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Blasting Blowhards of the Book

Creative writing is often considered an elitist pursuit, mostly because the people who practice creative writing try to keep it that way. Hiding behind the excuse that “no one cares about creative writing except the people who practice it”, the creative writing clique keeps to itself.

Creative writing is often considered an elitist pursuit, mostly because the people who practice creative writing try to keep it that way. Hiding behind the excuse that “no one cares about creative writing except the people who practice it”, the creative writing clique keeps to itself.

The truth is, a lot of people do care about writing. Whenever someone I meet finds out that I’m a writer, that person almost always has some kind of writing-related anecdote to share – “Oh, I love to write stories!” or “I used to write poems but never have the time anymore.”

We forget that writing creatively can be easy and fun! It could be a populist activity! If you have a paper and pen, you have the power.

I, too, used to keep my interest in creative writing to myself. I wrote as a hobby and rarely discussed it with other people, assuming that no one would care. But when I teach students who want to learn creative writing and who have spent most of their lives believing, like others, that writing is an elitist pursuit, I constantly have to think of new ways to change their minds.

The people who sometimes make writing seem inaccessible are often colleagues and people I admire otherwise. These people dress (black berets), act (smoke cigarettes), and talk (big words to sound smart) differently, to make a statement. They exaggerate their vices. I know a lot of people who are happy to perpetuate the stereotype. They work the “I’m quirky” angle and run with it – much like Katy Perry, but smarter.

In one of my favorite publicized examples, Gawker published a Columbia University writing professor’s haughty e-mail to her former writing students. Though the e-mail could very well have been misinterpreted, Janette Turner Hospital seems to be bragging to her former MFA students about all the great opportunities they are missing by not living in Manhattan. She writes:

And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan.” )

In truth, being a good writer has nothing to do with living in Manhattan, attending plays, viewing art, and living a life of privilege and culture.

Some of the best writers look like normal people. They are humble and rarely talk about writing, as it is something they practice when they’re working alone. When you’re seriously working and truly talented, you don’t feel the need to constantly talk about how you’re a writer. Because the status doesn’t matter. Being able to do the work does.

In many fields, the representatives are generally the blowhards, the ones who seek attention. In politics, for example, some highly publicized, badly behaved politicians – Christine O’Donnell, Jim McGreevey, Sarah Palin, etc. – don’t necessarily represent all politicians.

Similarly, I cringe when I hear a colleague or fellow writer say something “artsy” or “intellectual” to a person who obviously doesn’t care – this is not a way to convince non-writers that writing is, in fact, something practiced by down-to-earth people.

If you want non-writers to care about writing, to become better, more enthusiastic readers, writers must realize that not everyone was born charmed by the written word. Not everyone is writing to be the next Great American Novelist, but all people should have a mode of expression. Creative writing is the easiest way to do express oneself, since most of us are already literate (not everyone can paint, draw, play the piano, etc.).

But why would people curious about writing even want to try to write a short story if they felt they needed to wear a beret to do so?

(Photo sylvar)

I Just Need Some Space

If you can read this, you’ve probably been reading for more years than you haven’t been reading. In fact, you’ve been reading for so long that you rarely consider the process of reading. On the page, white space, or lack of white space, can immediately comfort you, overwhelm you, intrigue you, or make you hesitant.

If you can read this, you’ve probably been reading for more years than you haven’t been reading. In fact, you’ve been reading for so long that you rarely consider the process of reading. You probably don’t even realize that you react to the way the text looks, even before you begin to interpret the words.

On the page, white space, or lack of white space, can immediately comfort you, overwhelm you, intrigue you, or make you hesitant. White space is exactly what you think it is: the clean part of the page, the absence of text.

Why do you think teachers usually ask students to double-space their typed essays? They’re not trying to be annoying. They don’t worship the MLA Handbook (okay, maybe some do). When a teacher has to read a stack of papers, she doesn’t want to have to fight to see the words. Double-spaced text is reader friendly.

dinermenuMy favorite example is the restaurant menu. If you’ve been to a typical diner, you know that the multi-page menu (see photo at left) is cluttered with images and text. If you’re visiting a diner, you probably have a few dishes in mind – otherwise, how would you ever be able to choose?

However, when you visit an upscale restaurant, where the dishes are usually novel, the menu is often well-designed and uncluttered. Each course gets a dedicated amount of space on the page.

The white space, or lack of white space creates a mood; it even designates social class. White space is luxury. White space says, “I care about design and visual appeal more than I care about printing costs.”

Beginning writers rarely put any thought into how text looks on a page. And how can you blame them? They are focused on the sentence level, adjusting punctuation and syntax. They are simply making sure the sentences are coherent.

But Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, suggests that white space can be a form of punctuation as much as a comma or a period is a form of punctuation. He writes:

Inside the text, white space is a writer’s and a reader’s best friend. White space helps emphasize what is most important on the page or screen, provides a kind of visual index that clues in the reader to the main parts of the story, and ventilates tedious grayness, relaxing the eyes and reassuring the mind.

White space, I would argue, should be considered a form of punctuation, partly because other traditional marks of punctuation work have been designed to create it.

These days, we often read text via a screen. Because the screen already strains the eyes, the writer needs to make that the task of reading is as easy as possible. While the content of your work maybe be difficult and challenging, looking at the text long enough to get something out of it shouldn’t be.

If you think that creating white space is the job of a layout designer, you’re so wrong. Anyway, how many writers these days have access to a layout designer? A writer can and should create white space with paragraph breaks, indentations, line breaks, and page breaks; these tools can be used to create a rhetorical effect.

Give the reader direction. Take advantage of that power! White space, like traditional punctuation, lets the reader know when to pause and when to linger. You have the reader’s attention – now, try to keep that attention for as long as you can.

(Diner menu photo by Zach Alexander)

What You Read Can’t Hurt You

Discussing serious fiction – with its complicated characters, heavy themes, and often intricate storylines – is sure to inspire questions like: Is this character believable? Is the character fully developed? Are the relationships between the characters fully realized?

Discussing serious fiction – with its complicated characters, heavy themes, and often intricate storylines – is sure to inspire questions like: Is this character believable? Is the character fully developed? Are the relationships between the characters fully realized?

No one can answer these questions without reflecting on personal experience or commenting on humanity in general. If you’re open-minded about people, you will generally approach fiction with an open mind. If not, reading fiction can help you practice open-mindedness, so that when you encounter people unlike you, in real life, you’ll be ready to listen.

For homework, I asked my students to read an excerpt from Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan, a coming-of-age novel about a female protagonist who grows up in the “dead-end Southern town of Beau Repose”. The novel is “experimental”, in that each page contains a lot of white space; the story is told in a series of vignettes, organized by section titles that are actually lyrics from heavy metal songs.

I was just completely floored by my students’ reactions to the book. In their reading responses, they judged the main character harshly and were put off by the “adult situations” that the author describes. To summarize, the narrator grows up impoverished, without a mother present.

No one has told the narrator how to behave so she looks to her role models: her similarly misguided female friends and Ginger Rogers, who the narrator believes is the feminine ideal. The narrator is grappling with her sexuality and just happens to be surrounded by men who disrespect her and use her violently. She has no better guide.

Think of what happens to so many girls and young women today – they idolize pop stars and female celebrities. They grow up hypersexualized because they think they need to dress or act a certain way to please men.

The narrator gets caught up in the wrong crowd, abuses drugs and alcohol, and becomes a victim of repeated sexual abuse. Here’s an excerpt:

Hamp Jones pulls down my jeans and gets on top. Stop I say. It hurt Mandy the first time too he says. I do not know Mandy and he does not stop. After, I walk into the room where the others are. Hamp Jones leaves then everyone leaves. I return to bed and pass out.

I wake naked. I have taken off my clothes during the night but do not remember doing so. I get out of bed, stand in front of a full-length mirror that used to hang in the house of a gay movie star’s mother and I look at myself. With the exception of being born, being fucked for the first time, and dying, you generally get another shot at things.

What I like so much about the narrator’s voice is her underlying current of misguided hope. Think about a woman you might refer to as “slutty” – you know exactly who I mean. Why does she behave this way? Don’t you think, in some misguided way, that she’s looking for love, affection, and attention? If you lack a model of healthy love, of course you’ll fumble and search for it in all the wrong places.

The type of sexual violence depicted in the above scene happens again and again, at least throughout the first part of the book. Readers want to know: why doesn’t the narrator speak up against the abuse? Why does she allow it to happen?

I firmly believe in personal responsibility and would never refer to someone as a victim without seriously questioning it first. When you’re 15-years-old, lack stable parents, and live in a community that doesn’t educate its children about safe sex, rape, and sexual harassment, I’m pretty sure that makes you a victim.

What do you think happens in inner cities like Baltimore and Newark? Young men, who grow up without fathers, look to drug dealers and rappers as role models. They think driving around in a blinged-out BMW, bought with money earned by selling coke, is the definition of success. And how can you really blame them?

I asked my students, “If you never had a positive role model, if you never had a parent/parents/another relative who cared about you, if you couldn’t see the benefit of a college education, would you be here in this room right now?”. I know that I probably would never have gone to college if I didn’t have parents who pushed me all my life. How is a 15-year-old supposed to know what’s best for her? She’s not supposed to know.

I like to read and assign literature that really pushes the boundaries. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s unpleasant. But when you imagine the worst kind of life or circumstances, I can guarantee you that someone, somewhere out there in the world is living a life worse than the one you can imagine. Try not to let something shocking or graphic cloud your ability to see the humanity in any given situation.

When I was a young girl, my Ukrainian-American parents forced me to attend Ukrainian school every Saturday. Instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons, I spent six hours in a classroom with other Ukrainian-American children and a “fresh-off-the-boat” teacher, learning about Ukrainian language, culture, and history.

I hated it. I was constantly looking for reasons to complain about class, and my friends and I were evil troublemakers: we cheated, we pulled pranks on the teacher, and we whispered and passed notes instead of paying attention.

One day, our teacher showed us a movie depicting a violent war that took place in 15th century Ukraine. The Cossacks, members of the Ukrainian military, were riding around on horses and slicing people’s heads off with their swords.

In this live-action movie, the heads snapped neatly off necks and rolled down the hills. I was extremely disgusted, but the best thing about the movie was that it gave me a reason to complain to my parents.

“Can you believe the teacher showed us this movie?” I said. “It was so gross!”

Looking back on that experience, I definitely think the teacher overestimated our maturity – we were pre-teens and obviously couldn’t handle the representation of violence. But I realize that the teacher’s goal was not to offend or disturb us – the goal was to show us just how gruesome that war really was.

Growing up, I was extremely sheltered. I never did drugs or drank. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, where we got detention for wearing the wrong kind of socks. My experience is completely opposite what the narrator in The Meat and Spirit Plan endures. Yet, The Meat and Spirit Plan is one of my favorite contemporary novels, and it has greatly influenced my own writing. How could that be?

The best books capture universal emotion: suffering, pain, joy, fear, or anger. These things are often uncomfortable to read. Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of someone of the opposite sex? Has anyone made an inappropriate advance toward you? Have you ever felt intense affection for a friend? Have you ever liked someone so much you would do anything to impress them? Have you ever just wanted so badly to fit in that you made an unfortunate decision?

A few of my students noticed that the narrator is like a female version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. In many ways, The Meat and Spirit Plan is a coming-of-age story, just like Catcher. But what makes it different is the underrepresented female perspective. How many coming-of-age tales have female narrators? When I think coming-of-age, I think This Side of Paradise (Amory Blaine), The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Stephen Dedalus), and Catcher (Holden Caulfield) – all male protagonists.

Does anyone bat an eyelash when Holden invites a prostitute to his hotel room? Does anyone criticize Stephen for his loveless affairs? Or when Amory tries to pressure a girl into having sex with him?

This past Sunday, “60 Minutes” ran a story about the Haiti’s most recent cholera outbreak. The reporter mentioned rape and sexual violence, in passing (“With people living on top of each other, the camp has become a breeding ground for domestic violence, gangs and rapes.”).

I’m sure, if any of those Haitian women had the chance to share on a more personal level, their stories would be more violent and heartbreaking than anything Saterstrom has described. Would you dismiss their stories as pornographic? As something written for the “shock value”?

If you don’t want to watch the news, then you can watch The Simpsons or Jersey Shore. You are free to make that choice. If you don’t want to read serious literature, then you can read throw-away fiction in your spare time. You are free to make that choice.

But the goal of a college education is to make a student see that there’s a big world beyond the college campus. If you graduate from college without any natural curiosity about your fellow human beings, then your education has failed you.

When I think back to how much of a fuss I made about that violent Cossack movie, I’m actually embarrassed – those people died because they believed in freedom, in something greater than themselves. They were fighting valiantly. But I could only see the heads rolling down the hill.

(Photo by kevinspencer)

Magic Tricks of the Text

Have you ever seen someone perform a really bad magic trick? The person is trying so hard to deceive or charm you that you are able to seem, without even really trying to look, exactly where he slipped the quarter. But when you witness a good magic trick, you are mystified. You know an answer must exist, but you don’t care.

Have you ever seen someone perform a really bad magic trick? The person is trying so hard to deceive or charm you that you are able to seem, without even really trying to look, exactly where he slipped the quarter.

But when you witness a good magic trick, you are baffled and mystified. You know that an answer must exist, but you don’t even care because the feeling of wonderment is something you don’t experience often. In a way, you have allowed the magician to guide you on an emotional journey.

A good writer is like a talented magician, manipulating the reader’s attention and executing the trick so smoothly that the reader neither questions nor stops to think about the mechanics of the act.

I’ve used the metaphor numerous times in class. Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love, is a writer-magician. The first-person narrator in Endless Love is a teenage boy who burns down the home of his girlfriend’s family.

But Spencer is so adept at creating a delusional, manipulative narrator that we find ourselves, as readers, almost sympathizing with a guy who clearly requires psychological care.

At one point, the narrator runs into the house because he feels obligated to save the family from the fire. He says, “It seemed that that house longed to burn, just as a heart can be overcome with love.”

For a moment, the reader might think, Wow, what an interesting image! Then, the reader remembers that the narrator is an arsonist who has completely lost his mind. He is so convincing that you often have to step out of the narrative and remind yourself: he’s feeding you complete bullshit. At the same time, you don’t really care because his words are so hypnotic.

I want my students to recognize how well a good writer will anticipate the reader’s next thought or return to a scene the moment a reader is on the verge of forgetting it. The pacing of a story and the writer’s ability to capture a reader’s interest depends completely on this awareness.

Just imagine trying to understand someone you’ll probably never meet. Both the writer and the magician must know enough about the human thought process, even without knowing the reader/audience member personally, to do their jobs correctly.

Finally, a good writer is like a good magician because a good writer understands that proper grammar, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraph breaks will make or break a trick. Poet Wallace Stevens once said, “Technique is proof of your seriousness.”

The same way that no one wants to see a magician with stunted, awkward movements, no one wants to read text with errors. If the reader is too aware of the text, the trick will fail. The text should guide but not disturb; words should neither be too simple nor too complicated, and the sentence structure must not make the reader stumble.

A good writer writes gracefully. A good writer, like a good magician, makes it look easy.

(Photo by kennymatic)

Professor Potty Mouth

I tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don’t take the social networking tool very seriously. But I’m always shocked by how seriously other people take my Twitter account!

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the CEO of an established company asked me, “What are your strategies for attracting new followers?”

Well, I don’t really have a strategy. I just tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

And some other people don’t seem to like that. I’ve received direct messages from followers who have never even met me, suggesting that I “Stop tweeting right now! You’re embarrassing yourself.” One very bitter person told me that I am unfit to be a professor because I include curse words and “low” vocabulary like “dude” in my tweets. As a writer who uses “dude”, how could I ever expect to achieve any success?

I just have to laugh. If you think that maintaining a PG Twitter stream is a way to achieve or maintain professional success, you have a lot to learn. I’m less concerned about cursing/diction and more concerned about tweeting something ignorant, slanderous, or truly offensive.

I know that, when it counts, I do my job, and I do my job well. Formality is meant for academic essays, business e-mails, proposals, and press releases. Twitter does not require formality – I know that because something that wants to be taken seriously wouldn’t be named “Twitter”.

Also, I’m 25 years old. Sure, I am old enough to be a responsible adult, but I think my casual, sometimes naive, tweeting reinforces the fact that I do still have a lot to learn – and I never pretend otherwise.

For anyone who thinks that cursing taints my image as a professor, I just have to ask: have you ever taken a creative writing class? My absolute favorite professors – the ones who were always the most animated, passionate, and approachable – cursed like sailors.

I rarely curse in class – I said bullshit last week and felt weird about it – but my students use “bad” words in their writing. And they use the words intelligently. Some of the readings I assign include more profanity than I post on Twitter in a whole year.

Writing that contains profanity is not simply meant to have shock value. In fact, skilled writers usually do cursing so well that the readers hardly notices it – the curse words become part of the book’s normal, accepted vernacular.

If you’re telling people how they should behave on Twitter, then maybe it’s time for you to get off the computer and read something that’s meant to be taken seriously, like a book. But stay away from Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and Slaughterhouse Five.

(Photo by meddygarnet)

I Have a Graduate Degree in Lying

The writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth.

Pretend that your first novel, a work of fiction about Podunk, your hometown, just arrived from the presses. You are thrilled to hold the hardbound book, which is so new that it smells like ink. You are weeping tears of joy when your publicist calls.

“I just wanted to let you know that your book received its first bit of press,” she says. “A journalist at the local Podunk newspaper researched parallels between scenes in your book and things that happened to you while you lived there. The journalist interviewed your old teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends.”

“But my book is a work of fiction,” you say. “It’s not meant to be an account of what actually happened to me.”

“Press is press, right?” says your publicist.

The scenario I just described is basically what happened to Ginger Strand, author of the novel Flight.

In class on Tuesday, my students and I discussed an article that Strand wrote for Poets & Writers magazine about her experience being questioned by people from her hometown.

She writes, “The local newspaper had run a feature pointing out some of the similarities between Flight and my life, and that was what people wanted to hear about. I began to sense a creeping frustration. Why were people so interested in the reality behind the fiction? Why weren’t they paying more attention to the craft of what I had done?”

Strand made so much effort to craft a work of fiction, but no one really seemed to care. I’ve felt that before. Once, I gave a close friend one of my short stories to read. When I asked her, “What did you think?”, she responded, “That really happened to you, Laryssa? I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”. Silence. “That didn’t happen to me.” A lot of my fiction is based on life experience, but this story in particular was completely fabricated.

In an interview from Donald Barthelme’s book “Not-Knowing”, William Gass has this to say about truth in writing: “…we ought to abandon truth as an ideal as artists. I think it’s pernicious. I think it gets in the way all the time. That sounds sort of odd to some people but actually you’d say that to a mathematician. Mathematicians aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in formal coherence.”

I really like Gass’ explanation, and I wish more readers could push aside their desire for knowing (for what, really?) and learn to appreciate language, form, and artistic merit.

In good fiction, the writer isn’t lying, not even close. Instead, the writer describes a truth different from the one defined by our justice system, the one we mean when we ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” When you answer “yes” to that question, you swear to tell the objective truth. But when you write good fiction, you are obligated to communicate emotional truth.

Sometimes, the police report that describes your wallet being stolen doesn’t accurately represent the emotional truth that you felt when your wallet was stolen.

A better way to convey your emotions would be to write that your wallet was stolen by a snarling monster who rose from a sewer. Because the feeling of being violated was just that frightening and unexpected and ridiculous.

And if the image best describes how you, the victim, felt, how could anyone argue with that?

(Photo by emdot)

How to Have a Great Idea

How does having a great idea make you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Does anyone feel angry when they have a new idea? Probably not. When I have a new idea, especially one that I know I can actualize, I feel most alive. I feel grateful. So, how can you have great ideas more often?

The best ideas are born spontaneously, and they will strike you when you least expect them: in the shower, in the car, in the middle of a meeting with your boss. When you have a big idea, you will most likely want to document it. Maybe you’ll scribble a note on a paper napkin or text-message the idea to yourself.

How does having a great idea make you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Does anyone feel angry when they have a new idea? Probably not. When I have a new idea, especially one that I know I can actualize, I feel most alive. I feel grateful.

So, how can you have great ideas more often? Think of it this way: when you have to do something you don’t really want to do by a certain deadline, like paying a bill, the fact that you have to pay that bill will burden you until you do it. But once you pay the bill, you will feel relief.

Living a creative, rich, idea-filled life is not always fun and games. It requires work and some discipline. Your need to have great ideas should a debt you owe yourself. Paying the bill will allow you to keep the lights or the heat working in your mind.

Be your own bill collector. Every day, you need to earn as much as you can to pay off that debt: experience, observation, human interaction, and an interest in the world.

You probably don’t even realize how many wondrous things are already bubbling in your mind. How can you catch the ideas you’re already making?

No matter how many friends you have, or how much time you spend with other people, you will inevitably spend a lot of time by yourself. Maybe you commute alone by car. Maybe you have a job that requires careful focus and silence. Maybe you sleep alone. I assume you use the bathroom by yourself.

In those moments, you maintain a dialogue with yourself. Your brain is never quiet. You probably reflect on things that happened to you that day – you replay your observations, analyze your interactions with other people, reinforce things you learned, note things you want to change, or choose things that you want to improve.

Start paying attention to your internal dialogue. Make it a point to listen to what you have to say to yourself! The ideas lurk there.

How can you actualize all these great new ideas? Carry them with you (see photo above) for a period of time. You need to keep the colorful sack of ideas near you always. It should be as precious as a purse or a backpack with all your most important belongings. Never let it out of your sight.

You will know that you’re ready to actualize that idea when it completely overtakes you. You won’t be able to stand keeping it in your head any longer! At that point, if you’ve been following all my advice, the “how” will be obviously apparent.

(Photo by skippyjon)

Emily Dickinson at the Computer

I’m no Dickinson scholar, but I do know that she wrote her poems by hand. The dashes were a mark of great energy, violence, and passion. They break up sentences and phrases in a way that commas and semicolons can’t. They demonstrate a fierce continuation of thought, a determination to reach the end of the idea.

In class last week, my students and I discussed Emily Dickinson’s poem #449, better known as “I died for beauty – but was scarce“. We were all mesmerized by the dashes, a punctuation mark sprinkled throughout Dickinson’s work.

I’m no Dickinson scholar, but I do know that she wrote her poems by hand. The dashes were a mark of great energy, some violence, and definitely passion. They break up sentences and phrases in a way that commas and semicolons can’t. They demonstrate a fierce continuation of thought, a determination to reach the end of the idea. The dashes also complete full thoughts but act as bridges to the next sentence.

Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Start writing and insert dashes whenever your emotions are stirred. Drawing a dash requires the horizontal movement of your hand, throwing some of your weight onto the paper, and the ability to stop at the end of the mark and transition back to the first letter of the next word.

How much of the energy that you invest in writing is obvious on the page? If you make a dash with force, the ink with be dark, and the line will be heavy. If you make a dash in passing, the mark will be light.

The act of writing with pen and paper is physical in a way that most of us don’t realize. The whole body is involved in the process. And, because writing with pen is more permanent than other methods of writing, it requires a certain concentration too.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what I would do if I lost my ability to write, in the physical sense. What if I lost function of my hands? Or could no longer see the page in front of me? If I had to dictate my thoughts to someone else, I would probably need to close my eyes and imagine my hand writing those thoughts in order to make sense of them.

But we’re all disabled now, aren’t we? Look at a keyboard. See the dash at the end of the number row? Press it. A dash will appear on the screen. Press it harder, with more force. A dash will appear on the screen. Start hammering away at the dash key. A dash will appear on the screen. No matter how hard you press that key, the dash will look the same.

Would Dickinson have been able to draft poems on her MacBook? Has part of me been lost in translation?

(Photo by mrbill)

How to Be Rich, Even When You’re Poor

If you see an interesting word, and you learn how to use it, you can add it to your Bank of Vocabulary account, without any fees or interest rates! You can’t hoard endless amounts of your favorite snack or your favorite brand of clothing, but you can have as many of your favorite words as you want.

Words are free. If you see an interesting word, and you learn how to use it, you can add it to your Bank of Vocabulary account, without any fees or interest rates!

What are your favorite words? You can’t hoard endless amounts of your favorite snack or your favorite brand of clothing, but you can have as many of your favorite words as you want – for FREE!

I will never forget the college professor who told me that I could make any word I use my own. Building your vocabulary is a simple yet very powerful practice, once you start taking advantage of it.

You can even invent words! If you need to express something, but can’t think of the appropriate word, make a new word! If you use it frequently enough, and can convince other people to use it, it will become part of language, just like any other word. Dictionary editors frequently add words to subsequent editions. According to Merriam-Webster:

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

How do words enhance your life? Using a rich and varied vocabulary will make you seem more intelligent and articulate. If you want to belong to a certain group, you can use the words the group members use when they are together.

The words you use help shape your identity. But how will you know which words you want to use if you don’t know many words? How do you find new words? How do you discover the riches that await you?

Some people cruise the dictionary, others subscribe to word-of-the-day e-mails. Personally, I think the best way to expand your vocabulary is to read challenging works: books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, essays, etc. Make note of the words you like, even if you’ve seen them before or know what they mean. Good writers use words in challenging, surprising contexts. Reading something in context is the best way to learn.

For example, this morning, on the bus, I was reading “Complicit with Everything”, a poem by Tony Hoagland. Before reading this poem, I was sort of familiar with the word complicit, but I probably wouldn’t have used it in everyday speech. In the poem, a vine growing up the side of a shingled house is described as “complicit with nothing but everything”.

I had never seen the word “complicit” used in such a context. When I had access to a computer, I looked it up on Dictionary.com: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, esp. with others; having complicity.” Could you imagine a vine described as something involved in an illegal act? Poets make words fun and interesting. I will certainly remember “complicit” in the future.

Don’t skip over unfamiliar words. Make a point to notice how the writer uses the word in context. For the rest of the day, find reasons to use that word in conversation. I promise you that you won’t sound like a jerk if you occasionally use a “big” word. In fact, you might inspire someone else to use that word too. And you’ll be one word richer than you were before.

(Photo by Bethany L. King)

On “Word Garbage” and Heavy Reading

In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head.

In class yesterday, one of my students asked, “In order to be a great writer, do you need to write works that are difficult to understand?”. He was frustrated by an essay I had assigned: “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He cited Crime and Punishment as another example of a tedious book – why was it necessary to read 20 pages of description about a room? I hope he never has to read Moby Dick.

I let the other students answer before giving my own opinion. Most of them agreed that, yes, Emerson is difficult to read. However, we try to read his work because we know we are going to learn something new, that we will find a reward once we reach the end.

But the student kept pressing for answers. “But why should we have to read complicated sentences and unnecessary words to get to that point?”

I tend to agree. If Emerson was living and writing today, in the same style, very few readers would tolerate his work. We expect information to be delivered to us clearly, without embellishment or “word garbage” (coined by another student). Writers, if they expect to have any readers, must cater to this attitude.

Some students remarked that, in 1844, reading was the only form of entertainment – what now seems like torture was once a pleasant diversion.

While reading Emerson’s essay in preparation for class, I found myself wanting to condense every paragraph. I could strip down most of the sentences to simple, coherent statements and only keep some of the flowery language that particularly struck me. For example, I really like “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it…” but could do without the rest of that long, convoluted sentence. Easily, I could knock off three full pages, and the reader probably wouldn’t miss anything.

In addition, while reading, I had to focus intensely in order to read every single word. Emerson meant for us to read every word – his diction makes that obvious. However, the long paragraphs and complicated sentences make my eye want to jump to whatever seems most important.

Reading Emerson is more a history lesson than a model of how to communicate today, to contemporary audiences. Experiencing the writing of that time, a reader can’t help but wonder why someone would want to write that way. The writing reflects the culture of thought; sentences like “We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety” gives us clues about the ways that intellectuals discussed topics like philosophy and science.

In response to my student’s question: In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head, even months after reading it. A great writer shouldn’t be difficult to read; a great writer should understand and anticipate his or her reader and make consolations for that person.

At the same time, a great writer will never “talk down” to the reader; he or she trusts the reader will understand complicated concepts. A great writer is like a professor who teaches a very complicated subject to a class of beginners. The subject matter is heavy, but the instructor must explain it in a way that intelligent, mature students can understand. That means: making consolations and having patience while remaining stringent.

A great writer knows that he or she can’t win them all.

(Photo by jennaddenda)