Archive for July 2011
Want to learn how to hit a baseball? I learned through research and practice five years ago that you should be swinging a bat 100 times a day. Want to improve your jump shot? Shoot a hundred a day–and according to David Robinson, it would help if you did 200 full-court layups each day (100 righted-handed, 100 left-handed). A photographer I dated once told me that you don’t take your first real picture until you’ve taken 10,000 pictures. Where am I going with this? Simple: If you want to understand how fiction works and dramatically improve your ability to write it, handle 800 pages of fiction manuscripts over the course of a month.
I hadn’t really thought about the number until I was wrapping up my last few manuscripts yesterday. My neighbor walked passed my room and stopped to comment that every time she sees me, I’m laying in my bay window studying a manuscript. That gave me pause, and after some quick math I told her that all told, I’ve handled 800 pages of fiction manuscripts this month. Damn.
This is not a complaint. The manuscripts took a lot of my time here at The Skids, but it was what I felt I had to do to get where I wanted to go with my fiction skills. I realize now, too, that given how quickly I wanted to do it, it couldn’t have happened any other way. I wouldn’t want it to happen any other way. It would have taken me years to handle the same amount of material through standard university coursework, or in a writers group. Here and now, there’s a lot to be said for the overwhelming amount of paper, the repetition, for creating a routine, for putting effort into someone else’s writing, and dumping a lot of tools into your writer’s toolbox all at once. When you live and breath writing for an entire month, this is what is going to happen. I think I paid a fair price for it, and the dividends will continue to pay off for as long as I write.
It’s not all been about writers and writing at The Skids. First thing upon showing up on July 3, I met a group of 4 high school art teachers who were here on 5-week fellowships. They were a nice, smart group. It helped to have being a high school teacher in common (not many other teachers in the writing program) so when I got burned out eating three meals a day with writers, I could hang with my art teacher friends. It’s a rare day when I look to other teachers as a group I can escape to since I’m more often wanting to escape from many of them (my close teacher friends aside), but that didn’t seem to interfere with our collegiality.
Those artists served another function, too. I’m endlessly fascinated by how the artist creates, so it was worthwhile to hear them talk about their projects, their art and teaching philosophies, and how they help students gain an appreciation of art. They invited me to their studio, and it was quite an experience to see the work they had talked about over the past few weeks. Also, that experience helped exercise another part of my brain by verbalizing my thoughts on their paintings and sculptures, and hearing them talk about their visions for their work. To me, it’s imperitive to think about why a certain artist would want to work in a certain medium, and what they hope to accomplish by working in it. Having artists in my immediate company allowed me to ask those questions. I think they have the same curiousities about writing–why would a writer want to write a poem, a personal essay… whatever. What do they hope to accomplish by working in their chosen form? That may be the ultimate question a writer (or an artist) must answer.
So it’s all over now, except for the packing and the drive home. I’m shoving off late morning tomorrow, and will be back in Chicago on Tuesday. A stop in New Jersey and another in Indiana will delay my return, but I’m not in any particular hurry anyhow. My friend Joel asked me before I left if I will be a changed person upon my return. I told him then that I didn’t know, but I do now: Yes. June 28 was a long time ago; I haven’t seen friends or family since then. I’ve managed nicely, but there’s a lot to be said for being back home. It seems now that I was living a different life before I left. I haven’t had many stresses or worries here, and that has been most beneficial to expanding my writing schema. But I’ll be back home soon, back to paying bills and cleaning the bathroom and petting the cat; back to lesson planning and parent phone calls and grading papers soon enough after that. It will be up to me to hold onto and continue to develop my new skills. I can already tell you how that is going to turn out: Mission Accomplished.
…continued from Day 23…
Good things can come from crap writing, though those things aren’t usually delivered directly to the writer. If something goes beyond bad to horrible, the writer still has a long, long way to go to really “get” what needs to happen to create effective, meaningful writing. However, there are immediate positive effects that fellow writers can experience. If the workshop is moderated by a master writer, as my workshops at Skidmore have been, that usually presents a good chance to see how your perceptions match up with the moderator. If you haven’t totally shut yourself off to the piece, you can pick up a lot by hearing that master talk about it.
You also get to see just how good of a teacher that moderator is. I’ve been enormously impressed with my last two moderators and how they have handled writing that drove the rest of us batshit crazy. Nothing ever turned into a free-for-all, and no writers ran screaming from the room; on the contrary, some umbrella comments were made about things we all knew to be wrong with a piece under consideration (thereby eliminating them from discussion), and then other significant issues were addressed. This is not to say that it was all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows— it wasn’t. The moderator rolled hard on one of the pieces Monday, getting down to the sentence level on several consecutive paragraphs and essentially thinking aloud all the concerns she had with most everything. That went on for about ten minutes, uninterrupted. It was enough to restore a lot of faith I lost over the weekend; at least enough so to sustain me until the workshop ends this Friday. It wasn’t the rolling hard that resusitated my faith, it was the fact that the moderator knew that the cognitive think-aloud was what would most benefit the writer and be most effective to bring up all of her concerns.
To that end, I’ve been pleased with the quality of instruction I’ve experienced. I decided months ago that I wasn’t going to be starstruck by whomever is leading my workshops (note that I haven’t been dropping names of the writers I’ve worked with, unless I talked to you privately). I took for granted that whomever I worked with has already proven himself to be a master writer; otherwise, he wouldn’t have been selected to be a part of the institute. As a way to keep positive or negative biases out of my mind, I haven’t read anything my instructors have published. From the moment workshops started on July 4, I’ve been most interested in how well my instructors can teach. It doesn’t mean a thing if they won the Pulitzer or the Booker Prize or the National Book Award if they can’t help me grow as a writer. I’d be especially pissed if they took a casual, off-the-cuff approach and didn’t fully commit themselves to helping me and my classmates grow. But I’m not pissed about those things because they haven’t happened to me. I feel I have good cause to be worried about the quality of education, though, here at Skidmore or anywhere else (even my beloved Northwestern). All too often, college-level teaching positions are filled by people with whom the college wishes to be associated because of their accomplishments, regardless of how well they can teach, and since there are no “methods” classes for college instructors, you can get stuck with a crap teacher, albeit one who can write a damn fine book.
When what a person produces is valued too highly over their ability as a teacher, it can lead to a myriad of problems–an enormous ego and a hyperbolic mutual admiration society amongst peers come to mind. Unfortunately, those have manifested themselves here in the form of some obsequious introductions we’ve suffered for the guest readers we have each night. They haven’t all been like that; in fact, most of them have been exact, insightful, and breif (the standard for “breif” seems to be 3-5 minutes). There have been notable exceptions, though. Several have run in the 8-9 minute range, at which point you’re asking why the introducer is still talking (and about what?). It’s rather frustrating when you consider that you came for the reading, not the introduction. One introducer wrote a short story in which the guest reader was a character. Another wrote a too-long memoir of numerous experiences she had with the guest reader’s writing. Another introduction ran for 9:57 (I timed it), which was one third the length of the actual reading. It seems to me that some of the introducers are bent on drawing attention to themselves rather than bringing the audience’s attention to the guest reader. It gives the appearance of a contest to see who can most deify their subject. Or maybe there is something to be feared in not stroking certain egos. I don’t know; post-secondary education isn’t my bag. Still another introduction didn’t matter in the least. I purposely tuned it out, and the subsequent reading, because the biography on the guest reader’s website was so bombastic and inane that I had already lost respect for her–I can’t respect another teacher whose biography claims (or is permitted to claim, if she didn’t write it) that her students worship her.
No, this stuff isn’t getting to me, the shootings, the knifings, the beatings, old ladies being bashed in the head for their social security checks, teachers being thrown out of a fourth floor window because they don’t give A’s. That doesn’t bother me a bit… Or this job either, having to wade through the scum of this city, being swept away by bigger and bigger waves of corruption, apathy and red tape. No, that doesn’t bother me. But you know what does bother me? You know what makes me really sick to my stomach? It’s watching you stuff your face with those hot dogs. Nobody… I mean NOBODY puts ketchup on a hot dog. ~ Clint Eastwood as “Dirty” Harry Callahan in Sudden Impact
I melted down yesterday. Hard. I considered tearing up a few manuscripts and flinging them out my window to scatter in the wind and litter the south end of the Skidmore campus. I thought of blaring multiple f-bombs through cupped hands to alert everybody that I had reached my breaking point. I thought about how quickly I could pack my car and take off, and even be home at the moment I’m writing this. Was it the lingering grotesqueness of Satan’s Porcelain Palace? Missing my cat too much? Was I tired of the noise and distractions? Had enough of the constant barrage of pizza and ice cream at lunch and dinner? Reached the limits of living in a dorm room for a month at age 41? Got tired of New-Yawkuhs?
No. It was none of those. I can take all that, and have been managing well enough. What finally made me sick to my stomach was having crap writing stuffed in my face.
I mentioned that I’ve been taking my responsibilities as a peer editor, responder, and workshop member rather seriously. On principal, I’ve tried to give the pieces I’ve handled the time, attention, and effort they deserve. The time I have spent on peer writing has been triple that of the time I’ve spent on my own. I’ve dutifully gone through line and content edits, and felt pride in serving the greater good to help a writer improve. I’ve even seen my own fiction writing skills grow as I’ve done all the reviewing and editing. But I can’t do it anymore. I handled pieces last weekend that were such crap that I began to question the integrity of this program. I wondered how people who wrote such crap got into the program. I wondered about my own ability as a writer who is keeping company with writers who produce such crap and don’t know it is crap. I commented to other trusted peers that the pieces sucked the soul out of me, and that the soul-sucking has happened all too frequently in the past week and a half or two weeks.
I have finally started to understand the perceptions of numerous writers over the last few years who have written about how the proliferation of undergrad and MFA Creative Writing programs has eroded the teaching and acquiring of creative writing skills. One of the pieces that pushed me to the limits of sanity came from a classmate who is in a respected MFA program. His wasn’t the only example; I’ve already seen a year’s worth of crap writing, mostly from undergrads in the workshops, but some from MFA writers. It has left me wondering how they got in their respective programs, much less this one.
Several peers advised me to spend less time on the pieces, to not comment at all, or to not read them if after a few pages they are already proving to be turds. None of those were viable options to me. Thankfully, my rage was short-lived. As early as last night, I read a pair of short stories from another workshop member that counter-balanced the crap I handled recently. They were gems to work with–not perfect; but they showed an excellent command of craft, depth of thinking, sophisticated themes… in short, they left me with a lot to work with, a lot to learn from, and an eagerness to discuss them to see how they can be taken to the next level.
to be continued tomorrow…
I’m not a novelist. I have no designs to be one. There are things about writing a novel that I just can’t fit into my writing schema; things that are so far removed from my writing schema that I would have to develop a whole new writing schema to accomodate them. I have known this for some time, and am comfortable with it. One of my contemporaries ventured the other day at dinner that whether you’re writing a short story, flash fiction, or a novel that it shouldn’t matter since fiction and nonficiton writing draws from the same basic skill set, that you write what comes to you and learn and adjust and fall on your face along the way. As such, if you can write a short story, you can write a novel.
I don’t think it’s that simple. I agree that you write what comes to you. I seem to know when something needs to be a poem or when it needs to be a short story, but those feelings are a helluva lot different than when something needs to be nonfiction. But I also have some innate feeling for how long something should be to function at the most optimum level, and I rarely feel that anything I write needs to be over 15 pages (the exception being my thesis, which by university mandate had to be 75 pages; I ran it to 98 pages because that was what I needed to complete the story). Not all fiction writing, though, draws on the same basic skill set. Novel writing, by most conceptions, demands a well-honed plot that can be sustained for at least 120 pages. How could I ever think of anything that would go on that long?
I live in awe of plot, and can’t conceive of how so many other writers (especially screenwriters) have mastered it. I’m usually stunned by films that are intricately plotted and executed, even popcorn fare like James Bond films, which usually deal heavily with plot. How do they do that? We handled the first few chapters of a police procedural in class a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how much had to be loaded into the first 30 pages of the book for the whole ship to sail. The writer had obviously thought through the entire thing, start to end. There was a serious framework in place. I was dumb to how she had done that, the same way I am dumb to how an abstract painter delivers his vision on canvas.
There are several causes for my implotability. Foremost is my training as a nonfiction writer. We never talked much about plot when I was getting my training, because in nonfiction, the plot is already there. It has already happened, or may even be happening as you write if you’re engaged in participatory journalism. You follow that. It’s what you’re given. Stray from that, and you’re corrupting your writing into fiction. Also, I came to writing as a long-time fan of Raymond Carver. That dude never wrote a novel. I loved his short stories so much that I wanted to write stories a lot like them. I seemed to already have some things in my head as far as what I needed to do to write them, and it didn’t include some long, intricate plot. I needed realistic moments that I could write about, moments that I could work with to find truth or deeper meanings. And they weren’t moments that lasted very long in real time. That’s just where I was in my head.
Who knows, though. My fiction skills are in the stratosphere compared to where they were two years ago. Maybe as I continue to work on those skills, ideas for novels will come to me. Right now, they aren’t part of my zone of proximal development. If I am ever able to stretch my zone to include novel ideas, I’ll have a whole new set of concerns– how do I commit that much time and effort to something? I’m rather fond of the quick hits; the short stories that I can write quickly and then polish to a high shine.
So no, I’m not a novelist. Not yet.
My quibblings and mockeries of dormitory living aside, things have been working out well here at the summer writers institute. I can say without a doubt that my fiction-writing skills have developed faster and better than I thought they would. I look forward to seeing where else they will go since I have well over a week left here. The experience serves as a reminder of what you have to do, really, to get better. It seems basic and cliche, but it is all about practice, practice, practice and work, work, work. I’m fortunate to have found an environment where I can focus on those two aspects and tune my mind to the new skill set. This is pretty much how it has to work, to my way of thinking. Get on a college campus where you’re not distracted by your everyday existence, where bill paying can go on hiatus, you don’t have to worry about preparing your own meals, you’re not going to take your dog for a walk, you don’t have to clean the bathroom… strip away all that daily living crap, and you can do a lot of learning. And when you’re surrounded by other writers (even poets!), you have an interested support group that shares a common goal.
True that I haven’t been “working” so much as practicing. We are given 45-90 pages of material to review for each class, and I’ve been taking the task rather seriously. That has meant spending a lot of time on other people’s writing. But you have to do that. You have to see what your peers are doing, and then hash it out with them, understand how and why they did it, and find a way for it to inform your own work. You also have to see how and where their writing is going wrong and come up with some suggestions on how to make it better. You wouldn’t believe how motivated you become when you want to get better and you handle unexpectedly great work from a writer who is sitting right next to you, who probably has work habits similar to your own, and who probably has a general likeness in background and education. This is not an uncommon feeling for me. I’ve been in writers groups with other writers who were way ahead of the curve and motivated me to plug away. This also happened frequently at Northwestern– I felt the heat from classmates. I saw what they were producing and didn’t like the taste of dust in my mouth as they sped ahead of me. The only choice was to stomp on the gas peddle and catch up. I credit that competition / motivation with helping me create what I consider my best work as a writer.
As for the unglamorous dorm life: What else are you going to do? The environment here is set up like this on purpose. Take advantage of all this stuff to focus on your purpose. Writers are supposed to suffer! We’re supposed to live with our feet on the ground. I don’t know what to tell you if you can’t deal with the bathroom from hell, the doors slamming at 3AM, and having to walk to get whereever you want to go. I wouldn’t want to live much more than a month like this, but I can also tell you that there are some highly sought-after writer’s retreats that make Weicking Hall look like the Waldorf-Astoria.
This is what happens when you spend too much time on a college campus: Your sophisticated sense of humor and insightful writing is reduced to bathroom talk. For those of you who are already making plans to leave comments along the lines of, “what sophisticated humor? what insightful writing? did I miss something?”… go ahead. I ain’t gonna stop you!
The bathroom situation has improved, which is to say it hasn’t gotten any worse. The maintenance crew is replacing the toilet, but it’s proving more difficult than imagined. So now I get to trek all the way down the hall, and sometimes to the other side, to use the facilities. Once I saw the maintenance crew at work, I told them I already had designs on being the first person to clog the new fixture. Told them I was eating loads of circus peanuts and granola, backing it up with more pasta and Mexican food than they could imagine. One of the guys quipped that cellphones, bottle caps, and silverware also help quite a bit. I told him there was no way I was going to eat any of those.
I’m not the only one with issues about the bathrooms. Way on the other end of the hall, my friend Suzann has had enough. We’re basically a set of bookends on the third floor– I’m all the way down in 301 (I call my room The Dead End), she’s in 334A, we’re both here all month, both high school teachers, both in fiction workshops, and we both have had our share of frustrations with the facilities. She vented her anger by posting this poem in the stall on her end:
This poem is for the bathroom
There are no wastebaskets.
We have begged for them.
Yes, the shower is gross.
Did you bring flipflops?
Whoever you are, the one who’s squatting on the toilet,
Or at least wipe up your freakin pee on the seat.
A time will come when you will realize you are sitting here
and there is no more toilet paper. In that moment you will
wonder why you paid so much money to come here. These
questions are existential. Call the extension on the mirror,
and bitch for all you’re worth.
Someone on the other end will say to you, “Ma’am, this isn’t a hotel,” and
at that point,
you’re on your own.
The floodgates lifted yesterday, and I’m trying to stay on my feet amid the mad gush of motivation to work on two short stories, two poems, and this blog. I’ve been tinkering with one of the short stories throughout the past two weeks, though, when I haven’t been working out, watching movies, playing NES Baseball Stars, scarfing too many desserts from dining service, staying up until 2AM, listening to professional writers read, listening to the inane introductions of said writers, reviewing the work of other writers, hanging out with neighbors and new friends, out late at bars off Broadway, or sleeping. So I guess I haven’t been working too much on that story.
What changed was that one of my stories was finally workshopped; I had to wait until the very last day of last session, but it happened. It’s the same story about which I was serializing last winter (the serial lasted several episodes); the same one that just last week I said I had taken as far as I could. I guess now I know how to take it further, so that’s what I’ve been doing. I just wrapped up draft #8, and there will be at least one more before I call it quits on the story. I figure a year of working on it is probably enough.
I surprised myself with how wound up I was about having my piece workshopped. I didn’t sleep too well the night before, and my stomach was queasy. I even woke up early and went for a run on the track, but that didn’t have the intended effect. The story is the longest, most detailed, most complex piece of fiction I’ve ever written, and as such I didn’t know how well I had accomplished all of it. I wasn’t sure how well-sharpened my fiction tools were, or how far I’ve climbed up the fiction ladder in the last year and a half. Being away from my midwest writing roots and nowhere near my normal writers group also figured into things. I guess ultimately I was afraid that I was going to find out I hadn’t climbed as far up the fiction ladder as I thought. I already mentioned that I thought I was situated at the median level of ability for my workshop, though after reading everybody else’s work, I thought throughout last week that I was in the lower echelon of ability. The thing is that I’m not entirely sure when I have produced a decent piece of fiction. I can feel it somewhat reliably with poetry, and I definitely know it with nonfiction; fiction eludes me.
It turns out that my fiction tools are sharper than I thought, and I’ve climbed the fiction ladder higher than I thought. I met with my professor Friday morning, and she liked the story quite a bit. We have talked extensively in class about how time is managed in fiction, and her feeling was that I had done an excellent job in that regard. Honestly, that all came subconsciously. I was focused on what I had to do to make the story flow logically. I think I was helped, too, by the close attention I’ve paid to structure while creating the most successful pieces of nonfiction I’ve written.
I have great respect for the way the professor poured over my story (all of our stories, really) and gave me all she had. When you’re dealing with someone who is that committed to craft, it’s contagious. Now the challenge lies in taking what she considered to be a good story and turning it into what she believes could be a great story. The collective feedback (her and my classmates) has given me a lot to think about, and that has provided me with a lot of motivation to take the story even further now that I can sense how to do that.
It ain’t all gravy, though. Now that I feel like I have at least a decent fiction toolbox and I’m motivated, I’ll probably have to commit myself to fiction the same way I do to nonfiction and poetry. That will probably mean more hours spent writing, which might mean less hours spent watching baseball or movies. Life sucks.