction cannon.

Near the start of the article, Jauss says this:

The article by David Jauss quoted here is printed in the March/April 2013 issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

The article by David Jauss quoted here is printed in the March/April 2013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle.

But there are two other differences between Homo fictus and Homo sapiens that are far more important, and they are the differences we most need to keep in mind when we create our characters. First, unlike real people, fictional characters often have inner lives we can witness. And second, compared to actual human beings, fictional people are, as William Gass has said, “mostly empty canvas”—we know relatively little about their physical appearance, their behavior and relationships, their past histories, and so forth. Homo fictus, then, consists in large part of the presence of something that can’t be observed in real people—the inner life—and the relative absence of things that can be observed—the outer life. Paradoxically, these two patently unrealistic qualities of Homo fictus are largely responsible for creating the impression that a character is “real”—provided we don’t overdo or underdo them.

The rest of the article (sixteen pages of wisdom) examines that balance that we must strike between OVERDOING and UNDERDOING our characterizations.

Along the way, he pokes holes in some writing advice, or criticism, you may have received, or given yourself. It isn’t that Jauss is jettisoning these “pearls of writing wisdom”, but he DOES make a strong case that a bull-headed charge in one direction can be as limiting to our writing as a bull-headed stubbornness in the opposite direction.

Here is a partial list of items Jauss addresses:

  1. Characters should seem real to the reader, but HOW writers create that realism is not dependent on knowing every small detail of the character’s life: realism comes from picking and choosing the IMPORTANT bits and presenting THOSE to the reader. To do this, the writer can’t mistake the character for a real person, and he must understand the difference between how we perceive real people and how we, as writers, perceive and invent our characters.
  2. The main differences Jauss points to (the visible presence of the inner life, and the near exclusion of the hum-drum outer life) demonstrate just how “flat” even the most “well-rounded” fictional characters really are. To quote Jauss: “…compared to real people, literary characters are almost ludicrously simple, barely two-dimensional—far more flat than round. It may be that, as the old joke has it, deep down we’re all shallow, but even the shallowest human being is infinitely more complex than any fictional character.”
  3. The idea that we should know everything about our characters–every detail, every reaction, every habit, every failure, every triumph–before we start writing, in his words, “…causes far and away the most trouble…” Often, the opposite is true: the closer we come to knowing, and presenting, everything there is to know about a character, the further we are from a realistic expression of the character.

There are plenty of other ideas for Jauss to cover in the other thirteen pages of this essay, but hopefully this brief look at the piece will give you reason to find a copy for yourself (if you don’t already have one) and spend some time with it.

I’d love to hear any responses you have to his perspective. I know, for me, I’m letting some of these concepts sink in, still, but I find the points are resonating with my own work.

Have a great day, every one, and Happy Writing!

 

Carver’s Ending of Cathedral: “It’s Really Something”

One of the things that I like best about asking fellow writers to write for my blog during these “A Week With…” posts is the variety of response. Yesterday, Dr. Heidi Moore talked about how, at this stage in her life, she questions the “ease” of the ending that Carver gives us. Today, writer and creative writing teacher, Sara McDaniel focuses on the simple words that Carver uses to reveal this epiphany of the narrator.

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Anton Chekhov once wrote, “I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end. That’s where we fiction writers mostly go wrong” (quoted in Ivan Bunin, Memories and Portraits). To me, ending a story at the right moment is the toughest decision to make as a writer since that’s where your reader will leave your story and (hopefully) reflect on it deeply moved.

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Sara McDaniel is a writer and teacher at Principia College. Photo by Hilary Harper.

This is why I admire the ending of Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral.” Carver doesn’t prolong the ending, but stops the story as soon as his narrator experiences empathy. Earlier in the story, the narrator hears the blind man say, “Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn.” But it is the narrator who learns something important when he draws a cathedral for the blind man whose hand touches his. He draws windows, arches, and buttresses. The blind man tells the narrator to close his eyes, and the narrator experiences the world through the blind man’s eyes, which forces him to see life in a new way, expand his horizons, and leave his isolation.  At the end, the blind man asks the narrator what he thinks of the drawing, and the narrator comments, “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.” Carver ends the story there.

Carver could have added more scenes to show how the moment with the blind man affects the narrator’s relationship with his wife, or he could have shown what happens after the blind man leaves. Instead Carver ends the story the moment the narrator experiences a deeper connection to another person. The ending statement, “It’s really something,” conveys the narrator’s awe, which deeply contrasts the narrator’s anecdotal and familiar tone in the beginning of the story. (“This man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night…I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit.”)

In the beginning of the story, the narrator is an insecure, jealous man, who is emotionally detached from his wife and resentful towards the blind man. He narrates what he knows and fears about his wife’s connection to the blind man—how his wife let the blind man touch her face once (“He touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!”), how she wrote a poem about it because she could never forget it, and how the narrator didn’t understand.

This touch resonates in the end as the narrator feels the blind man’s hand on his as he draws the cathedral. The ending moment not only reflects the beginning of the story but also coveys a transformation in the narrator from his earlier statement that he didn’t believe in anything. Carver’s ending shows enough for his reader to understand the narrator’s change without drawing it out, making Carver’s ending, as his narrator says, “really something.”

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Sara McDaniel teaches creative writing and literature at Principia College in Illinois. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. During her undergraduate education, she received the Pittman Prose Award in 2008 and William Selmeier Literary Award in 2009. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories.