Thursday, September 19, 2013

So You Think You Want to be a Writer

When I started this blog, I wasn’t entirely certain what I hoped to accomplish with it. I thought I would discuss education, writing, religion—those topics in life that interest me the most, some of which, I believe, my experiences thus far in life have given me some sort of insight into, and I hoped that maybe something I said would be of benefit to anyone who happened to read my writing. It seems that a significant number of my posts have been devoted to how I see the world around me, the worlds of religion and education mostly, two realms in which I have been camped to some degree for the majority of my life; and these posts have garnered me some praise and some criticism, the latter coming especially as I’ve put forth my critical views of modern education. I’ve posted one fiction piece, and I’ve debated writing a post about writing—why we write, how we write, what we write. I don’t know that I’m the best person to write anything about the nature of writing, for there are far better writers out there who have written about writing—Stephen King with his excellent On Writing comes to mind first, likely because it was the most recent work I’ve read about the nature of writing. But I’ve been asked to speak to a group of high school students about writing, particularly about playwriting, as I recently finished my first play, so I’ve tried to come up with points that I think are essential for anyone whose desire it is to write; some are points friends and colleagues, fellow writers, have passed along to me over the years, and others are points I’ve had to discover on my own. I’m not an expert on writing, but I’m passionate about it. That has to count for something, right?

The following is a rough outline of what I will be sharing.

Notes about Craft and Something about Style:

I. Find inspiration wherever and whenever you can and run with it.
Pay attention to the world around you; listen to people, friends and strangers alike; and pay attention to them and what they do. If the motivations behind their actions are not readily discernible, try to figure out why they’ve done what they’ve done. This is especially true if their actions are somewhere outside the norms of modern society. Some writers carry with them notebooks so they can make observations about what they encounter out in the world; they’ll stop and furiously scribble notes before going on about their business. Some carry recorders and quickly record notes and bits of conversation. And all of these are great ideas, but I’ve found they are—at least for me—a bit archaic in today’s world of Smartphones and our ever-increasing connection to and reliance on technology. I use my iPhone for notes. I’ll tap out notes and ideas for scenes, bits of dialogue, etc, in the notepad, and I’ll occasionally record memos to myself in which I run dialogue with myself, getting a feel for how my words might sound on the stage. I’ll record the same idea two or three times with slight variations among the recordings—a difference in inflection, a change or words here or there—and I’m amazed at how often these notes and rough drafts work their way into final version—at least working versions—of stories, poems, and plays. It takes effort and getting used to thinking and writing quickly, and there will be some who don’t understand what you’re doing and why. I’ve actually found myself jotting down the gist of what friends and family are saying while mid-conversation with them. Sometimes I’ll be sitting with my family as they recount old stories, and I’ll type as quickly as I can, jotting down the main ideas of what they say, the most humorous bits, into my phone. And yes, I’m typing, I’m working, but more than that, I’m listening, because I never know what is going to resonant deep down and linger, festering away in my mind until I put it to use.

There are some people, again, who understand what I’m doing as I jot down notes; they’ll understand why, and they’ve become accustomed to seeing me do it. There are others who remind me that I need to be conversational in conversations, that I’m not taking notes over coffee. A friend of mine and I saw The Conjuring and afterward went to Starbuck’s. I told him about the play I was working on and how a lot of it had come from my experiences working in a grocery store and teaching—mainly the former—and that I had done “research” while listening to people and taking notes, and he laughed said, “Hell, no. You’re taking notes tonight,” and we laughed, for he understood what I was thinking and what my intent was. But I still didn’t take notes that night.

There are others who are oblivious to my actions, or that don’t think I’m serious when I say anything they say or do may wind up influencing my writing somewhere down the road. For instance, I went to dinner with a friend five or six months ago, and after dinner we wound up at a college bar. I’ve mentioned that I learned that night that I don’t belong at college bars, but I also learned that night that some people, whether they are drunk or not, will tell just about anything to anyone if it is sure to garner a laugh. The only person in the small group of people at the bar was the friend with whom I had gone; they were here friends, and I just tagged along because we thought that maybe I needed more friends after my divorce. So when one of the guys, also a recent divorcee, asked me what I did and I told him I was a teacher and writer working on my first play, so anything he said may be used against him in fiction, he proceeded, after a few shots of Fireball, to tell me the crudest, and also funniest, story I’ve ever heard. It served as the influence for a story that’s told in my play, as after I left the bar and walked back to my car, I jotted down everything I could remember from the story into my phone. I took the main ideas of his story, the awkward yet hilarious parts, and began crafting them into something that I could use, and thought about where it would be more appropriate—or just more likely to happen— to tell such a story. The idea came to me, and I was able to craft a scene around it.

And finding inspiration in the world around you doesn’t have to extend only to listening to and observing people and their actions. A friend of mine always told his students to do the following when deciding on topics for academic research papers: look at the world around you and find what pisses you off. Why does it piss you off and how would you fix it if you could? Want to write a short story or play about a social issue? Great. Why? And what would you do to change it if you could?

II. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.
There will be some people in your life who don’t understand why you choose to sit and write, delving inward and into a world of fiction, when you could interact with them more, out in the real world. Not everyone will be like this, and some, even if they don’t fully understand why you do what you do, will give you the time and spice to write. My ex-wife, for instance, though, was often of the mind that my writing and reading was a sign that I didn’t want to spend time with her or Holden, and I was never able to convince her that wasn’t the case, that I merely felt compelled to write, that for some reason, I had within me stories that I had to write. It was a personal reason, something that I needed to do for myself.

There will be others who will simply tell you that your writing is a waste of time. I’ve found that these statements are often issued for one or more of several reasons: 1) those issuing them don’t understand the creative urge and/or have no appreciation of the art, and therefore, they view it as a waste of time; 2) they fail to see the value in your work, deeming it inferior and not worth the effort; and 3) they think your talents would be better suited doing something else (or nothing). Naysayers serve a purpose, particularly in writing, for in academia, we use them as the catalyst for putting forth our own ideas as we argue why their views are wrong and ours are write: Although X suggests… in actuality… And the naysayers in your life can serve a similar purpose: when they tell you your efforts are in vain or your writing isn’t good enough, keep writing and prove them wrong.

III. Writing is a solitary act.
My ex-wife never fully understood my writing or why I did it, so I often found myself sitting alone writing instead of watching television or joining in with whatever she was doing. She would urge me to join her, and I would argue, “Just one more paragraph.” One paragraph would stretch to two, two to three, and finally, 1000 words later, I would take a break. And the idea of writing as a solitary act extends beyond this mere example, encompassing other aspects of solitude. I find it best and easiest to write when I’m alone, when everything is quiet, though that isn’t necessarily the case for everyone who writes. Others will write in public, at the local coffee shop amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I ran into one of my former colleagues at The Lamp Post this past weekend while my family and I were eating Sunday dinner. She was sitting in a corner booth by herself, writing and drinking coffee. She seemed to be working diligently, never mind the crowd and the noise, which included my three-year-old yelling about Star Wars and quizzing those around him about the characters. But even though she was in a  crowded place, she was sitting alone, and only engaged with those around her when taking a break.

It’s okay to discuss your ideas with others, to have them serve as sounding boards for the ideas you’re mulling over, as they can offer guidance and feedback to you concerning your work, but most of your time will as a writer will be spent alone, sitting and staring at the computer screen, lost to anything that could happen around you.  

One of my good friends and former colleagues was at SIU the same time as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. Kevin was working on his MA at the time, and although he didn’t know Russo well, he knew him to speak when he saw him. And Kevin told me that he remembered one early morning when he and his friends staggered into the local Denny’s after a night at the bar, and there in the corner booth sat Richard Russo, already writing in the early morning as he enjoyed his coffee. He was devoted to the art, and Kevin told me that as he watched Russo, he thought to himself, “That guy’s gonna make it.” This was around the time Mohawk came out, and less than twenty years later, Russo won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls; it seems Kevin was right.

IV. Be true to your characters, whether they sound like you or not.
I posted something about writing my play on Facebook, something about page count or word count, or something along those lines, and someone suggested I take up space and stretch it out by adding “all those big words” I know for my character’s dialogue. Sometimes this may be tempting, to craft characters who are like us, who speak and act like us. It can, at times, be tempting to fall back on the default of using the vocabulary that is natural to us, especially when struggling with what to write. It would be easy for me to write characters who have my vocabulary and sentence structure—that of an English teacher, avid reader, and writer. I never truly thought of my vocabulary as being more expansive than that of those around me (and I am in no way attempting to sound like a braggart or to portray myself as smarter than anyone or than I actually am) until a member of my now ex-wife’s family said of me “Why does Dave have to talk like that? Like he’s smarter than everyone.” I thought perhaps this would be an isolated event; it hasn’t been. My cousin’s now ex-husband admitted to others in the family that he was apprehensive about coming to a particular family gathering at which my then-wife and I would be, and I laughed when a particular family member told me of the other man’s thoughts of my language. It seems that my speech left him uncomfortable and uncertain of how to communicate with me. The family member who relayed his message quickly affirmed that other man’s thoughts and concerns were not singular, for others shared his sentiment.

Again, none of this is offered to make me sound boastful, but to indicate a predicament in which writers may at time find themselves, or at least in which I’ve found myself: how to handle characters that don’t sound like you. I’ve two college degrees (if you count my AA, which has never been of much use to me) and have nearly completed an MA in English, am an avid reader and writer, and consider myself an academic interested in writing and education. Most of my characters, however, are not. My characters are working-class non-academics, at least for the most part. Therefore, it would seem unnatural for my characters to speak like professors, for they are not. Their speech is simple, at times crass, reflective of their middle-class, blue-collar lives, and is often colloquial. That is something I have to keep in mind as I write: my characters should sound and act like themselves, not like me.

And this extends beyond mere vocabulary, for my characters discuss issues in public that I (most likely) would not, respond in certain situations differently than would I, and hold beliefs and assumptions that differ from my own. But at times that’s the point. My characters discuss issues in public they shouldn’t, are trusting when they shouldn’t be, and struggle through uncomfortable situations in which they find themselves, and once their character is set, it is important to be consistent with that character, to understand that character and what makes him/her function, veering from that only when true transformation and evolution have occurred. 

V. Be mindful of the limitations of the stage.
Most of the points I offer are applicable to any form of writing, but this one is particular to the stage. Not only must you be truthful to your characters, but you must also me cognizant of the limitations of the stage. In fiction, or even in films, we as writers can do very nearly anything we want with our characters. We can make them fly. We can make them drag race. We can make them decompose into zombies over the course of a scene. In fiction, it is up to us to provide enough detail and style in our writing to allow our audience to see what we are describing. On film, whether through trick shots or the use of technology, we can reproduce anything that happens in fiction. On stage, however, we find that various factors limit the ability of what is written on the page to be replicated on the stage. Have a character decompose into a zombie over the course of the scene? Sure, it can be done. Make sure you have a great make up and costume designer and somebody who runs props like an ace. Drag racing on stage, however? Not as easily, at least if you want to make it as realistic as possible and avoid the risk of it being corny and tacky. Again, the extent to which it works depends on budget, direction, space, etc.

But here’s an example of something with which I struggled when writing my play. I had in my mind this scene between two people, a man and a woman, and I envisioned it as a film as I was writing it. The idea I had was that the male character would receive a disappointing text message on his phone, and the camera would zoom in at such an angle that we could see the man’s dour reaction and read the message. The audience would know what the message said, how the man reacted, and he would never have to say a word to the woman, who would obviously see the reaction but not the message—precisely what I wanted. Which was great—until I remembered I was writing a play and not a screenplay, that is. So then I had to figure out how I wanted to handle the scene for the stage. I knew I didn’t want him to read the message to the woman, but short of using Thoroughly Modern Millie-like telescreens in the scene, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I considered using an aside to have the man read the message to the audience, but I had already decided to cut every instance of a character’s addressing the audience because I couldn’t find a way to make it work well and consistently throughout the play. Ultimately, I scrapped the idea for this play and will figure it out, I suppose, for something else. Likewise, in the name of coherence, I scrapped and totally rewrote the “breaking the fourth” scene I had written, effectively making it significantly different from what I had originally planned. 

Want someone to fly in your play? Great. It worked really well in Peter Pan and Wicked (gotta love the flying monkeys!) and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director-writer character and his Laura Linney-played sister pulled it off well in The Savages. But be mindful that certain things will work well on stage. I somehow don’t think the chicken scene from Rebel Without a Cause will translate well to the stage, and Harrison Ford’s drag race  against Milner at the end of American Graffiti is best saved for the screen.

VI. Deal with writer’s block: write through it or do something else. 
There will likely come a time in your life as a writer that you face writer’s block. You may lose inspiration and have nothing to write; you may be able to write and yet are dissatisfied with the work, unable to convince yourself that the slight progress you’ve made is good enough to continue; you may have brilliant ideas in mind yet find yourself unable to fully articulate them on the page; you may have ideas and characters on the page, yet you find they aren’t fully coming to life—they aren’t doing anything of note and you don’t know how to fix it— or you may run into any number of other creative problems that limit or in some way hinder your creative output. When (not if) this happens, for surely if you take writing seriously enough for long enough, this will happen to you, don’t be discouraged. The best of writers have suffered to some degree from writer’s block. Mark Twain began The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, though he wouldn’t finish it until eight years later, as there was an extended period during which he was able to work on the novel only intermittently, unsure of the direction to take the work. He worked on other stories during this time, but it wasn’t until 1885 (in the US) that Huck Finn was published.

But what do you do when you face writer’s block? Do you, like Twain, work on other works? Do you return to the drawing board and start over? Brainstorm? Discuss ideas with others to elicit feedback? Do something totally unrelated to writing? I suppose the answer really could be any of the above.

I’ve been working on a novella for about two years, and I’m only about eighty pages in. I haven’t touched it in months, as I’m not entirely certain in what direction I want to take it, yet in the time since I started it, I’ve completed a short story collection, written dozens of poems, drafted a play, written several short stories for a second collection, blogged and written essays, and begun working on a short play, this one very very short compared to my first; yet I’ve not touched Communion, as the work is tentatively titled. I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered what I may want to do, but I’ve been unable to bring myself to do it.

There have been times when I haven’t felt like writing, when I may have had the inspiration but lacked the energy. Sometimes I give in and do something else: I’ll watch a film, read a book, play video games with Holden. Other times I make myself write for fear that if I take off too long, I’ll not get back to it. The quality of the material that is created when I’m making myself write (the same as the material when I truly want to write, I suppose) is hit or miss; some of it’s decent, some it’s rubbish, and some of it I like only after I’ve not read it for a couple years. And then sometimes after sitting a couple years it’s still rubbish. There have been times when I’ve wanted to write and had ideas, grand ideas, intricately detailed ideas, but I haven’t been able to fully translate those ideas into writing, for I’ve lacked the vocabulary or style to say what I want. I usually try to write it anyway, siding with the idea that having something to revise later is better than having nothing to revise.

So what do you do when you are faced with writer’s block? Go have a smoke. Have a drink. Watch a film. Read a book. Go out with friends. Or write through it. Each writer deals with writer’s block in his or her own way; find what works for you.

VII. Writer for yourself, even if for no one else, and stand by your work.
Not only will there be naysayers who tell you you’re wasting your time while you’re writing or that you aren’t good enough, there will also likely be people who take issue with your work. They may dislike the language, the subject matter, and the choices your characters make. Unfortunately, I’ve found that oftentimes, these people lack the ability to separate the author from the work. That is, they assume that every view represented by a character is one held and espoused by the author him/herself, which is not always true. People sometimes assume that just because a character swears, curses, and cusses most of the time that the author is the same way, and we who write know this is not always the case (though it may be.) Don’t worry about what these people say, and remember that you aren’t writing for your mother, father, aunt, or uncle. If they get it and get what you are trying to do, they’ll be supportive whether they agree with your work or not. But don’t worry about they will say while you are writing, because if you do, you’ll begin to practice self-censorship, perhaps the worst form of censorship there is. My now ex-wife’s sister found a series of poems I had written, one of which had a cuss word in it—I don’t even recall now what it was—but all I heard when I got home was about the foul language—nothing about artistic merit or style, nothing about rhyme scheme or meter. Just a cuss word and questions of why I would talk like that. I suppose, in the back of my mind, that situation and question lingered, for when I was working on the first draft of my story collection I finished last year, I went through at one point and cleaned up the language, which resulted in my characters speaking ridiculously squeaky-clean phrases that were absolutely uncharacteristic of them. I was worried about what people would say—my family, my church, my friends’ parents—should ever they get the chance to read my work. But then, after reading Stephen King’s On Writing (which I recommend to any aspiring writer) and talking to a good friend of mine who has published three books, I decided that I didn’t care. I say that not to sound cold or callous, but to indicated that I had reached the point as a writer where I knew I had to either be true to my characters and themes and express them as best and honestly as I could or quit writing. I chose the former. And there have been people who haven’t understood what I’ve attempted to do with my writer. For instance, I recently posted “The Master’s Radio”, an essay I wrote about the dichotic nature in my life as it pertains especially to southern gospel music. In the essay, I indicate that my listening to gospel music is far more about familial remembrance and tradition than religious tradition or worship. As I’m considering entering the piece in a competition, I asked, via, Facebook for general feedback, any sort of revisions or edits my readers thought would make it better before I submitted it. A particular discussion was devoted to the title, which, like academic work, is two part—the title and the subtitle. In academic writing, the subtitle focuses more narrowly on the specific approach the essay will take, while the title suggests the general or overall idea. That is the model I followed for my essay: main title, general indication with a play on a reference to “Turn Your Radio On,” an old gospel song; the subtitle, the approach the essay will take, with a focus on an almost humanistic relationship to religious music. That, to me, was the perfect representation of the dichotic nature of the essay.

And then I got a text suggesting that the one who sent it would have liked the essay had it focused on a Godly relationship and discussed how my grandmother’s exposing me to gospel music led to a relationship with God, but I read the message initially as “I would’ve liked it MORE if…” And I explained that that was not my point, that that wasn’t the theme of the essay. The essay wasn’t about a relationship God, it was about a relationship with family. The response was that this person did not believe God could be separated from a discussion of Godly music. I didn’t respond, for we had each made our points and neither was going to change the mind of the other. Yet it was as I was rereading the texts that I realized the mistake I had made when initially reading the message. The text didn’t state, “I would’ve liked it MORE if….,” it stated, “I would’ve liked it if…” not as in liked it more, but as in liked it at all.

So write for yourself and be true to your characters, and stand by the choices you make and the work your produce, for if you can’t take pride in what you’ve done and support it, it isn’t worth doing.

VIII. Embrace your rejections and criticisms.
I entered a writing completion a couple years ago for a now defunct journal; I sent two short stories I had written, both Southern stories, one Southern Gothic in nature, making use of what Chopin referred to as “the grotesque” as best I could as someone just starting to take writing seriously. I sent a short story to McSweeney’s, one that relied heavily on magical realism. It was my first experience writing a story in second person. And I submitted “The Master’s Radio”, then titled “Why I Like Gospel Music,” a play on James Allan McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music,” to The Burnside Writer’s Collective. I never heard back from any of them. The last one was especially disconcerting, for I’ve read several essays on the website, and I was convinced that my work was just as good, if not better, than some of what gets published. Not hearing back from McSweeney’s wasn’t as big of a surprise, for I knew it was a long-shot sending work to them given the caliber of work they regularly publish.

Of all my rejections, only one has come in the form of an actual rejection letter. I sent “Why I Like Gospel Music” to a second magazine, also a Christian-based magazine, and in their rejection email they thanked me for my submission but politely turned me down, which means I, like a young Stephen King, tack up my rejection letters as they come.

There are some rejection letters that are short, brief, and to-the-point, yet others, especially as you gain more experience in rejection, will come with valuable feedback. And if you keep at it long enough, I hear they actually come personalized, as the editors will offer to you suggestions as to what flaws in your work you need to fix. I read of a Billy Collins rejection that came in this manner, and Collins realized that the editor who turned down his work had read it more closely than even he had. Oh that we should all reach that point!

The first semester I taught at the college, I gave a collection of poems to a couple different coworkers for some feedback. One praised me highly as a great poet, while the other, a man I know far better, asked me, quite plainly, why what I had given him were poems. I had some great lines and some great turns of phrase, but that those ideas would’ve worked just as well in some other format—short story, novel, etc—for I had written everything in free verse, sans meter or rhyme scheme. The only answer I could give was that I had tired of writing short stories—not an ideal answer. But it was that criticism that has led to my attempting to write in actual poetic structures since then, challenging myself to write in meter, with rhyme schemed, and certain numbers of lines. I’m no Shakespeare or Updike, but I’m at least willing, now, to attempt a sonnet, however futilely.

Rejection can be tough to take. It can sting. But it can ultimately make you a better writer, and I try to look at it this way: as the thrice-published writing friend of mine who also faced his share of rejection letters told me, “Those rejection letters just mean you’re brave enough to put your writing out there.” And I’ll take a rejection letter for work I’ve submitted over work I leave forever tucked away in a drawer any day.

IX. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
It’s okay to like your work, to be partial to it; in fact, it’s likely not healthy as a writer to think everything you’ve written is pure rubbish. (Or you could be practicing false-modesty, which is rather unbecoming…) Having said that, though, don’t be afraid to change what you’re written. I always got the impression in school that the writing process was presented as a linear one, wherein each step led to the next, which led to the next, which… so on and so forth. But it isn’t: it’s cyclical, and for good reason. The fact that writing is a cyclical process allows ways to combat writer’s block, to completely restructure works based on feedback and new ideas, and to consider a work never truly finished, even if the story has reached its end. And perhaps that’s the best point of rejection and criticism—it allows us as writers to go back and change what doesn’t work to make it better. Sometimes this rejection is self-imposed, as we can tell when something doesn’t work or doesn’t fit. For instance, the second scene I finished for my play was one of my funniest scenes; it relied heavily on characters breaking the fourth to comment to the audience on what the other person was saying. I found it humorous and I really liked it. The problem, though, is that it was the only scene in which these techniques were employed. I didn’t need characters to break the fourth in any other scenes, so after soliciting some feedback from friends and colleagues, I decided that I should scrap the scene, for after all, one scene that featured breaking out of nine total would allow that scene to stick out like a sore thumb (to use quite the cliché simile). So probably five or six months after I wrote the scene originally, I rewrote it and tried to keep as much humor as possible. But what I found was that the scene took a more serious direction, likely because of where I am now in life as opposed to where I was when I wrote the original scene. It works, but I don’t know that I’m fully satisfied with it even still.

When killing your darlings, though, don’t burry them too deep. I usually try to save the bits and pieces I cut, often pasting them into a collection of assorted notes and jumbles of discarded dialogue and narration, for I never know when I’ll be able to resurrect them in some other form. I learned the hard way the value of ensuring I did this, for when I was rewriting the scene from the play, I realized after deleting and rewriting several sections that I had forgotten to copy the text over into a new document, and it was gone. I then saved the rest and I’m sure I’ll use it at some point.

Changing or deleting your work can be hard. You’ve taken the time to write it, put heart and devotion into it, and you likely feel an attachment to it, particularly if you think it’s good. In one of my favorite short stories I’ve written, one about a teenage boy’s creek baptism and the duality of his nature, features a scene in which the boy narrator vividly describes the baptism of a girl on whom he has a crush. I wrote the scene in a very detailed manner, though taking up only two sentences with his adolescent fantasy, trying to depict what it is like to be an adolescent boy, having once been one, in that particular situation and how he would view it. Here’s what the friend who read and edited the book wrote about that scene: A bit graphic. I know I said to be honest, but this comes off as creepy. I obviously never intended it to come off as such, and now I’ll have to figure out a way to show the boy’s infatuation without making anyone’s skin crawl. (The boy, perhaps I should note, is jealous of the preacher, who gets to hold the girl as he’s baptizing her, for he wishes it was he who was holding her—not exactly what he should be thinking just before he’s baptized.)

X. Write. Write. Write.
If you want to be a writer, write. Practice writing and telling stories; begin to learn and hone your craft; develop a style that is yours. If you want to be a writer, don’ sit around and dream up ideas only to talk about them with others. To be a writer you must write, and you must write often, with a serious devotion to the craft. I’ve heard that some writers recommend to other writers that they sit in an uncomfortable chair or position as a means of spurring themselves to continue working. A 1500-word goal is easier to reach when you feel as though your back is breaking. I, however, recommend the opposite: choose the most comfortable place you can find, preferably alone, and relax; you’re going to be there awhile.

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