Thank You, and Goodnight

Applause.

It isn’t something a writer seeks. Or, at least, it isn’t something a sane writer anticipates. Ours is, most often, a very solitary craft. Few of us will ever stand in front of a throbbing throng of rabid fans and accept, graciously I hope, their thunderous applause.

But, occasionally, some of us stand in a small room or a bookstore or, perhaps, a quarter-filled auditorium where we receive some feedback for our work.

Similarly, when I teach, I do not anticipate an ovation at the end of a class, even in a class where the students have chosen to be there and are happy to be so.

Today, though, I received a warm ovation from the students in my Reading as a Writer class. We had spent Fridays together for the last eight weeks, studying Graham Greene’s classic, The End of the Affair. As class ended today—ten or fifteen minutes late, as usual, because I have been unable to limit myself to the allotted class time—I wished the students well, told them I hoped they had enjoyed our time together, and reiterated just how much fun I had had leading the class.

And, they applauded.

It is a nice feeling. I understand, a little, of why actors and athletes and performing artists do what they do.

Applause is a different kind of feedback than the writer gets used to. There is always something wrong with a written work, so sending even a very strong story or novel to our trusted first-readers is a risk. We have to gird our loins, so to speak, and wait for the hammer blows. Sending stories to editors for consideration most-often ends with a form letter rejection. When we get a personal rejection, most of us do a happy little dance that we can’t explain to non-writers. (“Yes, I’m shaking my groove thing because someone said ‘no’ to me in a kinder, more considerate way than most people reject me!”) Even when my stories are published, I rarely hear any positive feedback, and certainly no one has ever made an audio recording of themselves applauding my work.

I appreciate the feedback I received today from those kind and gracious students.

After they had all left, I stayed in the classroom and erased the whiteboard and gathered my things and sat, for just a moment, in the now-empty room, almost as one does when leaving a long-time home for the final time. It is silly, I know.

Later today, a dear friend asked me, “Do you miss it already?” She knew I had really enjoyed teaching this particular class, and she already knew the answer before she asked it. As, good reader, do you.

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.

Reading Student Stories

I’ve been teaching two classes of Adult-Ed students about writing and the creative process.

One class, Your Legacy of Words, focuses on writing a personal narrative history and doing so in a way that straddles the line between Date-Place genealogy and more literary memoir. 

The second class is a Fiction Basics class where we are breaking down the craft of fiction writing into smaller chunks and finding entry points for this class of (mostly) fledgling writers.

In both classes, I get to read the work of the students. 

I am reminded, as I make notes and suggestions, of the old adage: You learn more by TEACHING a subject than you do by simply PRACTICING it. Here I am, in a pretty good place as far as knowledge of writing, but when I’m pressed to put those things I “know” into words of explanation, I find that I can stand a bit more refining of both my understanding, and my ability to present what I know.

Whether I’m being pressed in class to explain what I meant, or when I’m attempting to explain why a certain written passage isn’t working in a student’s writing, I am being constantly challenged to deepen my own understanding and really apply those same lessons to my own work.

Yes, teaching takes away from my own writing time. (Ask any writer who also teaches, and you’ll hear how little time they often get to focus on their own work.) And, the adult-ed world doesn’t pay much more than enough to cover gas and expenses getting to and from the school. But, there are benefits to being there. I’ve met some great people with interesting stories, and my writing, and my life, is better for it.

Why Teaching is Good for Writers

Recently, I received word that I would be teaching two writing classes for the local (Sarasota/Manatee County, Florida) Adult and Continuing Education program. I proposed a Fiction Writing Basics class (self-explanatory) and a class called, Leaving a Legacy of Words, which focuses on writing a personal or family history to be shared with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and so on.

I put together a brief outline of the classes before I met with the folks in charge of the program, so I knew what the classes would cover in the broadest sense of the word. Then, last week, I started planning out the actual course content and trying to figure out how much (or, in this case, how little) I can fit into six weeks of classes on creative writing. I started looking at the high points and trying to decide how I would add meat to the bones.

And, it hit me, as it has so many times in my life as an educator, how important teaching is to solidify learning.

Just as writing helps me work out what I’m thinking and feeling, what I know and what I suspect about life, teaching helps me work out additional levels of knowledge and understanding about those things I’m most passionate about. I have tons of notes and handouts and examples of writing strategies and bits of inspiration that I accumulated during the MFA years, and at some point all of those things become either artifacts of a time past, or they are integrated into a deeper, richer whole.

If I’m teaching, and reaching back into those notes to find those bits of inspiration to share, it is much less likely that all of those things will become just useless hieroglyphs of a long-forgotten epoch of this life.

This isn’t news to me, but it does still catch me unaware, every time I’m able to share something that is important to me, just how much more ingrained into my own thoughts and actions and philosophy those “important” things become. They become important not just in word, but in deed.

I hope you are having a good spring, even as some of you were reminded this past weekend of the chilly realities of winter.

If you would like to know more about the Fiction Writing Basics and the Legacy Writing classes I’ll be teaching here in the Bradenton and Sarasota area, please feel free to contact me. The classes will be daytime classes, at the USF campus. If you aren’t local, or can’t make those classes, I do offer both on-line and in-person creative writing classes for individuals and small groups. You can check out my web-site for more information (www.WordsMatterESW.com) or drop me a line.

My Final Lap, Or, What I Learned In My Final MFA Residency

I finished my MFA last week.

Queens has a “fifth residency” as a component of the low-residency MFA program. The fifth residency is quite different from the first four. During the first four semesters, you come into residency having read a stack of books and armed with your own stacks of stories to workshop. You have to tackle the first four residencies with abandon, hit the ground running at a break-neck pace; there is no choice in that matter.

With thesis advisor and initial inspiration for attending the Queens University of Charlotte program, Ashley Warlick.

The final residency is more laid back. The reasonable student has the week’s real work (the graduating student presentation and the public reading) under control before the week even begins. The thesis and the background paper for the presentation have already been signed off on. Unless you are deathly afraid of public speaking (and, this time around, I think most of us were pretty comfortable being in front of a crowd, especially since we were talking about things we were passionate about) these last few “tasks” to be completed generate a little anxiety, but nothing like that first semester, when you are new and worried that every move you make is somehow “wrong”.

It was a fun week. Laid back.

I did learn a few things, though, even at the more leisurely pace. Here’s a few things I brought away:

A slower pace allows you to deepen some literary friendships

There’s a line from the Over the Rhine song, I Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time, that came to mind last week:

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

This idea of “putting down deep roots” resonated with me last week. It was a good time to sit, talk, plan out loud, solidify some of the friendships with fellow writers. One of the important roles of an MFA program should be to help you form a writing community that will outlive the two years of study and be an ongoing resource for your writing life.

I’ve completed two years of work, and it feels good

I did some calculations. Here’s what I came up with, as far as my literary output for the last 26 to 28 months: I read 165 individual short stories, 20 essays, 44 non-fiction books, 14 complete story collections, 60 novels, and 7 books of poetry or plays. I read, responded to, and critiqued approximately 85 short stories or novel excerpts submitted for critique groups. I wrote approximately 160,000 new words of fiction, most of which was submitted and reviewed by peers, but that doesn’t include a large number of re-writes, editing passes, and both major and minor reconstruction of works in progress. I’ve written over 120 blog posts and responded to numerous questions on both the blog and in my personal email inbox. The short version: I wrote more the last two years than in the previous ten years, combined.

And, man, taking a step back and doing a little self-evaluation, that fact brings a huge smile to my face.

I have, easily, two years worth of work “in the pipeline” and begging for my attention

With instructors who helped me beyond measure: Naeem Murr and Fred Leebron.

My massive seminar paper, needs to be expanded and deepened into a book length work of non-fiction. My thesis, while very well received, needs some tweaking, as well as two or three more stories. The novel-in-progress is moving forward, and I feel even more confident about my ability to wrestle it into shape. I have a whole other story cycle in the works, I have another novel idling in the back ground, I have a plan for submissions and publications.

Some folks see the graduation week as a finish line. I see it more as the last twenty feet of the big snow ramp that the winter olympic ski jumpers launch from. I am so thankful to be finishing the program with that last little lift at the end of the ramp, shooting me up, out, over the hill and into the next phase of the writing life. The feedback from Ashley Warlick, Pinckney Benedict, Fred Leebron, and Michael Kobre has given me plenty to work on in the coming months and I’m excited to get back to a regular work routine!

I really enjoy talking to other people about writing: process, craft, etc.

I’ve done plenty of public speaking, to groups larger and smaller, more friendly and more hostile, but I realized this week how much I just enjoy talking to other people about writing. I’ve taught at various levels (elementary to high school, several office staffs, a range of subjects from technology to political theory to poverty to economic issues…I even taught a technology class to other teachers, which is the hardest group to handle) but there is no topic that makes me as excited to get in front of a group as writing does. It’s my home. It’s where I belong.

I’m sure there are other take-away lessons from last week. Some of them will likely make it into the blog in the coming weeks. I know that I am home, I’m a little tired still, but I am itching to dive back into the work.

I hope you’re as excited about YOUR words as I am about mine.

Have a great Tuesday, and HAPPY WRITING!!!!

The Path Ahead

One of the exciting, and scary, things about turning the page on another chapter in life is the way the world sort of opens up, for a minute. There are all of these paths to take and decisions have to be made along the way.

For the last two years (plus a few months, truth be told) I’ve been living in a paint-by-numbers world. The MFA program isn’t dauntingly structured. It isn’t like I didn’t enjoy (almost) every minute of it. But, to be fair, a degree program is supposed to be structured. It’s one of the drawing points for the writer who is stuck, stagnant, needing a boost. (Though, really, writers hate to admit structure is a POSITIVE force in art…but that’s a rant for a different post.)

Now, here I am, with so many different opportunities. Some of the ways forward are very traditional. Other options swirling around my mind aren’t so ordinary.

But, no matter my path, let me tell you this: I intend to write. A lot.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll begin to explore with you, dear reader, some of the ways I want to move my writing and my teaching forward.

It’s time for the next phase of the journey. Thanks so much for coming along with me!

Happy Monday, and Happy Writing!