The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

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Double Your Pleasure

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This is neither a shill for Wrigley’s Double-mint nor a sudden shift into a sex advice column.  Rather, it is a reflection on how my flash fiction “What You Get” got to the point where Burningword Literary Journal said “Hells Yeah!” when they saw it, much as you might if you find yourself engaged with one of the aforementioned subjects.

My mother loved these sugar-dusted cardboard tongues.

First, this publication experience is a strong endorsement for a fundamental writing philosophy:  Keep a journal, dammit.  I tell my students over and over that writing is water, and your journal is the well.  Dig your well deep.  I also tell them writers write tons of stuff they might never come back to.  Except when they do come back to it.

I got this story started last summer during a workshop, and just now dug old drafts out of my journal.  I thought I had started straight up on a Google doc, so I was surprised to see old drafts in my back pages.  We were experimenting with the “breathless one paragraph flash” structure, which is exactly what the name says and exactly what my first draft looked like.  Somehow I got onto the notion about a person wanting plastic surgery, again, because of a flaw she imagines she has.  And what kind of mind imagines that and would express it thusly?  Figure that out, and you have a story.

What this came to was a monologue about a woman experiencing a manic episode / meltdown, with a strong message about public health and the tragedies that befall the uninsured.  Meaningful social commentary, if you can pull it off, is usually a good goal in fiction writing, so I figured I was on the right track since Neil Gaiman says fiction is a lie that tells us true things.  But after a few days I got too much into my own head and convinced myself that the story sucked (rough summer last year…  lots of bad stuff happening that impacted my writing).  I had at least moved the story from my journal to Google Docs, which is where it languished until I was taking another workshop two months ago.

Back to the idea of writing being water and your journal being the well:  I needed something to present for that workshop but didn’t have the inclination to start something from scratch.  So I drew from the well.

Commenting about the state of healthcare in our country is a good idea, but my story standing on that leg alone wasn’t going to get it published.  I needed another angle.  One thing I had failed to explore was what the narrator was wanting that triggered her manic episode.  Once I settled on that, her wanting became the focus of the story (hubby has been turned off from her for a while, probably because of her episodes).  So I doubled up the angles of why the reader should give a shit.  The commentary about healthcare became secondary, but by the end of the story, by intentional arrangements of some elements of the narration, the secondary angle became the more powerful aspect because here was a localized episode of the intersection of poverty, healthcare, and mental illness that spoke to the large picture of those three factors, all of which impact on our country in negative ways.  Having the narrator claim, “This is what you get” twice near the climax of the story and using a fragment of that for the title helps send that message.

Semi-pro tip:  Repeated phrases can really kill in poems and flash writing.  They can imply underlying messages, develop strong indirect characterization, and so many other things that I’m sure I can’t list even one tenth of them right now.

If you’ve read the story (which I’m sure you have by now, right?  multiple times, right?), you can see that the notion of the “breathless one-paragraph flash” notion is no longer there.  I tried to maintain it because I thought that type of syntax was quite effective for the narrator’s state of mind.  Unfortunately, it was too hard to follow the physical action and dialogue amongst the characters without a healthy dose of standard syntax, so I abandoned the notion for most of the story.  This is another notion I have trouble conveying to my students, that you don’t have to stick to what you started with.  You only stick with it until you need to do something else.  You have to think about writing like playing basketball.  You have set plays you know you have to run, but there’s times on rebounds and steals and loose balls that you have to fast break and trust your instincts to score.  The more you practice, the sharper your instincts become, so the more likely you are to score (I know I said this wasn’t a sex advice column..  but c’mon!).

But the run-on syntax was working in places!  I decided to maintain it in a delicate balance.  My hope was those with an eye for craft would appreciate where I chose to maintain it, and it turns out they did.  I imagine that syntax device was one of the things Burningword liked quite a bit.

I say in my dream I’m denying to myself and the world that the mass is a thing that has to be dealt with because it’s like I’m barely a thing if I am even a thing to be dealt with and then I’m growing something off me that requires a greater degree of dealing with, like here’s a sequel to me and everybody shows more interest in it than they do in me.

So I got another flash piece published in a pretty good-looking publication.  I guess I’ll keep writing, even if a lot of times my mind runs off the rails in a manner similar to the narrator in “What You Get.”

Written by seeker70

July 29, 2020 at 9:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reception (unpublished flash fiction)

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Note:  I’ve been formatting a flash chapbook for a few contests, which means compiling a bunch of my flash pieces and finding a way for them to hold together.  This piece didn’t make the final cut for my latest entry, but dammit I like this story!  Revenge is always so sweet.  I wrote this with my Creative Writing students about a year and a half ago and had a lot of fun with it.  I haven’t been able to get it published, but here it is anyhow.

Reception by Jeff Burd

Jerry just texted me a selfie.  He’s sporting a classic black and white tux and is raising a champagne flute—tell everybody I said cheers and congratulations.  He’s funny like that, which I don’t think people really appreciate.  I’m probably the only one thinking about him right now because everybody else is too dumbstruck by this spectacle.  This place is decked out in scarlet and cream.  Crystal everywhere.  A platoon of tuxedoed waiters are delivering drinks straight off a martini luge.  There’s a banner hanging over the wedding party’s table:  Your Greatest Love Is Your Greatest Life. 

I can’t take that banner seriously.  Not with the way Brian pried Suzette away from Jerry and made her his bride instead of her being Jerry’s, the way we all thought it was going to be a few months ago.  People know this, but I don’t think they care.

Rose+Bride+And+Groom+Cake+Topper

We talked to Jerry and told him don’t crash this.  We promised to get together with him to balance the situation out, but we can’t compete with Brian’s dad.  Deep pockets.  Deep.  This place is a palace.  

Jerry was real calm about the situation.  He’s always calm about stuff.  I don’t think people appreciate that about him.  All he said was don’t worry about it and that he understands.  He’ll let this go and move on.  I think everybody thinks he did and he has, but he hasn’t.

I know because a few of us got here before this place exploded.  We were looking for a bottle opener, so I wandered back to the kitchen.  Everybody was so busy they hardly noticed I was there.  I stumbled into the walk-in pantry and saw a huge pyramid shape under a plastic cover that had to be the cake.  

I pulled the cover aside just to look.  Damn.  Huge.  Three tiers covered in thick cream frosting with scarlet trim.  Candy pearls all over.  On the top tier, the bride and groom figurines were facing each other.  Except it was just the bride grinning blind love at what looked like a half-smoked cigar.  The top of the groom was melted down to the waist and had dribbled into a black puddle.   

I caught a whiff of lighter fluid, and that’s when I knew it.  Jerry has this gunmetal Zippo he bought some time back.  There’s a red and yellow “Have a Nice Day!” emblem on one side, complete with the smiley face.  He doesn’t even smoke, but pipes, bongs, candles, whatever, if something needs lit, he’s on it fast and smooth.  He smiles and says, “Let me help you out.”  There’s a click to flip the cover, the scrape of the flint wheel, another click to close it, all with a whiff of lighter fluid.  You get used to that smell, like it’s almost friendly.   

I went to put the plastic cover back over the cake, and that’s when I really noticed the base.  The decorator had written out in huge scarlet script letters:  Your Greatest Love Is Your Greatest Life.  Except there was a pale pink smear where the “f” was supposed to be in “Life.”  You could see specks of the deep scarlet cake underneath where the frosting was thinned out.  The “i” and “e” had been linked with a shaky line.  Once I saw it, I laughed.  There was no missing it.

I scraped a bit of frosting from the side of the cake and licked it off my finger, and then bolted.

That was two hours ago.  Now the servers are wheeling the cake out.  It’s still hidden under the plastic cover.  Everybody’s quieting down except for some ohs and ahs.  The band stopped playing.  Suzette and Brian are waiting hand in hand, grinning blind love at each other.  The photographer is lining up for the unveiling.  

I move in closer so I can get a shot to text to Jerry.  He’ll appreciate that.

Written by seeker70

July 27, 2020 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

I Didn’t Cut My Finger Off

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It’s true.  I didn’t.  I’m using all my fingers right now to type this, except for the thumb on my left hand (I hit the space bar with my right thumb).  I didn’t cut my finger off.

So why did I write that I did?  That’s a good question, one that points to the emotional truth taking precedent over the concrete, physical truth.  And that emotional truth is every bit as valuable as what “really” happened.  If not for Hobart Literary Review publishing my flash memoir “Cuts Real Good,” I would’t be writing about this at all.  But Hobart did accept it for publication shortly after I finished writing it, did finally publish it last week, and here I am explaining myself.  Or more accurately, explaining a tricky part of creative nonfiction.

Not me.

First, get away from writing about yourself.  It’s a horrible habit to be in, and honestly nobody gives a fuck that you had a hard time trying to mow the local Putt-Putt when you were in eighth grade.  Get instead into other stories not about you and learn how to write them as best you can and maybe get some of them published.  Fiction or nonfiction, whatever you choose, get outside of yourself.  And then when you get halfway good at it, go back and write about yourself when the notion strikes.

And here’s some more advice:  Write poetry.  Even crappy poetry.  So you can learn to work symbolically and metaphorically and with concision.  If not for writing poetry, I wouldn’t have come up with “Cuts Real Good.”  Because it started out as a crappy poem about three years ago.  Too crappy and too emotionally intense, so I had to walk away from it.  It collected dust in my Google drive until I saw a friend’s micro fiction and imitated what she did at the end with my crappy poem cum prose piece.

 lawnmower dragging you like a rag doll around cement paths and light posts

       white knuckles on the handle

     the engine growling out gray fumes     

                throat and eyes burning     

Here’s the thing about writing memoir, though:  It’s not a photograph of the time and space you were occupying way back whenever.  It’s an impressionist painting of your experience.  You’ll kill yourself trying to recreate everything, and likely bore the pants off the reader.  But giving the impression of what happened will leave the impression on the reader that you want.

Okay, so it was a bitch of time mowing the grass at Putt-Putt in my hometown.  My parents were disengaged from my life (had been for about four years at that point), the owner was deaf and thus yelled all the time (I thought I was always in trouble), and I was quickly at the end of my rope trying to negotiate the whole experience.  What did the end of my rope look like?  The emotional turmoil was enough to make me think about hurting myself so I could get out of it.  I don’t necessarily remember thinking that at the time, but it was thirty six years ago and I was young and naive, operating more on my instincts than I was logic, and it’s enough in writing to come up with a gesture of some sort that conveys the sum impact of what I was experiencing.  So long as I didn’t write that I cut my finger off.  Because I didn’t.  That would have been going too far, not to mention that it would be easy to disprove.

The good news besides being published again is that I got creative nonfiction published for the second time in the last year and a half.  This might mean that I’m getting more comfortable writing about myself, which is cool because I have a few more stories to tell.  This definitely means that I’m finding interesting ways to make the facts dance, which is the difference between meaningful and insightful lyrical writing and mere masturbation.

 

Written by seeker70

June 8, 2020 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Difference Between “Goddamn” and “Fucking”

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I had an excellent moment in my writing career about six weeks ago:  I was browsing the Easter candy at Jewel-Osco when an editor phoned me.  I wasn’t expecting it, but I knew the editor and had a good relationship with her based on a micro-fiction of mine she picked up three years ago.  I couldn’t talk to her at the time, what with an N95 strapped across my face.  But I called her when I got home, and BAM!  I was on the way to getting “Training and Comfort” published.

Thank god for leftover pieces of old Halloween costumes. Otherwise, how would I have survived the pandemic to this point?

This story, like a decent portion of my writing, came by way of working with my students.  I borrowed a prompt from flash fiction guru Kathy Fish from last summer’s High Altitude Inspiration:  You know a secret.  Might be yours; might be somebody else’s.  Write it down on an index card.

So I did that with my after-school writing students.  I wrote down “I know of a faculty member who is seriously mentally ill.”  No lie.  But then you draw a random card with somebody else’s secret on it.  I drew “I know a boy who wants to ask out a girl.”

What’s beautiful about this prompt is that you’re getting something random, and it’s already steeped with conflict.  In my case, this boy didn’t want anybody to know about his vulnerability.  Whomever he was, he was insecure and probably full of doubt (pro tip:  If you’re not feeling insecure and full of doubt when you ask someone out, you’re not asking out the right person).  So at least there was internal conflict.

My mind jumped to middle school, where it seems secrets like these are currency and about as common as quarters.  Specifically, I jumped to my middle school, circa 1984.  Then I jumped into a female point of view, and began to develop the voice of an over-confident yet very insecure and naive girl.  This was the fun part of writing, shaping the voice.  I developed a syntactic quirk that she picked up as a way of commanding attention:  Ending sentences with “but,” or making “But” an entire sentence unto itself.  “But” is a conjunction meant to offer a contrast to something previously mentioned, but my narrator had figured out that when used “but” by itself or in an unexpected place in a sentence, it kept people hanging on her words and held their attention.  From my story:

He is a little dumb, but. I mean that in a nice way.

I don’t know about all that. She hasn’t met a man since she met my dad. He’s okay. But.

That syntactic quirk might be fun for the reader to quickly decode and get into why the narrator uses it.  But.  It’s not enough to carry the story.  Pair that with some vulnerability the narrator isn’t even aware of in her own heart and mind, and you’re onto something because first-person short fiction works rather well when the reader knows something about the narrator by the end that the narrator doesn’t know about herself.  Got it:  The narrator is jealous of “Sarah Fucking Wilkins,” the girl her friend Steven is going to ask out.

So all of this was fun to put together.  But then it stopped being fun once I tried to get it published.  I sent it out to ten different publications, and it got rejected ten times.  I was in crisis with it and with another piece I wrote around the same time, both of which I really liked, knew to be quality flash fiction that represented some of the best of my writing ability, and that I really believed in.  The problem was something I discovered is happening in my preferred mode of writing, that a lot of places that want to publish flash fiction actually want stories closer to prose poems or that are heavily symbolic or metaphorical.  That’s not where I’m at.  I’m writing narrative-heavy stuff.  Relatively straight-forward but with more depth to discover upon multiple readings.

I laid bare this problem to two regarded flash fiction writers, both of whom told me the lack of publishing success wasn’t a matter of the quality of my writing, but.  It was a matter of finding the right venue.  When I petitioned that aforementioned editor, it was game on.  But.

My narrator, in previous versions of the story, referred to the unseen antagonist as “Sarah Goddamn Wilkins.”  This didn’t jibe with the editor, who promised to never publish something that took the Lord’s name in vain.  That really caught me off guard since the last story she accepted from me opened in the midst of the narrator administering cunnilingus to his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.  But.  I’m not going to get into a debate about double standards and blah-blah-blah when the editor otherwise liked the story because I can respect her views without debating them.  What I am going to do is brainstorm an alternative to that name, hence “Sarah Fucking Wilkins,” and tell the editor I’m not married to “goddamn.”

That’s the kind of decision that gets an editor to unexpectedly call you when you’re deciding between spiced jelly beans and Peeps at the grocery store while being mindful of coughing.  The ironic thing is that in earlier drafts I thought “fucking” was too much for an eighth-grade girl in a busy hallway of a middle school, especially since she already talks about boys jerking off.

“Training and Comfort” gets me back on the publishing track, and I’m mighty thankful for that given my crisis of confidence over the last seven months.  And it seems just now that I’m on the fast track since I have a flash memoir coming out next week, and another flash fiction accepted for publication at an as-yet-to-be-determined future date.  More on those later.

 

Written by seeker70

May 23, 2020 at 11:26 pm

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“Please Stop Giving Me Feedback”

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This has nothing to do with my story. It’s just what comes up when you image search the name of my story on Google.

Publishing fate has smiled upon me once again, though in the eight months since I’ve gotten so much as a wink, I was wondering if I’d ever get published again (count ’em:  30 rejections since then).  Scribble came through, liking my flash fiction “Third Night.”  So now at least I can commend Scribble for their exquisite taste and poo-poo the others for just not “getting” me.  That’s what writers do:  Blame everybody but ourselves, and once we do land a piece talk endlessly about how we alone believed.

That last part is not exactly hyperbole.

Starting back in November, 2018, this piece got rejected nine times.  Twice by the same publication, which I’ll talk about in a minute.  I didn’t give up on it, though, rather liking the diction device that was driving the narrative and having worked too hard on the damned device to let the piece go.  It wasn’t until I work-shopped it with the talented flash writer / yoga queen / cabaret singer Nancy Stohlman last summer at Shadowcliff that it broke through.  I sent it to two publications, and one gobbled it up by the next day (I absolutely love it when that happens!).

At some point during the workshop, I showed Nancy the rejection and feedback I got on the piece, starting last year around this time.  Every Day Fiction was interested, but told me at first that it was too much of an isolated scene and didn’t show character development.  “There’s hardly any story tension,” was the line I found most helpful, though a point about the narrator being in much the same state at the end as he was at the beginning was also helpful.  I was happy for this feedback.  I told my Creative Writing students that I was excited because I was about to learn something new about writing and I was more than willing to make the effort.

So I rewrote and resubmitted, fingers crossed.  What I got back was complete bullshit.  It’s a lot to get into here, but one of the oddest parts was the religious overtone to the feedback, with the reader seeing Nina as both “devil and saint” to the narrator.  Also, he couldn’t follow the narrative as it was laid out (not what the previous reader had said at all…).  Later he commented about the title:  “…the three days it took Jesus to rise from the dead…  If you mean to be indicating some sort of resurrection that is fine, but the story here doesn’t feel nearly that epic.”

Yeah.  No shit.  Because it’s not.  Flash fiction is rarely epic, what with the thousand word goal being rather restrictive as far as penning an “epic” goes (“Third Night,” btw, is 618 words).  And note:  the story has absolutely nothing to do with religion.  At all.  In any way.

So I decided fuck Every Day Fiction.  I’d rather sit on an unpublished story than deal with such asshattery, even if they’re the only ones interested.  This is not a decision I came by easily, being a writer who is always eager to reach publication and who hasn’t walked away from the rare opportunities.  Fortunately, I only had to sit on my egg for about four months until the story was resurrected.  Also, it was Nancy who, upon seeing the feedback from Every Day Fiction, quipped “Please stop giving me feedback!”

So I got published.  Yay!  Looking back on my writing process, I started the whole thing in my tiny bedside journal on July 20, 2018.  I had been reading a piece by Amy Hempel, and something triggered in my mind about not being able to describe things in terms you want to, but only by saying the opposite.  So I started to write that way.  My third and fourth lines read “Nina pours me a bowl of cereal and I tell her the milk tastes not spoiled and how I like the sound of the cereal when I bite it.  It’s not soggy.”  So there was my diction device, and I knew that if I was going to use that device that I had to have a reason for the narrator to be speaking like that.  Pretty soon a domestic abuse thread unspooled in my head, but with a subversion of expectations:  The man was not the aggressor.  Brain damage can justify linguistic difficulties, so that was an early notion that I sustained throughout.  The narrator had been struck hard enough by his girlfriend that he ended up in the hospital.

One thing that absolutely did not work, and that I got rid of pretty quickly, was the idea that the narrator was getting handjobs from the night nurse in the hospital and he wanted to stay there as a means of getting back at Nina.  But, no.  The diction device was going to be hard enough to sell without the manual relief angle.  So I got rid of that.  Sadly, you sometimes have to exercise good judgment when you’re a writer.

We’ll see what comes up next.  Might as well keep writing since I’ve found my touch again, if only temporarily.  I have about 7 pieces out there right now waiting for acceptance or maybe some feedback to reach acceptance.  Just not at Every Day Fiction.

 

Written by seeker70

January 18, 2020 at 4:45 pm

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Prometheus

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Hello blogness, my old friend…  I’ve come to write on you again.  Anybody remember when I used to blog?  Me, too.  But I’ve been busy AF these last few months.

“Busy AF” means work stuff, mostly.  That doesn’t change the fact that it’s again the delightful time of year when the Poem-A-Day Challenge happens, and this is my sixth year venturing in.  The decision to participate this year wasn’t an easy one.  With so much of my writing attention and energy going to flash fiction these days, I was tempted to run along with Nancy Stohlman’s Flash NaNo Challenge.  But what it came down to was this: I know the PAD Challenge pretty well by now, know I can crank it out, and there’s an end-game of submitting your chapbook, as shitty as it might be.  All that, and I’ve been dreadfully lacking in practicing my poetry skills of late.  Plus, I’ve cranked out a short story the last three years each time I’ve been in the thick of the PAD Challenge, and last year’s even got published.  So I decided to wade again into familiar waters.

Anybody who wears their cloak like that probably deserves this. Just sayin’.

The way the PAD Challenge opens my mind and forces me to write even a little bit each day is what keeps drawing me back.  Invariably, a poem I really like and have a lot of fun writing springs forth, and a recent one has given me pause to think about it and post it on these dusty pages.  November 14 brought the prompt “Write a myth poem.”  I was cool with that because I’m a big fan of classical mythology.  In particular, I’ve always found Prometheus’ story rather compelling.  The rebelliousness and jackass stubbornness of the whole thing are where I key in.  So I had myself a good time writing this one.  Dunno how it will change between now and the time I wrap up the PAD Challenge, but here it is in current form.

Also…  I’ve never written a poem before that uses a footnote.  So here’s my first one!

Prometheus
Millenniums of dreadful dawns.
Millenniums of days chained
to a rock, immortal flesh
yielding to talons and beak.
Millenniums of cold, wet nights
in isolation ticking
again to dreadful dawns.

Don’t despair for him—aspire!
No worse off that Sisyphus¹,
he knows the daily ordeal
and is sure he will endure.
Punishment become pleasure;
smug in knowing this again.
Do your worst.  See you tomorrow.

¹Camus, Albert.  “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

 

Written by seeker70

November 17, 2019 at 4:35 pm

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History Lesson

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So writing sucks lately.  It happens, though not usually to me during the summer.  What do you do?  Sulk.  Pout.  Stomp your feet.  Those don’t necessarily help, but you can do them.  You can also read some stuff and think about it.  Or exercise.  That always helps.  Watch some movies and think about them.  The Young Adult author S.A. Bodeen visited my Creative Writing class last spring and delivered unto us some of the frank realities of writing.  Not just that it’s hard AF most of the time, but that it is essentially frustrating.  If you can’t deal with that, you prolly can’t write.  If you aren’t experiencing it, then you prolly aren’t writing very well.  In other words, once you start writing and work on becoming a writer, you’re fucked.  Suck it up and deal with it.  Fortunately, I’m also a teacher, and most people know that there is very little frustration in teaching.  So at least I have an out there.

Still, sometimes shit happens.  Sometimes you’re on your writing date and something happens directly outside the window of the restaurant where you’re working on your words that day, and you’re paying attention and you write down some of what you saw.  And then you revisit it and see what comes up.  That happened a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to post it here so at least I feel like I’m doing something.

History Lesson

the black girl is standing back
while her white friends
giggle and shriek
running their hands
over a dog’s shiny brown coat

his tongue is lolling out
the corner of his mouth
tail thwacking each leg
in the small crowd

he’s really nice
the owner tells her
it’s okay, I used to be
scared of dogs, too

used to be Bloodhounds
howled as they closed in
German Shepherds snarled
as they ripped flesh

the black girl is trembling
here on this sidewalk
a generational imprint
from this great nation
this is a gut punch

 

 

 

Written by seeker70

July 10, 2019 at 4:48 pm

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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.

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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