Friday, January 28, 2011

Cinderella’s Slipper Vs. Abraham Lincoln’s Hat, or Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, & the Guinea Pig

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course not. To the writer, this is an easy question. The writer creates or sometimes recreates experience, which cannot occur without someone being there. You can have the richest setting ever written, the clearest, most compelling prose or poetry, and the most convoluted, original plotif you don’t have good characters to pin them on, they will fall apart.

I use the term “characters” with some reservations, because what I am about to say applies to nonfiction as well. Even if you are writing about real people, you must find a way to recreate their reality for your readers in much the same way a fiction writer creates a character.

The most common problem for the beginning writer is overreliance on physical descriptions to do the job. When introducing a character or beginning a nonfiction piece, the beginner’s impulse is to always start with something akin to a police report. For some reason, physical details like the color, texture, and length of a character’s hair seem crucial, as do the color of eyes and the kind of clothing.

True, we live in a superficial culture here in the US (probably most other places, too). We put much stock in what people look like and what they wear. Look at all the fashion advice concerning what to wear to a job interview or first date. Look at all the red-carpet coverage.

Little Women (Signet Classics)But if your character isn’t going to a job interview, first date, or red-carpet event, this stuff is meaningless. Fiery red hair and piercing blue eyes aren’t character traitsthey’re clichés. Some physical descriptions can be useful. For example, Jo’s long hair and Amy’s nose in Little Women are not just mindless physical traits. Jo’s hair reveals the femininity in the tomboy, and becomes a defining moment for her when she cuts it off for money. Amy’s struggles to have what she thinks of as a refined nose show her “airs.” The difference between a useless physical description and a useful one, as my word choice indicates, is that useful ones do some kind of work to reveal character or perhaps to create a plot point, like Cinderella’s slipper.

But how will a reader be able to imagine a character if you don’t provide a physical description?

That is the wrong question. The right question is whether the reader needs to imagine a particular physical appearance at all. Does it matter whether the reader is envisioning a blond or a brunette? Does it change the nature of the character or the meaning of the events you are narrating? Probably not. One of the most well-drawn characters in literature is the narrator of James Joyce’s “Araby,” and we don’t even know his name. We don’t stop to think what his hair color might be or what he’s wearing, because we know him in a much more intimate way: we hear his thoughts.

But what if you are writing about a real person? Don’t you owe the readers a physical description? Sure. There’s a natural curiosity about what real people look like that you should satisfy if possible. But don’t overdo it, and don’t let it substitute for more revealing information. Chances are, if you’re writing about a famous person, I probably have an idea of what he looks like. Do you really have to tell me about Abraham Lincoln’s hat? I think not. Don’t even tell me about your Aunt Rosie’s missing third finger unless it defines her in some wayit explains her shyness or, conversely, why she became a pianist. Joan Rivers has been giving us the minutest details of what celebrities wear for decades, and we are no closer to knowing any of them for it.

My Fair LadyThe would-be costume designers among you are incensed. It’s a good thing to think about your writing cinematically; it helps you flesh out setting and specific action. But the demands of film and print are not the same. Actors on a screen (or a stage) must be wearing something, or else be naked. And so, the good costume designer chooses something that makes sense. That works in conjunction with a particular character, time, and place. Even in the most spectacular cases of costume design, the costumes alone don’t make the character. It’s hard to imagine a film as visually striking as My Fair Lady without Cecil Beaton’s gorgeous outfits, but it’s the conjunction of the dresses with Audrey Hepburn’s dramatic personality makeover that create the character of Eliza Doolittle.

The Devil Wears Prada: A NovelIn print, however, there are no naked actors walking around (unless you put them there). We can omit physical descriptions and not even miss them. In fact, an irrelevant physical description is as distracting in print as a voice over is on film. There is a tendency now to constantly refer to Gucci this and Prada that. In some cases this is fitting. There is a culture to which designer labels are as endemic as mosquitoes and palm trees are to Florida. Lauren Weisberger could not have written The Devil Wears Prada without the specialized language of fashion. But all this name-dropping eventually starts to sound like product placement. Unless you’re writing for Vogue or someone’s paying you to sneak their brand into your story, don’t succumb to the temptation to show that you know the difference between Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos.

So how do you create character?

The Barbara Walters Method

There’s a reason why Barbara Walters interviews people in their homes. It’s also why you snoop around the boyfriend’s apartment the first time you are over. Drawers full of lacy lingerie, empty cupboards, and miles of shelves displaying mint-in-box action figures from the 80’s are more than just setting. They’re character clues.

The Fan ManOne of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered is Horse Badorties, from William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. There are many reasons why this quirky character is so memorable, not the least of which is Kotzwinkle’s use of the first person. Horse’s voice is so unique it stays with you long after you finish the short novel. But we get to know Horsefrom page oneby getting to know his pad, man, his

piled-up-to-the-ceiling-with-junk pad. Piled with sheet music, piled with garbage bags bursting with rubbish, piled with unnameable flecks of putrified wretchedness in grease.

It’s not just that his “pad” is messy; it’s the way he reacts to it that is so telling:

Its the sink, man. I have found the sink. Wait a second, man . . . it is not the sink but my Horse Badorties easy chair piled with dirty dishes. I must sit down here and rest, man, Im so tired from getting out of bed. Throw dishes onto the floor, crash break shatter. Sink down into the damp cushions, some kind of fungus on the armrest, possibility of smoking it.

Far from being shocked or upset by his mess, or even, as so many messy people are, oblivious to it, Horse enjoys the surprises his pad offers, and the possibility of smoking them. We know immediately the sort of person this guy is.

You don’t have to stick to people’s homes. Someone’s car, a desk at work, even the spot they choose to sit in a classroom can reveal character. The interaction between people and places is one of the most versatile tools at your disposal for showing character. Which brings me to my next point.

The Guinea Pig Method

People react not only to places, but to events. There’s an old writing myth I don’t think anyone’s been able to confirm about the existence of something called a “plot wheel.” Mystery writers would spin this wheel, and wherever the pointer landed, the event written there would be the next plot point. Sort of like the old board game Life: get married, win the lottery, switch careers, that sort of thing.

This is the wrong idea about how to create a good plot, but it does have its uses. People’s true natures come out when faced with an unexpected event. The event doesn’t even have to be catastrophic: think of Mr. Smooth on the perfect date, all good manners and pulling out chairs, holding doors open. Then give him a flat tire and watch him turn into a sweaty, cursing mess who berates his date for living on Pothole Place. Aha, we say. In the case of nonfiction, look for similar defining events. Sometimes these events are obviousto go back to Abraham Lincoln, it’s as difficult to imagine him without the Civil War as without his hat. But defining events can also be the summer vacation that turned into a lifetime’s work in marine biology, or the childhood move to a different city that turned into a reading habit.

Always have your characters doing something. This is where your cinematic imagination will do you goodnot by helping you envision what your characters are wearing, but what they are doing. The incessant doodler, the guy with his chair tipped back and his head resting on the windowsill, and the girl in the front row taking copious notes in tiny handwriting are all attending class, but each is different. This kind of detail-oriented action is more subtle than event reaction, but it can add personality as long as you don’t go overboard. If your character is jingling his keys, whistling a tune, and scratching his head, he might be having a seizure.

Perhaps the best kind of action is interior action, especially when it contrasts with exterior action. I used this contrast all through “Mesh and Lace,” a story about a waitress facing her ten-year high-school reunion. Most of what happens in that story stays inside the main character’s head. Outside, she’s waiting tables, dealing with her family, and having normal, banal conversations, but inside she’s questioning her whole life. Here is a scene that will hopefully make the point. Isabel, the main character, has still not decided whether she wants to go to the reunion when she finds out she will have to work that night:

“Isabel,” she says, as I walk up the driveway, “you’ve got to do me a favor. My brother in Jersey is getting married next next-weekend and I need you to do Saturday night—will you?”

I get a little pang somehow. It’s the night of the reunion. “Can’t Cary do it?”

“Cary’s already working on Saturday night.”

I really can’t say no to Sarah. How do you say no to someone who takes care of three kids she’s not even related to for three hours, five days a week? “Okay,” I say.

“Okay,” is all she says to Sarah, who is her coworker, neighbor, and sitter, and it seemsfrom the outsidethat she’s not bothered at all by this development. Her thoughts, however, not only indicate an ambiguity that she’s not fully aware of, but also show her character: uncertain, somewhat afraid to look too deeply into her own feelings, but yet ready to do her job without hesitation. It’s the push-and-pull between Isabel’s exterior circumstances and her interior struggle that helped me develop this idea.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the CraftThere are many other ways of putting round people on a flat page, but these twosetting and actionalways work. Another classic way of capturing someone’s personality is through dialogue. That’s great if you can pull it off, but not many people can. Unless your character is witty or sarcastic, it’s difficult to reveal character through dialogue. It’s also difficult and potentially offensive to write dialect, which is a very popular way of making people sound like they belong to a particular ethnic group or region, or to show they are under or over educated. Stephen King loves it, and recommends it in his otherwise very good book on craft, On Writing. Here is the scene he holds up as an example:

“I don’t know what they say,” Mistuh Butts replied. “I ain’t never studied what thisun or thatun says, because eachun says a different thing until your head is finally achin and you lose your aminite.”

“What’s aminite?” the boy asked.

The boy in this scene is not the only one wondering what aminite (appetite) is; so am I, and plodding through phonetically rendered dialogue is so cumbersome a project that it sucks me right out of the story, making me think not about what is being said but rather wondering how it sounds. Capturing the nuances of syntax and diction is one thing, and if you’re a regional writer with a good ear, you can try it. But attempting to phonetically render dialect is a mistake, and often says more about you than about your characters. A better way to use language for characterization is to write in the first person, where the entire piece is basically the narrator’s voice. Compare the passage I quoted earlier from The Fan Man to the “Mistuh Butts” passage above; one is full of personality and humor, the other feels forced.

Dialogue has a much stronger role in character creation in poetry. The slick, choppy mantras of the pool players in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” is a classic example. But you can also use setting and action to bring to life a person’s whole existence in just a few lines, as Martín Espada does in “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits.” The truth is these methods do not necessarily take center stage as you are writing. When you’re writing, you’re writing. When you’re revising, however, and you know that something’s not quite right, someone’s lying there flat on the page and you can’t find the valve you can pump air into, it’s good to know where to look.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Begin Where You Are

One of the first chapters of Zinsser’s On Writing Well I make my students read at the beginning of the semester is “Writing About Places,” where he gives tips on travel writing. I won’t rehash what he says there, which is excellent. Rather, my intention is to convince the beginning writer of the importance of setting, whether you are writing about traveling or some other kind of nonfiction, or a story, novel, poem, playwhatever.

I remember how, when I was very young, I would skip over descriptions of setting. Impatient to get to the next plot point, I found trees and birds more than irrelevantthey were boring obstacles to my reading enjoyment. Of course, I grew out of this ignorance as I matured and came to understand the world as more than just a series of plot points in a vacuum. I’m often surprised, however, by how many people have not been able to learn to appreciate the recreated world on the page. A piece of writing with a skimpy sense of place is like a stick figure on a white background. It has no depth. But setting is more than just backgroundit is a crucial element of all good writing, and can influence plots and create character more so than action or dialogue.

Sex and the CityImagine your latest favorite film on a blank stage. No sets, no on-location vistas. No sofa for the characters to sit on, no cluttered office desk, no stark alien landscape. Nothing. Ridiculous, no? We don’t notice the effect of setting in films because it’s all happening simultaneously, but much work goes into producing that sense of immersion into another world that we experience when watching a film or a television show. Imagine the ladies of Sex and the City without New York, or the vampires of Twilight without Forks. Impossible.

In fact, these settings produce the stories that take place in them. Picture the sexcapades of Carrie and Samantha in a small, Midwestern town, or the Cullens going to school in sunny Miami. It’s precisely the cosmopolitanism of New York that enables Carrie and her friends to live as they do, and the remote dreariness of Forks that pushes the pale Edward into contact with Bella, creating the love story. Moreover, both of these stories started as books.

Most of the Great Writers succeeded in creating worlds so rich that their work is inseparable from a particular place and time. Faulkner had Yoknaptawpha, Márquez has Macondo, Steinbeck the Salinas Valley. Just in case you’re thinking poetry is the exception here, let me rush to insist the contrary. The awesomeness of a good poem is that it can transport you somewhere with just a few gestures, a few words and phrases. That’s why we’re so impressed by haikus, because a good haiku can take you somewhere in just seventeen syllables. Amazing.

Armored Hearts: Selected & New PoemsDavid Bottoms: Critical Essays and InterviewsA strong setting is at the heart of David Bottoms’s wonderful distinction between poetry and philosophy. (Bottoms is referring to a comment originally made by Karl Shapiro, but I have read the original essay, “What Is Not Poetry,” and I find Bottoms’s thoughts easier to grasp.) Bottoms speaks of the necessity for the poet to recreate an experience for the reader, to allow the reader to draw the “philosophy” from it first-hand, rather than get it abstracted, second-hand, from the poet. Read Bottoms’s “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump” and you’ll see what he means. You may have never done such a thing, but suddenly, you feel like you have, you see the “startled eyes” of the shot rats, crawling into the darkness. You know this life, this dead-end existence. You are filled with revulsion, and sigh with relief when the poem is over.

Such a visceral reaction is what a great setting can elicit. The trick is that it must be great, and not everyone knows how to write great settings. Too often, the writer settles for boring descriptions of nature or buildings that have all the artistry of a Google map, or standard descriptions of wind and rain that belong on The Weather Channel. A step above such pedestrian observations is the sort of “five senses” writing your sixth-grade language arts teacher taught you. You feel obliged to tell us about rustling leaves and the smell of laundry.

But do these sensory details make your writing better? Not necessarily. True, we often overfocus on visual details, because that’s our dominant sense, so it’s nice to pay attention to the other senses, like the sense of smell, which can be so powerful. But none of it matters unless you have a specific goal in mind. What’s the point of telling me that there’s the smell of fresh-baked cookies in the air, if the character I’m following isn’t affected by it in any way? I don’t mean to suggest that setting is subordinate to plot or characterization. What I mean is, all these elements must work together. If no one in the piece is going to eat a cookie, or be revolted by the smell (she’s pregnant, or it reminds her of endless shifts at the mall), the mere mention of cookies is not going to add to my reading experience.

In other words, objective descriptions of place add little to the machinery of the reading experience. You must gather as much detail as you can about a place, but you must not dump it willy-nilly onto the page. You must carefully select which to include and which to leave out in order to create a dominant impression. What do you want me to feel as I am reading about this place? What effect does this landscape have on the events and people you are writing about?

To accomplish the desired effect, you have to do more than trot out the clichés, however. We’re not talking about dark and gloomy nights here, or bright and sunny days. You don’t get rid of a cliché just by reversing it. You can have your funeral on a bright and sunny day and it might be an improvement over the black umbrellas, but you’re still relying on that old standard, the weather report. Get rid of the weather as much as possible (I recommend you ditch the funeral as well, while you’re at it). Don’t forget the people, for one thing. Try to describe the mall without them; you’ll have nothing but bright lights and mannequins. The beginning writer forgets that places are inhabited by people, and the character of a place is largely defined by who’s walking around in it. Who are they? What do they look like? Where did they come from? Are they rich or poor? What do they sound like? Where do they work? What do they want? These are matters of setting.

You have to tap into a place’s emotional landscape. One of the best ways to do this is to learn about its history. When was the town founded? The building torn down? Why? You may not be writing historical fiction, but knowing the history of a place (imaginary places have imaginary histories also) will give depth to your present-day description. Think big and small in both space and time. Setting is a bedroom, that bedroom is in a city, and both of these are in a January night in 2011. Or a kitchen on a farm in 1916. Somewhere. Sometime.

Incorporate thinking about setting into your writing from the beginning. Instead of sitting down to write about a woman who switches careers at forty (prioritizing character and action), sit down to write about that neighborhood you drive by on your way to work. Begin with the place, and allow the characters and actions to sprout there like wildflowers. You may wind up doing some of the best writing of your life this way.

I want to warn you, however, against one final kind of cliché. Avoid exoticizing the people and places you write about. Never forget that the people you write abouteven completely fictional peopleare human. Don’t reduce them to coconuts, clogs, mafia ties, or ancient secrets. If possible, experience a culture first-hand before you write about it, but, even then, look for what you have in common with the people and places you are writing about, and not for what is “bizarre.” Remember that one person’s peanut butter and jelly is someone else’s deep-fried scorpion. Someone who lives on a farm doesn’t necessarily hold the secret to the meaning of life just because you’re feeling a little disconnected from Mother Earth in your urban landscape. Writing about others is really writing about oneself, about discovering, through the differences between us, what it meansfor all of us here on this little blue planetto be human.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why You Should Be Writing Nonfiction

Most beginning writers want to be novelists or poets. Some of the savvier ones recognize that what they really want to be are screenwriters, millionaires, or celebrities. Hardly anyone these days wants to write nonfiction, except for some of the older beginners, who then only want to write their memoirs.

Yet, nonfictioncreative nonfiction, as it is called in the bizis exactly what the beginning writer should be writing, no matter what the long-term plans for writing something else might be.


Suppose I were to tell you to write about the predatory tunicate. What’s that, you ask? You know, megalodicopia hians. Still nothing? Sounds like you might be unfamiliar with this bizarre deep-sea creature. Sounds like you can’t write about it, then, at least not without learning more. You might be able to get something together that’s serviceable by visiting Wikipedia, reading about the predatory tunicate, and looking at some pictures, but chances are you would need a lot more research and a trip to the Monterey Canyon before you would be able to come up with something better than a joke about how they kind of look like Barney. In fact, before you could write something so compelling that you came off as an expert on the predatory tunicate, you would have to spend years studying it, touching it, dissecting it, living in its environment and observing its life.

That’s basically why you should be writing nonfiction. To the majority of beginning writers, life is as bizarre as the predatory tunicate. If you’re writing fiction, your characters say, do, and feel things that don’t make good sense, and they operate in worlds that lack depth. Your poetry is likely all about feelings that make sense only to you or are so general that anyone feeling anything could find truth in them. Your writing lacks reality, what is more aptly called verisimilitude.

But, you say, I could use my imagination. After all, isn’t that what writers do? I could imagine what a predatory tunicate is, and write about that. So what if I got a few things wrong? Reality is boring, and my imaginary predatory tunicate is likely to be vastly more interesting than the real thing. What’s important is not what things look like or what they’re really like, but how they make you feel, and I’m bursting with feelings about the predatory tunicate.

Such thinking will get you nowhere. Of course writers have great imaginations. So do little kids, for that matter. Ever get trapped in a conversation with an imaginative kid? How long before you were looking around, hoping something had caught fire near you, so you could run away? Little kids have great imaginations, but no means of conveying them to others effectively. Why is your dragon drinking tea, you ask, and all the kid can say is “because I say so.” To the adult mind, of course, this makes no sense. We know that dragons don’t drink tea; we wonder about the clumsy tail and how a dragon would sit down at a table, not to mention hold a teacup. We want to know why, and because I say so is not good enough.

The writer’s imagination is completely different. It retains all the wonderment of the child’s, but gains the ability to bring other minds into the fantasy, to suspend disbelief. How? By mimicking reality, of course. It may seem ludicrous to ask that dragons be written about realistically, but all good fantasy is based on reality. The dragon may be a dragon, but it flies like a bird, and has the dimensions of a dinosaur, which we can recreate from skeletons. We borrow the texture of its skin from real reptiles, the roar from a lion. We watch the world, and then we make the dragon. We connect the known to the unknown, and the reader comes along for the ride.

In much the same way, non-fantasy writing (i.e., realism) needs verisimilitude in order to be effective. The writer must be an expert on people and places in order to make them seem, if not real, then believable. You must be a psychologist, a social anthropologist, a scientist, an engineer. What makes one guy jump out the window, while another guy in the same situation takes a drink and sits down calmly to read the newspaper?

True, you can develop an understanding of human nature while writing fiction or poetry, but it’s much easier to do so if you stick to nonfiction, at least for a little while. The beginning writer too easily goes for the fantastic, even when writing realism. It seems more “dramatic” to go buy a gun and shoot the girlfriend. We’ve all had the experience of laughing at cheesy stories where people do outrageous things, where earthquakes and winning lotteries and spy neighbors are as common as rainy days and orange juice at breakfast. Sure, babies get abducted and grow up to fall in love with the people who turn out to be their siblings in real life, but it doesn’t happen all that often, and, even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily make for a good piece of writing. Such circumstances may elicit a gasp or a giggle, but these reactions are only good insofar as they are what you set out to get. If your intention was to move the reader in some deeper way, you’re not going to make it happen by writing about jumping off tall buildings or other desperate acts.

What starting off with nonfiction can do is train you to observe how people really act, and why and where they do so. It forces you to observe and make meaning out of reality without the temptations of creating it. My only recommendation is that you don’t write about yourself too much, which is a kind of cheating. You probably know why you act the way you do, and writing about your own life won’t force you to dwell on human nature, just your own. Moreover, you need to step out of your head to get to know the world and the people in it. When you write about yourself, you’re very likely to write about what you think and feel, instead of what you’re doing, and where you’re doing it. Talk to others; ask them to tell you their stories, what they’ve done and where they’ve been. Look at how they talk. Observe their behavior, their words. A good writer is not so much a storyteller as a storylistener, a storyfinder. Go somewhere and find the truth of a placeyour mall, your school, your city hall. Who built it? When? What’s happened there since? Why?

Marie Antoinette: The JourneyI’m not telling you to become some kind of tape recorder, or to stifle your creativity. Creative nonfiction, as the term implies, has all the qualities we normally associate with fiction: tight, compelling plots, well-rounded characters, beautiful language. Unlike fiction, however, what you’re writing about is true. It’s simply been crafted in such a way as to be enjoyable and rewarding, not just informative. Think of the difference between an encyclopedia entry on Marie Antoinette, and a really great biography, like Antonia Fraser’s. One is just the facts, m’am, and the other onewell, the other one is art. For the beginning writer, writing nonfiction means getting the best of both worldsall the craftsmanship, none of the temptations. Once you become better at figuring out how the real world works, you’ll be better equipped to create one of your own. It may seem like an unwanted detour, but learning to write well is all about patience.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionBut, you say (so stubborn you are!), I don’t know anything about Marie Antoinette, nor do I want to. Who reads such stuff, anyway? I may have to return to this topic in another post, but suffice it to say for now: lots of people. As I write this, the bestselling book at Amazon, second only to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (oh, how that tickles!), is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, a biography of heretofore mostly unknown Louie Zamperini. There has been a huge explosion in the nonfiction market, as there has been in reality programming on television. Though there are many reasons for this phenomenon, one that compels me is that we crave reality. In my opinion, there’s a glut of bad stories out there, and, to some, the reassurance that something did actually happen might be some kind of coping reaction.

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing NonfictionHopefully, however, you’re not so foolish as to be thinking of publication at this stage. Hopefully, when I tell you that, next to a universally required reference guide, the bestselling book at Amazon is a biography, you are intrigued. What have I been missing, you wonder. Good. To grow as a writer, you must cultivate a hunger for everything. There’s no use in reading the same kinds of books over and over. If you’ve never read a nonfiction book, go do so immediately. It might be just what you need to help you see something new. While you’re at it, pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It’s the only book I make my students read, and it will not only start you off writing nonfiction, but also transform the way you write forever.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Another Blog about Writing?

I suppose it’s pretty arrogant to add even more writing advice to the blogospherekind of the writing equivalent of using CFCs. However, after years (I won’t calculate how many) of being able to teach only one creative writing class every now and again, I have to let it out. I suppose it’s karmically no worse than if I had decided to blog about politics, or movies, or any other bloated topic.

Which brings me to my first lesson, one particularly suited to the post-blog era: though the story may have been told a thousand times, it changes every time. To wit: there may be many blogs about writing, but this one is mine.

What can I possibly contribute? The answer is easy: all that I have learned in a lifetime of obsessing about writing, all that I teach in the physical classroom, and more. I’m not much of a writer’s writer. Although I sport an academic pedigree, I’ve pretty much failed to back it up with the lifestyle it’s supposed to bring about. My MFA in creative writing was largely in fiction, and yet I wound up writing primarily poetry. I almost completed a PhD in literature, but specialized in nineteenth-century women’s novels, which had no connection to my creative work. Then I embarked on the glamorous life of adjuncting, which means I’ve spent the bulk of my professorial career teaching the basics of the essay and emergency grammar and punctuation. To make matters even stranger, I’ve somehow become the adjunct of choice when it comes to teaching scientific writing. I’m an expert in APA.

What all this means is that I’ve read, written, and taught haphazardly all my life, drifting from what I like to what I like next. I don’t have the highly specialized knowledge of the single-minded scholar. If you press me, I’ll call myself a poet, but I can’t rattle off a list of movements or styles, or discuss the finer points of scansion, without a trip to Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, I know a little about everything, but a whole lot about nothing. I have not much to say to other professional writers, who, quite frankly, often intimidate me. They already know everything I have to say, and more.

On the other hand, the beginning writer has always been my audience. I have never taught an advanced creative writing class. My students have ranged from those intent on becoming the next Shakespeare (well, lately more like the next Stephanie Meyer) to those who will never write anything more than an email again, but who, for one semester, had fun writing. What they have always had in common, however, is that they were all beginners. An easy audience to impress, perhaps, but also a very deserving, underappreciated, and receptive one. In particular, I would like to reach the person who can’t make it into a classroom for whatever reason. Isn’t that what the Internet is best for? Maybe you’re reading this in the middle of the night, insomniac and restless. Maybe you can’t afford to go to school. Maybe you’re too sick to leave home (I hope not!). Maybe you work all the freaking time, and you can’t stick to a class or read a thousand how-to books. Maybe you’re really sensitive and can’t bear the thought of an actual human being discussing your writing in person. Who knows? But, if you’ve never or hardly ever had someone teach you how to write creatively, if so far your only audience has been a parent, a spouse, a boyfriend, a pet, or your invisible friend, I have so much to tell you.

I suppose, if you are also a creative writing teacher, you might find an idea or two worth considering in this blog. I warn you, however, that I’ll probably write some things here that may not jive with what others consider accepted pedagogy. My intention is to make this a strictly personal space, where I can feel at liberty to write what I believe to be true even if it is contrary to what I’ve been taught. If it works for you, great. If not, I make no claims here of genius.

Finally, I’ve decided to try to do this for myself. It’s hard to write regularly, and half the year, while I’m teaching first-year composition and scientific writing, it’s very hard to think about creative writing at all. Maybe this will force me to be what I’ve always wanted to be, a more diligent writer. I’ve also never written a blog before, so that’s going to be . . . interesting. I have no idea how the mechanics of it work, but I’m confident I can figure it out. We can call that lesson #2: Approach the task with confidence. That’s not really a writing lessonit’s more of a life lesson. What’s the difference between writing and living? Writing is no different from other things one does, like asking someone out or deciding what to wear. You decide to do it and then you do it, or not. But that might be the subject of an actual post rather than a post about intentions.

For now, my goal is this: to write about writing. I’m not going to pretend to a sequence of lessons you can follow. While I’m teaching creative writing, as I am this semester, I’ll probably be more practical than philosophical. But I know that I have a tendency to get maniacal, and, if I start out with too many parameters, I’ll give this up before the second post. And that is lesson #3: Know thyself. To grow as a writer, you must develop your own philosophy of writing. It will be bits and pieces of what others have to say about it, but mostly it will be your own experience formulating your personal principles. Some people respond well to carefully thought-out plans. I don’t. I know that, if I make a rigid plan for the content of this blog, my expectations will never be able to meet what I can do here and there in between grading a paper and feeding the dog, and I’ll abandon it. So no rigid plans. I’ll post when I can, about what is motivating me at the momentpoetry, nonfiction, fiction, maybe even some scientific writing.

So there you go: three whole lessons in one post. Number one, write what you want to write about no matter how many other people are writing about it. It will be different because you are writing it, and not someone else. Number two, do it with confidence, just like you do other things in your life infinitely more complicated, like raising children or using a smart phone. Number three, know yourself. There is no one right way to write well, only one right way for you, and likely that will change as your moods change or as you grow and change as a person and a writer. One of my personal goals for this project is to do precisely thatto elaborate my personal philosophy of writing and have a record of it, and how it changes. What’s your philosophy?
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