The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Archive for June 2019

Ten Years Gone pt.3

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(…continued from yesterday)

So I’m ten years post-program and am still striving to fulfill the mission statement I had to declare when I applied to NU.  Mine was pretty straight-forward: To be the best writer I can be. I’m happy with my results thus far, slow-coming as they can be.  The past two years have especially been very rewarding and motivational enough to keep me writing, and I think that’s in large part because I’ve stopped avoiding doing submissions.  That’s far from the last piece to the puzzle, but it has been an important piece I’ve dealt with. I think, too, that something I read last year in the book Art & Fear tells the whole story.  Writing (or any type of artmaking) isn’t some divine gift that some people are blessed with.  Any form of art is a set of skills that can be learned. The art belongs to those who refuse to give up.  I’m a stubborn son of a bitch if nothing else, so I guess as long as I stick to that, I’ll keep writing and growing as a writer.  Besides which if I didn’t, I’m not sure how I’d spend so much of my spare time.

Finally, I can’t let off of this without some sort of list of the best writing wisdom I’ve read or otherwise learned and created through the years.  Here’s a few thoughts:

  1. Have fun while you’re writing (this from Ray Bradbury).  If it’s not fun to write about, why are you writing it? Exception:  If it’s building meaning and understanding of your life and environs.  It wasn’t too fun to write about the attempted suicide I linked to earlier, but it sure as hell helped me understand my teaching life better, even if it was uncomfortable getting there.
  2.  Brevity, brevity, brevity.  Keep it short, for Pete’s sake.  You can take care of soooo much overwording by using lively verbs and dialogue between characters.
  3.  Always keep a journal on or near you.  Write down your ideas. Write down interesting pieces of language you hear.  Exception: NONE. EVER.
  4.  Read your writing out loud.  All of it. This from John McPhee.  Keep reading and rewriting it until you can read it aloud with ease and fluency.  Reading aloud is a lot more difficult than reading silently, so if you make the difficult part easy, the easier part is going to be a breeze and people will enjoy reading your writing.
  5.  When you’re writing prose, be it fiction or nonfiction, everything comes back to these three elements:  Plot, character, and language. This is not something I learned at NU or through my own writing, but something I heard at a reading in Iowa City.  Plot, character, and language are the three legs every story stands on. Use fresh, lively, authentic language—it will do more for your story than most anything else.
  6.  Know the importance of forward momentum in your plots.  Nobody cares about your flashbacks and back stories. They’re usually boring.  Practice writing stories with plots that are entirely forward momentum. No background.  No digressions. Action moves forward, and only action is interesting. Dialogue is action.  You can use dialogue to keep the action moving forward. After you get good at this, you’ll learn where to put flashbacks and background and how to make it as short as possible.  Still, you can do a helluva lot of good writing through complete forward momentum. Watch TV shows and movies and keep an eye out for how the writers construct their plots. It’s easy in-servicing for your writing life!
  7.  Don’t give up.  Piss on the world if people don’t like your writing.  Write what you like. Get good enough at it, and you’ll emerge as a writer.  But Don’t. Give. Up.
  8.  Poetry.  Every day.  Get on an email service that drops a poem in your inbox each day.  If you don’t like the poem, shitcan it. If you do like it, rewrite it and pick up on the elements of craft the poet is using.  Then write a poem that uses those elements. Poetry is the loftiest ambition. Once you “get it,” you get everything else about writing.  And you’ll use those poetic elements in your writing to make it more impactful.
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Written by seeker70

June 25, 2019 at 9:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten Years Gone pt.2

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(…continued from yesterday)

While all this was going on, I was starting to teach creative writing at my school.  And I wasn’t too good at it. I was teaching a bunch of gimmicks and intentionally steering the course towards CNF because that was what I knew.  I had a decent hand with poetry, too, but not a strong enough grasp on writing at all to make the meaningful and for me to teach it the best I could.  That had to change.

What needed to happen was that I had to shore up my poetry skills and learn how fiction worked.  The poetry part wasn’t so hard. I have always been in the habit of transcribing poems since my first class at NU, and have been blessed with some great coworkers who knew poetry and liked to discuss it.  Those things helped build my skills. But I also had to write about 300 really shitty poems (I actually rounded that number down). But I love to write. So that wasn’t so bad. I figured everything I did took me a step closer to being a better writer and teacher of writing, so I went for it.

Fiction started to emerge once I started to understand that there was virtually no difference between it and CNF with the notable exception of the intentional use of symbolism (I like to say that CNF makes opportunistic use of it).  I wrote the curriculum for Creative Writing II at my school, and purposefully included a unit on writing flash fiction. By doing so, I forced myself under deadline to learn some things about writing fiction so I could teach my students in at least a halfway decent manner.  If I were to write that same curriculum now, I would never have my students write flash fiction because it’s too damn hard for young writers in the throws of learning the fundamentals of writing. But flash was where I cut my teeth on fiction, and thank god I made such a strong effort to consistently develop my poetry skills because they sure as hell tie into my fiction writing.  My first fiction piece was published in 2010, and looking back now I realize I have been writing flash fiction pretty much since then.

To be clear, I write what comes to mind in the form it calls for.  If it’s poetry, it’s mostly going to be to develop my writing skills.  If it’s flash or other short fiction, I’m writing to get published. If it’s creative non-fiction… well, it’s not.  Funny how my degree was in CNF, but CNF is pretty much the last thing I write. A notable exception came along last winter, so CNF is not exactly a triceratops in my writing life—more like a coelacanth

Back to this notion that I didn’t learn to write at Northwestern.  I don’t say that out of spite. I can’t. I love NU too much and have far too much respect for my former professors.  Plus, as I said, I wasn’t in the right place just then to focus on my writing. So my only recourse was to keep writing and develop myself as I went along.  A true MFA from the School of Hardknocks ensued. Teaching, and being the best teacher I can be, certainly motivated me, too. I didn’t want to continually teach the same old gimmick-ridden Creative Writing class to cycles of students who thought that puppy dogs and rainbows were all you needed to be a writer, and you could magically shit gold bricks the second you walked in the classroom.  I was also motivated by an old article in The Onion: Masters in Writing Fails to Create Master of Writing.  You might need only read the headline to get the gist of it, but there’s a dark truth behind the humor which goes back to my claim about the proliferation of MFA writing programs.  I never wanted to face friends and family ten years down the line who would ask, “What ever happened to that writing degree you spent all that time and money on?” Plus, I love to claim to my students that writing isn’t just something I teach:  It’s something I live. So I’ve had to write on. And on. And on.

How did I continue to write and “in-service” myself?  A steady writing diet of The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The Writer’s Almanac, plus long stays at several writing workshops during my summer vacations have helped.  Sponsoring and editing my school’s literary journal has helped, too, along with working with a fine poet when time has permitted.  And writing, writing, writing. Especially with my students when I give them time to write. I like to joke with my students that every time I learn something new about writing, Creative Writing class gets more difficult.  That’s the trend. I learn it and practice it, then I bring it to my students and make it part of the curriculum. I guess it’s not really a joke so much as a warning. The result has been that I’ve helped my students become better writers at ages 16 or 17 or 18 than I was at age 30.  That, and I’ve turned a number of them off of creative writing because they realized how damn hard it is—you can’t just show up and shit Tiffany cufflinks (believe me, it is HAF to convince a number of high school students that). But I won’t back down from that. Rigor is a stone-cold reality of the writing life, and perhaps the most important aspect of pedagogy.  As far as teaching creative writing goes, make it difficult, but make damn sure you can help students get there.

(…continued tomorrow…)

Written by seeker70

June 24, 2019 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ten Years Gone pt.1

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I’m ten years gone from Northwestern.  June, 2009, marked the end of a literal decade in grad school, which was about 6 years longer than expected.  I was sour on higher education in 2003 when I graduated University of Illinois-Chicago and left behind the asininity of their School of Education; despite the drudgery, I had still keyed into the joys of writing while slogging through the research papers.  I thought that joy might transfer into other genres since I had also been active with journaling and casual writing for about four years at that time. Turns out I was right, and a change from the south loop to Evanston made a huge difference in how much I enjoyed my studies.

The opportunity to go to NU came through a perfect storm of circumstances.  On my side of the equation, I was unmarried with no dependents, had a decent amount of savings and no debt, and was rising in my interest and ability as a writer.  So I had the time, the funds, and the interest. NU had established their grad-level writing program a few years prior, and that might have been the biggest factor in how I got in—they were still young and growing and needed to populate the thing.  Bam! I got in after working on my submission portfolio for about 3 months. I think back on that portfolio and doubt I would gain acceptance now since the program has grown in reputation.  But I’d say the same thing about the school where I teach: They’d never hire me now if I showed up how I was in 1995.

So happenstance favored me, but that was probably the last time so much in my writing life hinged on luck.  Spoiler alert: Everything since then has come by way of plain refusing to give up.

A long-standing writing controversy is whether or not an MFA in Creative Writing matters (and to be clear, I do not possess an MFA, but an MA in Creative Writing because NU didn’t offer an MFA at the time).  I’m of two minds about this issue. MFA programs are almost as common and as easy to access as karaoke machines, with similar results:  The craft in question suffers because so many people get the idea that they are pretty good at something that requires a helluva lot of work and discipline.

Still, MFA programs matter (what matters most is what you do after the program, which I’ll get into later).  For me, the program most notably helped me understand what writing was.  I was exposed to so many different types of writing and was under so much pressure to read and make sense of it that I quickly came to appreciate what writing was and could be.  A person working independently and with no heat under their seat would be hard-pressed to find all the different things we read and experienced. Given our druthers, I think most of us would prefer to read our same-old, same-old and maybe spice it up with some friendly recommendations.  What that accomplishes, though, is keeping us in a bubble where our growth is contained and ultimately curtailed. I was in the Creative Non-fiction cohort, and damned if I would have known anything about where to find quality and varied CNF if it hadn’t been forced on me. The only reason I chose CNF in the first place was because it was the only thing anywhere near where my abilities were as a writer.  I could halfway poem a poem if you poemed me to do it, and I had no clue about how fiction worked, so I forked over my cash for one ticket on the CNF express, please.

As for learning how to write…  meh. I don’t think I learned that so much in grad school.  I merely showed the potential for that with my submission portfolio.  Given a stronger literature and writing background, perhaps that would have happened more for me, but I was where I was and moved forward from that point.  Others were in more favorable positions due to better literary and writing experiences prior to the program, yet there we all were moving forward at our own pace.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t have my successes. I did, albeit ones that came late in my stay in the program. I can’t even use the plural here because I only had one piece that got picked up while I was still in the program.  That came after I figured out that I was doing too much navel-gazing and that nobody gives a fiddler’s fart about what happened to me as I came of age or in my teaching career; at least, they weren’t interested in it in the parlance I used in my prose and how I structured the plot.  As soon as I started writing less (or not at all) about myself, I started to emerge as a writer. That scored me a respectable debut in Dislocate with a literary journalism piece about Mensa that was inspired by my nephew, but that was it.  Nothing else came to me until a year after I graduated and scored with an investigation into the legacy of Earl Weaver.  It’s still the piece I’m most proud of and that has had the most lasting impact on my career.  The way that came about was… strange. And it’s a lesson I won’t ever forget. I was poking around on the internet sitting in  my classroom after school one day and thinking about some funny videos my brother and I had watched, and the idea struck me. I always loved to research anyhow, loved my topic, and had a huge amount of energy and confidence after having just completed my thesis.  I spent the summer cranking the piece out in what was a laborious, self-directed process heavily guided by mere intuition of a raw, emerging writer. Once I finished it, had no place to send it. I stumbled on SABR a year later, thankfully, and scored my second (but most significant) publication.

(continued tomorrow…)

Written by seeker70

June 23, 2019 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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