An E-Book and the End of the World

Making it through a gatekeeper of a literary agent and landing a publishing contract for a print book is an aspiring writer’s Holy Grail. I think the desire to obtain this ultimate literary goal keeps many writers from embracing or at least considering eBooks and other new media.

A printed book remains the ultimate mark of success within the literary community. Making it through a gatekeeper of a literary agent and landing a publishing contract for a print book is an aspiring writer’s Holy Grail. I think the desire to obtain this ultimate literary goal keeps many writers from embracing or at least considering eBooks and other new media.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, author Jonathan Franzen proclaims his aversion to eBooks: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of ‘Freedom.’ I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now…I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change…”

He’s right: text doesn’t change. The book as a medium at least promises the illusion of immortality. Books are static, sometimes heavy, very tactile objects. Books can age but, unlike human beings, can outlive us. They can remain untouched in a library as records of many people’s existence. They can become tombstones. I think many writers, whether they acknowledge it or not, strive for to leave that legacy.

I don’t blame writers for wanting to leave a legacy, but I also think worshipping the book is a close-minded attempt to maintain order within the literary community and cultivate elitism. New forms open up possibilities for collaboration and evolution. In the same way that YouTube users comment on videos and respond to other users with their own videos, authors could work in a call and response fashion. Writers would have to work harder to push themselves in order to keep up with the ever-changing catalogue available to readers.

Most importantly, writers would be forced to feel comfortable with the idea of impermanence, that what they have worked toward all their lives is not going to give them any life beyond death. A new technology or new medium could make incompatible content obsolete. Libraries and the way we pass on and deconstruct history would have to be reimagined.

Sometimes I meditate on the fact that I have written a manuscript which, in its format and medium, is really no different from any other manuscript written since and possibly even before the invention of movable type in the early 1400s. Sure, mine is unique in its content, but not unique in the way that a reader can consume it.

In addition, even though I’ve chosen to express my story through language, language can never fully capture what I want to express. What I want to express would probably best be expressed through a combination of language, photos, illustrations, and sounds.

I don’t know how new technology will affect the future of reading, and I don’t know how new technology will impact my role as a writer. I do know, however, that technology will make the written word even more disposable and ephemeral. Writers who have spent their lives working toward a masterwork that will secure a legacy will be sorely disappointed by the lack of legacy available in a world where a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger across a touchscreen can shove someone out of relevance.

(Photo by accent on eclectic)

Facebook’s Timeline and Its Impact on Narrative

The designers and developers at Facebook understand and acknowledge the importance of narrative. Recently, Facebook upgraded its layout to a timeline format. The timeline is a year-by-year guide to a Facebook user’s life and includes as much information as the user wants to share.

Our lives are not stories in and of themselves; they are stories because we weave experiences into a tight blanket that we wrap around ourselves to feel safe and retain sanity. Imagine how terrifying it would be to lose or never develop your sense of self because you could not reference the past or make connections with the present!

This week, I’m teaching my basic writing students the principles of narration and how to write narrative essays. Narrative – a sequence of events carefully chosen and ordered to prove a point – is the oldest and most basic way to tell a story. Traditional narrative follows a time order while nonlinear narrative does not. We are all familiar and comfortable with this mode of story telling, and we as listeners and readers have come to expect a beginning, middle, and end.

My students are mining their own lives for stories that they’re already comfortable telling friends and families. They, like many of us, are so used to telling stories that they rarely, unless asked to write a story, examine the mechanics of storytelling.

Concurrently, in my creative writing class, I’m teaching my students the basics of storytelling by looking at some of the most primitive forms of storytelling: fables, parables, and creation myths. Reviewing these simple stories reminds me that a story should be written for an intended audience and that it should have purpose and some sort of structure.

The designers and developers at Facebook understand and acknowledge the importance of narrative. Recently, Facebook upgraded its layout to a timeline format. The timeline is a year-by-year guide to a Facebook user’s life and includes as much information as the user wants to share. By scrolling through the years, anyone can see a user’s visual story. Want to remember how much you used to worry about midterm exams now that midterms seem like nothing compared to your current woes? Just click the year you started college. Curious about the years that your current crush spent in a relationship? Just browse the years until you find photos of him posing with his ex-girlfriend.

Most of us don’t use Facebook to shape and develop our identities, but I believe that Facebook is trying to be that reference point. What you share on Facebook is probably very different from what you share with yourself or with the people closest to you. The danger in trusting Facebook as our reference point for experience is that we may forget how to reflect on thoughts and ideas that should be processed privately.

For example, I’m going to ask my students to free-write for 10 minutes about the month of January and the greatest challenges they faced in the past 31 days. What is most worthy of reflection? What can they take from the month and apply to their lives? What have their learned about themselves, and how have they grown?

After completing the exercise, they should take their free-writing home to their personal computers and compare their writing to what they have shared and posted on their Facebook profiles. How much of what they wrote privately in their notebooks is reflected on their Facebook profiles? One year from now, when they are trying to remember how they’ve grown and how far they have come, will Facebook act as a reliable reference point? Or will the way they understand themselves be distorted by what they chose to share?

Based on how much time the student spends online and how much he/she shares, the experience will vary. However, I truly believe that – in one or two generations from now – everyone’s experience of social networking and sharing online will more or less be the same. How will those generations experience themselves, and how can we continue to emphasize the importance of narrative outside of Facebook’s artificial narrative?

(Photo by dtweney)

Teaching Writing to Students Who Don’t Like to Write

So far, my reluctant students have taught me that most college kids are resistant to “textbook speak” and method. Sure, the textbook has a lot to offer me in terms of how I can structure the class, but the textbook does little to show my students why they should care! I can only laugh.

Last year, I had the privilege of teaching a course about writing to students who already liked to write. However, at the time I believed that I was having trouble getting them excited about certain types of writing and encouraging them to keep open minds. I struggled with challenges like trying to get them to participate in class discussions and to understand the value of reading.

This semester, however, I feel lucky to be able to teach students who – by their own admission – hate writing. Candid comments have included “I already know that I’m bad at writing” and “I don’t believe in the writing process, I just write what’s on my mind.”

As someone who wasn’t always the best student, I can sympathize with my less-than-enthusiastic students. Believe it or not, I used to find writing tedious and pointless. Very few 19-year-olds who don’t already like to read or write can see the value in learning how to write a five paragraph essay.

Perhaps they are wise beyond their years. When the heck do I ever need to write a five-paragraph essay?

So far, my reluctant students have taught me that most college kids are resistant to “textbook speak” and method. Sure, the textbook has a lot to offer me in terms of how I can structure the class, but the textbook does little to show my students why they should care!

I can only laugh, since one piece of advice given by the textbook author is to remind your reader why he or she should care – why is the subject important? When you’re a native speaker and writer of English, you find it hard to believe that you don’t already know everything about the language, that you weren’t born with a grammar rulebook in your arms.

It wasn’t until I started studying Spanish seriously in college that I was ready to admit that I didn’t know as much about my native language as I once believed – learning to write in a new language from scratch and examining the mechanics of its common sentence structures made me wish I could experience my native language – the one I took for granted – in the same way.

In class, I am battling every other teacher who didn’t teach my students the writing process and every sentence the students have written on their own – without thinking twice about any one of those sentences – in order to demonstrate that they don’t already know everything.

Because it’s my first time using the textbook, I have yet to decide what resonates the most with my students. Though I already know the subject matter, in many ways I am learning right along with them. They are deciding what to take from the class, and I am noting the lessons they absorb with the most enthusiasm.

As the saying goes, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” My students are quite young, but they have been writing for many years. Who am I to say that the way they write is ineffective? They have been able to communicate with their friends and family, and they have been able to graduate high school.

Why should they care about the new way that I am trying to introduce to them? They have no interest in pursuing careers as journalists or novelists, and most of them will use very little writing in their jobs. In my heart, I know the answer, but I struggle with getting them to see beyond what they already know. I simply need to continue taking the pulse of their enthusiasm and follow the course that makes them most excited.

(Photo by RecycledStarDust)

When I Feel Most Like Myself

Writers are constantly asking themselves, Is my writing good enough? and What is the point of writing this? Very rarely do we believe that we are good enough and very rarely do we believe that our writing has purpose. However, two shining moments make the effort very much worth our time and energy.

Yesterday, my friend and fellow writer Jarvis Slacks (@jayslacks on Twitter) shared an excellent post about a writer’s need to write. In the post, he articulated many things that I often think but fail to express. Here’s an excerpt:

Writer’s have a problem. Actually, it’s more like a paradox, because the solution to the problem also causes the problem to spring up again. Writing for writers isn’t some hobby. They don’t write because it is fun, or because they feel that it is a good use of their time. Most writers I know sort of hate writing, and we don’t ask forgiveness for saying that. A typical conversation with a writer is that, hey, I actually wrote this morning. And we say, nice work. Because writing is emotionally and mentally draining.

I absolutely agree. Writing is one of the most difficult activities that I have ever pursued, and it’s an endless challenge for two reasons: 1) because the activity itself is very demanding, on a number of levels and 2) because I constantly struggle with what seems like the futility of writing.

Writers are constantly asking themselves, Is my writing good enough? and What is the point of writing this? Very rarely do we believe that we are good enough and very rarely do we believe that our writing has purpose. However, those two shining moments – the ones during which we do notice something worthwhile and meaningful in our writing – make the effort very much worth our time and energy.

I’m not sure if the need to write is a writer’s problem. I like to think of it as a symptom of a certain neurosis. All writers have the same neurosis, to a certain extent, with some variations. Writers need to make sense of the world around them. They need to process their environments in a tangible, structured form. A sentence offers that structure.

Writers are generally curious, and they need to explore subjects. For example, I am eternally fascinated by human relationships, but I don’t always have someone to listen to me hash out all my thoughts and ideas on this subject. When friends are lacking, I turn to a blank page and basically have a conversation with myself.

Also, I think all writers have a need to make a lasting imprint on the universe. Maybe my book will never see the light of day, but at least I got it out of my head. Writers have a need to externalize their ideas, which – untapped – will eventually become a burden, like a bowel movement held way too long.

Much of my happiness revolves around my ability to express myself. When I have the energy and the ideas that allow to write, I feel most like myself. When I’m not able to write or feel drained of my creativity, I am constantly seeking whatever will allow me to re-enter “writing mode”.

Even now, as I write this blog entry, I feel a certain sense of clarity. I feel as if I’m moving forward with some purpose and direction. My ideal self is the self who can illustrate an idea on a page.

You know the feeling you get when you blow a big soap bubble, and it separates seamlessly from the bubble wand, floating off into the air? Being able to externalize an idea offers the same sort of satisfaction – eventually, the manifestation of your idea will “pop”, but, at that point, it will no longer matter. The joy lies in being able to create that bubble and setting it free.

(Photo by redcargurl)

Sarah Palin Judged By Writing Scores

Palin’s critics were waiting for low writing scores so that they could slam her intelligence with poor writing skills as evidence. Regardless, this incident proves that public figures and leaders are judged by their writing skills. Take care to draft careful e-mails because you never know who might be reading them.

Recently, AOL Wired News submitted thousands of Sarah Palin’s publicly released e-mails to two writing analysts. The goal was to rate Palin’s writing by grade level.

Michael McLaughlin reports: “…two writing analysts who independently evaluated 24,000 pages of the former governor’s emails. They came back in agreement that Palin composed her messages at an eighth-grade level, an excellent score for a chief executive, they said.”

Though it doesn’t seem very high, eighth-grade-level writing is clear, concise, and easy to understand. The reporter sites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (9.1) and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (8.8) for comparison.

I’m sure that many of Palin’s critics were waiting for low writing scores so that they could slam her intelligence with poor writing skills as evidence. Regardless, this incident proves that public figures and leaders are judged by their writing skills. Take care to draft careful e-mails because you never know who might be reading them.

(Photo by david_shankbone)

Why Distraction Is Necessary

We’ve all had days when we regret having spent so much time stalking photos on Facebook and reading celebrity gossip. But I believe that distraction is necessary and that a reasonable amount of Internet time-wasting can actually help you nurture your creativity.

Most people who speak negatively about the Internet and social media criticize these things for being a massive waste of time. Shave days off your life in the time suck that is the World Wide Web.

We’ve all had days when we regret having spent so much time stalking photos on Facebook and reading celebrity gossip. But I believe that distraction is necessary and that a reasonable amount of Internet time-wasting can actually help you nurture your creativity.

A few weeks ago, I went to see one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, speak at the Paris Review Interviews at New York University. She spent a few minutes talking about technology and the way it affects her ability to write. Moore admitted that she was one of the last of her friends and colleagues to sign up for an e-mail account because she was afraid that being so connected would interfere with her writing.

Ultimately, Moore was delighted by the discovery of e-mail, but she admitted that she needed to learn how to strike a balance between being connected and remaining focused on her work. She said that she knew of some writers who went so far as to remove the modems from their computers in order to kill their temptation to surf the web.

Personally, I like to keep a browser window open while I write on my laptop. I often need long stretches of mindlessness before I can continue to the next paragraph. I cannot write in long, extended bursts – rather, I am slow and steady, writing a few sentences at a time.

If I wasn’t mindlessly surfing the web, I’d be staring at the wall. I might as well use my idle mind time to look at photos or breaking news stories, which sometimes give me ideas I’d otherwise never have.

Sometimes, being connected while I write helps me move forward when I’m stuck. Perhaps I’m not quite sure how to describe something – I can easily use Google Images to find a photograph of it and have a closer look. Or maybe I’m not sure where exactly I want to set a scene – Google Maps can help with that.

One of the characters I’m currently writing is obsessed with modern art. With just a click of the mouse, I can expand my very limited knowledge of art to the point that my reader will believe my character when she talks about an Alexander Calder mobile.

With e-mail, I can receive feedback from my trusted readers and writing friends quickly and efficiently. In an interview with the Paris Review, famed editor Robert Gottlieb said, “The first thing writers want—and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic it is in the publishing world—is a quick response. Once they’ve finished a new manuscript and put it in the mail, they exist in a state of suspended emotional and psychic animation until they hear from their editor, and it’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.”

Well, good news, writers – the Internet can help your work travel at the speed of light, and it presents a myriad of new outlets for you to share your work.

Are you able to manage distractions while you work? Do you welcome them or blame them for your inability to focus?

(Photo by Oyvind Solstad)

Literary Orders of Operations

As someone who writes short stories, I’m kind of obsessed with the relationships that one writer’s stories have with one another, whether that relationship is deliberate, accidental, or even nonexistent. I was telling my writer friend how I struggle with the order of my own stories.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a fellow writer about order – not the kind of order you place when you want to purchase a book from Amazon.com or the order that’s the opposite of disorder.

Rather, we were discussing the order of stories (in my case) and poems (in my acquaintance’s case) as they appear in collections.

As someone who writes short stories, I’m kind of obsessed with the relationships that one writer’s stories have with one another, whether that relationship is deliberate, accidental, or even nonexistent.

For poets, order is an even greater concern because poems almost always need to be sold as collections (exceptions being book-length poems). How do the poems relate to one another? Many literary journals that publish poetry will look for multiple poems by one poet, and how are those poems supposedly connected?

I was telling my writer friend how I struggle with the order of my own stories. Currently, I am working on a collection of 15 stories, all told in first person by the same narrator. The stories follow the narrator from ages 14 to 22, but the spaces between them leave major gaps in the narrator’s life, which is probably a turn-off for people used to reading novels.

I need to construct an order that’s thematically interesting enough to make up for the fact that I’m leaving out a lot of story that becomes implied.

Ever since I read Drown by Junot Diaz, I have held this collection of stories up as an example of something I want to accomplish: the linked collection told out of chronological order. In Diaz’s collection, the stories are told by different narrators, in different settings and different time periods. But the book has such great coherence.

Not only does the book itself have such wonderful continuity, but each story is successful on its own.

Currently, the order of my stories has the reader jumping from high school to college then back to adolescence. I’m not sure if the order makes any sense, and I expressed this concern to my writer friend. His response?

“That’s what editors are for,” he said.

I was really taken aback by this statement.

It’s true – an editor will help shape a collection of stories or poems, but I don’t have an editor. I probably won’t be able to get one until my collection is impressive enough to attract an editor’s attention, which means I need to figure out the order myself. As a beginning writer, I don’t have the luxury of handing in very rough drafts and expecting an editor to see its potential. I have to prove myself first.

In continuing to think about this, I’ve realized that arranging a collection requires a short story writer to borrow a poet’s skills: the ability to see an overarching image or theme and to get the reader to feel something beyond the immediate language.

These days, with so many people writing and publishing on their own, writers may need to cross genres or expand their skills in order to make up for the fact that they can’t rely on an editor until they reach the point that they don’t even really need an editor anymore. It’s quite the paradox.

Take an interest in a type of writing that you don’t normally read, and you might find something that informs your own craft.

(Photo by compujeramey)

Tap into Your Totem Pole

“…what you might call an inanimate totem: a thing matched to your sensibilities so exactly that you will never quite be able to get across what it means to you.” – D.H. Tracy

What I love most about writing is the fact that I will never be able to exactly convey my thoughts, emotions, and ideas with language. When I reread what I write, I am acutely aware of the fact that I have failed to express myself completely, no matter how hard I try. But I keep at it anyway, hoping that someday I’ll come close.

Language is no match for the complicated and wonderful world that occupies our minds.

In class on Tuesday, I was thumbing through an old issue of Poetry magazine while my students explored literary magazines that I had brought in for them to browse. I stopped at the name “Stuart Dybek” – he’s the author of one of my favorite short stories, “Pet Milk”. Curious as to why this fiction writer was being mentioned in a poetry magazine, I stopped to read the book review. He’s actually the author of a poetry book!

In that review, I encountered the quote at the beginning of this blog post. I stopped to consider it for a few minutes.

When I think of a “totem”, my mind wanders to history lessons from elementary school. I think of New Jersey’s Lenni Lenape Indians (I can’t remember for sure if this tribe actually had totem poles, but this is what I imagine).

I think of my personal totem pole: a cork board in my bedroom where I post almost anything that can be stuck with a pushpin (ticket stubs, cards, beach passes, dried flowers, etc.). Totem poles are visual representations of everything we hold close to our hearts. Someone who views your totem will immediately know something about you.

But D.H. Tracy, in his review, describes totems as “empty park benches, sidewalk cracks, screen doors”. More specifically, Stuart Dybek’s totems are “Chicago’s laundromats, hotel rooms, alleys, basements, and churches…”.

I love this idea. For Tracy, totems are not things we create or construct. Rather, they are things that already exist, things with which we can identify. These items hold some sort of truth for us, and we are helplessly drawn to them, sometimes with neither reason nor explanation.

Poets frequently use these totems in their work because they feel they can express more by describing the totem than trying to describe the feeling it evokes or inspires. I think – if we knew how to describe the feeling with words – we wouldn’t need the totem in the first place!

What are your totems? What of your surroundings inspires a certain mood or feeling? Do you feel kinship with a rusted shopping cart or the waxed surface of a new car? I find myself drawn to certain landscapes: the industrial wasteland just west of Jersey City and east of Newark, a fall afternoon that’s so bright I wonder if the sun knows it will be showing less of itself, young women wearing high heels and waiting for trains.

I can never fully explain to you what those things mean to me, but I can only hope that – by describing them – you will feel something. You may not feel exactly what I’m feeling, but my goal as a writer is to steer you in the right direction.

(Photo by Evelyn Proimos)

Harvard Business Review Tips for Writing

The Harvard Business Review, a renowned periodical published by the Harvard Business School, recently shared tips for succeeding in business writing. What do you think of these tips? They are good ways to ensure that your business correspondence is concise yet interesting.

The Harvard Business Review, a renowned periodical published by the Harvard Business School, recently shared tips for succeeding in business writing.

What do you think of these tips? They are good ways to ensure that your business correspondence is concise yet interesting.

The author reminds us that all business writing has one thing in common: a call to action. The call to action is especially important in marketing and sales-related correspondence/collateral.

Each time you complete a business e-mail, ask yourself: 1) Do my recipients know what I want from them? 2) Will my recipients know how to respond? and 3) Will they be compelled to respond?

(Photo by Patricia Drury)

Curiosity Killed the Catfish

I sometimes wonder if the very reason I get up in the morning is because I hope, above all else, to encounter a great story or just one striking image or idea that I can incorporate into my writing. I want to be inspired, intrigued, and challenged. I want to come face to face with someone or something that will make me rethink meaning and purpose.

Of any given day, I’m pretty demanding. I live to serve my art, and I depend on art to serve me.

You’re probably thinking this is a noble and very creative way to live. Or, you’re thinking I’m full of shit and that I take life too seriously. Either way, I sometimes worry about myself. Living for the sole purpose of igniting and following through on your own curiosity can sometimes lead to danger. It leaves me very vulnerable.

Recently, I saw and enjoyed Catfish, a documentary about Nev, a young man who begins a long-distance romantic relationship with a young woman he meets on Facebook through serendipitous circumstances. The main character’s brother and friend – filmmakers – decide to film Nev as the relationship between him and his Facebook lover develops. They do this simply because they find the relationship strange and intriguing. They’re not quite sure what will come of it, but they figure that they have nothing to lose.

First of all, I could strongly relate to these three young men because I loved their curiosity and their willingness to explore situations that other people might find strange and uncomfortable. I appreciated Nev’s open heart and open mind – he has a nine-month emotional affair with someone he’s never even met! I love their fascination with the world and with other people.

But one moment in this film really struck me and has stayed with me since I watched it about two weeks ago. About half-way through the movie, Nev realizes that something is not right with his Facebook relationship. He begins to question some of the information that his online love has shared with him, and he suspects that she is lying. Nev isn’t quite sure what to think, but his first impulse is to end the relationship immediately. He no longer wants to be involved with someone he cannot trust, especially since he’s never met her.

However, his brother and his friend push him to continue. They don’t allow him to confront her about lies and instead push him to play along with her game. Nev is hesitant to listen to their advice, but he does realize that he is curious to find out where this very strange interaction will ultimately take him.

Viewers who enjoyed this film like I did should be grateful that the three of them decided to pursue the uncomfortable situation for the sake of the story, for the sake of art. Without their curiosity, this film would not exist.

I realize that pursuing something for the sake of finding out the outcome is not always a safe option. If you ever feel you are in real danger, you should stop immediately. But sometimes you have to push yourself to journey beyond the point that you feel comfortable going.

The possibilities in this life are infinite. The earth is such a huge place that you will only ever see a small fraction of it in your lifetime. Why would you subject yourself to one tiny jail cell of a space in both your mind and your heart when you can move so freely? Wake up every morning and think like an artist – live for the story.

(Photo by woodleywonderworks)