Spontaneous Storytelling

Recently, I was asked to entertain a four-year-old while her mother – my friend – ran some errands. The little girl wanted to hear a story and refused to nap until I told her one.

Because I write short stories, I figured that coming up with a story would be easy.

However, the girl had some requirements. The story must include a rooster and a magic carpet. I needed to move the story forward to some sort of conclusion so that my little friend would be satisfied enough by the ending of the story to take a nap. I needed to be convincing, and I couldn’t spend too much time tripping over the narrative. Otherwise, the girl would realize that I don’t know what to say next.

I quickly scanned my brain for all the old reliable story lines, mostly fables and fairy tales: “Little Red Riding Hood”, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, “Cinderella”. But this girl had probably heard it all. After all, her mother likes to read to her on a regular basis.

I needed to come up with something unique. I wanted to tell her the best story she’s ever heard because I wanted to charm her. I could care less what most people think of me, but – for some reason – I always seek the approval of small children.

I quickly realized that this would be the toughest “writing” exercise I have ever done in my life. And I thought that some of my professors throughout my many years of writing classes had stumped me. Nope. This was the writing exercise to top all writing exercises: create a story in real time and make sure it appeals to a child.

Eventually, I came up with something pretty ridiculous, funny, and cute. It included both a rooster and a magic carpet. When I wasn’t sure where to go next, I would ask the girl to “choose her own adventure”. What do YOU think happened next?, I would ask. And she would usually give me an idea that was better than anything I could invent. So the story moved forward through a joint effort, and I don’t even think she realized that she was helping me make up half the story.

This experience taught me a few valuable lessons about storytelling. First of all, the best stories are the most immediate. When we write, especially on a computer, we sometimes have too much time to think. We can sit there and agonize over sentences and rewrite whole paragraphs when we should be focusing more on the driving force in the story.

How am I going to get from Point A to Point B without totally losing the attention of the reader or, in my case, the little girl? Trust your instinct for narrative.

Second, the best stories have the most memorable details. The little girl gave me my details, and she loved it when I inserted them into the story. Each time the rooster or magic carpet appeared in the story, she would giggle. When I saw her a few days later, she still made references to the magical rooster and the way it saved the farmer’s roadside fruit and vegetable stand. Wouldn’t it be nice to have readers who were always remembering small moments in your writing?

Finally, allow yourself to be surprised by your own stories. I was continually surprised by where this story would go, since I had no plan at all. By the time I got to the end, even I was entertained. You have to allow for magic to happen in your writing.

(Photo by Cloodlebing and Great Kindness)

Reading Is the Introduction

Over the course of the semester, I facilitate small group writing workshops that allow my students to discuss their writing with two to three of their classmates. I have done everything I can possibly think of to create a positive workshop environment: I lead them in a sample workshop to demonstrate how they can talk about another writing in a respectful and constructive manner, I give them lists of very specific questions they can ask themselves about their peers’ writing, and I listen to their conversations, guiding them they fall off track.

They seem productive.

When my students hand in their final drafts, I ask them to include a paragraph describing the workshop experience. Most of my students tell me that workshop does nothing to help them revise, and that they usually just wait for my comments because mine are the most helpful. Again and again, workshop fails them.

I need the workshop model to work. With 25 students in each one of my classes, it’s impossible for me to give each student the attention he or she really deserves. I could spend an hour or more on piece of writing, but that would mean 50+ hours/week just reading and commenting on papers! I need my students to help each other and, in turn, help me too.

Are they afraid of offending each other? At this point in the semester, they seem pretty comfortable, and they do want honest feedback – so why would they be afraid to speak their minds?

And why are my comments so much more helpful? I’ve come to the conclusion that what divides me from my students is not necessarily that I’m a better writer (heck, sometimes they write better rough drafts than I do) but that I’ve read enough to recognize good writing.

When my students write a rough draft, they’re not always able to see their own potential. They can’t immediately identify how much work they need to do to improve the piece, which means they definitely don’t know where to start.

When I read a rough draft, I can gauge how much work will need to be done, and I can usually also decide whether the rough draft is even worth salvaging. But my expertise lies in short fiction. When it comes to poetry and other genres, I’m not much more advanced than they are, since my education in these genres ended at the undergraduate level. I just try to be the best reader I can be, which is all I can do. And my comments seem to help.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my students would be better able to discuss their writing with one another if they would just read more. I can only assign them so much work.

When they complain about all the reading I assign in an Intro. to WRITING class, I just shake my head and say that reading IS the introduction – writing is a privilege, not a right, that you earn when you acknowledge that you’re part of a tradition. And how can you possibly see the potential in your own writing if can’t understand that everything – yes, everything – has been done before you?

(Photo by moriza)

On Being Honest with Yourself

In my perfect world, I would be able to hire an on-call editor to critique every draft of everything I write. However, I can’t afford an editor, and I haven’t yet found someone I trust enough as a reader. A handful of my friends and my mom read my work, but they aren’t trained to push me in the direction that I want to be pushed as a writer. So, for now, I only have myself.

Most unpublished writers must rely on themselves throughout the revision process. That means a writer must be able to wear many hats: proofreading, recognizing structural flaws, knowing when to add/delete, and (most importantly) being honest with yourself.

If you can sit down with your piece of writing, admit to yourself that it is or isn’t working, and then know exactly how to improve the parts that aren’t working, then you will one day become a capable writer, even if you don’t have any natural talent.

First, you must be able to recognize good writing in general. In the very least, you must be able to pinpoint what you think is good writing and then understand why you think the writing is good. For writers, reading a diverse selection of work is just as important as practicing writing itself.

Once you understand the elements found in good writing, then you must be able to read your own work as a reader rather than as the writer. Sometimes, you will need to distance yourself from your writing – put it aside for a few months and work on something else. The closer you are to the writing, the harder it will be for you to recognize its flaws.

Of course, you will never be able to read your own work the same way that a first-time reader will read your work, but you must try your best to replicate the experience.

When you feel ready to read your work, you will need to maintain a certain attitude. Above all, always allow for the element of surprise. No one knows your writing better than you do, but your goal is to allow yourself to be surprised by it.

Assume that your first drafts will be terrible. Assume the worst about them but also feel deeply confident in the revision process. Believe that revising will eventually get your writing to the place you want it to be.

At the same time, don’t make excuses for yourself. Never approach your manuscript with fear or with a defensive attitude. Don’t ever say to yourself, “This is only the third draft so it’s going to suck” or “This would be much better if I could just get someone to help me”. You must maintain a delicate balance between skepticism and confidence.

As you’re reading, pay close to attention to how you feel. You will want to note any and all visceral reactions. For me, the most important emotion to note is boredom. I never want my readers to feel bored. So if I’m feeling boredom, that’s not a good sign. I mark the pages where I feel most engaged and then try my best to bring those moments to the forefront when I revise.

Being honest with yourself can also help you revise. Just this past weekend, I read a story of mine that I truly thought was horrible. I couldn’t believe I had let this story slip through the cracks, especially since all the other stories before and after it are much more carefully developed.

I was so bothered by this fact that I had to work on the story right away. I was only able to do this because I maintained the perfect balance: I knew the story was terrible, but I also had complete confidence in the revision process. I had to prove to myself that I was better than the story I had written.

Otherwise, I would have been crippled by the fact that my writing is more often terrible than it is awesome. “Awesome” takes work, a certain faith, and a relentless desire to tell a story. I have yet to meet someone who is able to constantly sustain all three of those things at once. So we take advantage of the combination when we can.

(Photo by nerissa’s ring)

Oh No, I Said Too Much

One of the questions that my students most frequently ask me is, “How much detail is enough, and how much detail is too much?”. Recently, I asked them to write original flash fiction, which is a very short story, always under 500 words but sometimes as short as one page long. If you want to read a great example of flash fiction, check out “Jumper Down” by Don Shea.

I told my students that their work could not exceed two pages, double-spaced. However, their short shorts would have to include all the basic elements that we find in any story: exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action.

I can’t even tell you how many of my students asked me, “But can I make it three pages? Can I go over the limit?”. The fun of the exercise is to try adhere to the page limit.

They were even more frustrated when I returned my comments on their first drafts: add more detail, develop this relationship or that character, etc. How were they supposed to do these things without exceeding the page limit? I was asking them to add things to their stories, but I wouldn’t let them extend the length of the stories.

I think this is a great exercise not only for people interested in writing flash fiction but writers who typically write longer fiction, even novels. When you’re writing a longer short story (approx. 15 to 20 pages), you definitely have the luxury of explaining everything you want to explain and adding as much detail as your heart desires. However, that doesn’t mean that all the things you add are actually doing the story any good. In many cases, a 15-page story could work just as well – if not better – as a 10-page story.

Writing within a certain limit is like living on a tight budget. Perhaps you can’t buy the latest tech gadget, shop at the organic grocery store, or purchase designer goods. But you find a way to live. And don’t we sometimes, on a budget, learn about what’s most important to us? I know personally that, since I’ve started supporting myself and living within a budget, I’ve really started to question the value and purpose of many material things.

So, how do you write on a budget (of words)?

1. Lose extraneous characters. If a character appears only one or twice in a story, I can almost guarantee you that this character is not important.

2. Check your first paragraph. Many writers, in their first drafts, write until something “bites” or makes sense. Then, they find momentum and continue the story. For this reason, first paragraphs are usually a jumble of facts and details. Clean it up!

3. Do an adjective inventory. Review every adjective in your story. Ask yourself: does the placement of this adjective affect or clarify the outcome of the story? Does the placement of this adjective move us closer to the outcome of the story? Often times, we add adjectives for the sake of adding some description. Other times, we’re not using the most accurate adjective. Choose your adjectives wisely.

4. Adjust your sentence structure. We sometimes write unnecessarily long sentences, especially when we use passive voice (starting sentences with “it is”, “they are”, “it was”, “they were”. Review every sentence and ask yourself: can this be rewritten more succinctly and directly?

5. Show, don’t tell. I’ve had writing professors who loved this advice and other professors who truly hated it. However, when you’re trying to write within a word limit, I think it’s important to consider. Often, explaining something requires more words than simply showing or describing it. Trust your readers. If you find yourself explaining too much because you’re worried that your readers won’t understand, reconsider how well you’re telling the actual story.

(Photo by ColumbusCameraOp)

5 Things I Learned at AWP 2011

This year marked the third year in a row that I attended the annual conference and bookfair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. On Friday and Saturday, I listened to panel discussions about writing and teaching, enjoyed readings by well-known authors (Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris), and wandered the bookfair – a gathering of publishers, literary magazines, and writing programs from all over the country.

My goal this year was to discover new ideas and techniques that I could bring back to the classroom. I attended panels like “The Future of Creative Writing in the Academy” and “Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?”. I also paid close attention to what other writers had to say about craft and teaching writing. I’m happy to say that I made many notes for myself, and I’m even revising my lesson plans to accommodate what I learned. Without further ado, here are five things I learned at AWP 2011:

1. Freewriting may actually inhibit creativity. I often ask my students to “free write” in class, usually for periods of 10 minutes at a time. I try to make the freewriting as focused as possible by giving them a specific topic or task. However, I learned that freewriting may actually prevent students from fulfilling their potential. The fact that I’m watching them and making them write under pressure can be a great stressor. I need to make sure that students can also do the work on their own time, in an environment that makes them feel comfortable.

2. “It’s one thing to write about absurdity like Ionesco, and it’s another thing to actually be in that world.” Joyce Carol Oates mentioned this during her reading, and I identified with it so much that I pulled out my notebook and scribbled it down. She was referring to a completely absurd yet very real situation: arriving at a hospital in the middle of the night, after her husband had suddenly died from complications due to pneumonia. If you’re not familiar with Ionesco, he wrote a play called Rhinoceros – almost every person in this play turns into a rhinoceros, which is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of life. Oates, in her memoir about her husband’s death, must write about absurdity in a very real way. She challenges us to write about the “unwriteable” without resorting to rhinoceroses.

3. In order to be good at writing, you have to know everything at once. One of the panelists at the “Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?” panel made this assertion to describe just how difficult teaching creative writing can be. I’ve often thought this while teaching, but I never articulated it as such. In any given class period, I must assume that my students know grammar, understand literary terms, structure sentences correctly, exercise creativity, etc. My ability to teach creative writing depends so much on what the students already know. I’m assuming that their past teachers have taught them enough to let me do my job without backpedaling too far.

4. Students need to be exposed to “weird” texts so that they can discover what does or doesn’t give them pleasure. I should expose my students to nontraditional texts from various cultures and time periods, in order to give them a chance to decide what they do and don’t like about reading. This way, they know what options they have when they sit down to do their own writing. I struggled with this issue last semester, when I gave my students a text that wasn’t very well received. At the bookfair, I actually ran into a representative from Coffee House Press, the publisher responsible for this text, and she thought it was really great that I was trying to teach such a challenging, boundary-pushing book. In the future, I will not be afraid to add similar texts to my syllabus.

5. “Self is not a goal but a means.” I’ve often thought this before, but I like the way one panelist worded it so succinctly. Students should focus on turning the attention away from themselves when they write. They can use their own experiences and frame of reference to begin a story or poem, but the goal should not be to indulge themselves. The goal should be to create something with universality.

Also, if you’re curious, I added a few books to my reading list, based on recommendations from people I met at AWP: Beat Not the Poor Desk by Marie Ponsot, Fictions by Michael Martone, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac, The True Subject by Jane Smiley, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings by Robert Smithson, and Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (which I’m currently reading).

But What Do You Really Mean?

The one piece of advice that I most frequently give to my students is “be specific”. I say and write it so often that they’re probably tired of hearing it. However, I do believe that you must be as specific as possible if you ever hope to communicate anything effectively.

When we speak or write about Big Concepts like love, happiness, anger, sadness, or passion, we often rely on “big concept” words or phrases, which we use to generalize those feelings or states of mind.

Think of words and phrases like “angry”, “so in love”, “depressed”, or “in pain”. What do these “big concept” words and phrases even mean? Each person has a very unique take on the world, and you, as a writer, have a chance to communicate that perspective. Don’t assume that your reader knows what you mean!

Why do you think hospitals use a pain chart to gauge their patients’ pain? From a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain? Where does it hurt? Be specific.

How can you avoid “big concept” words and phrases? Rather than trying to name the emotion, use images to communicate the emotion. Give your reader some credit – if you can paint a sensory picture with words, the reader should be able to feel exactly what you mean. The images should move them to the emotion you want to convey.

Here’s an example of a sentence that could use some specificity: Ever since my boyfriend and I fell in love, I’ve been really happy – I’ve never experienced such a passionate relationship before!

On first glance, this sentence seems descriptive. I even included adjectives!

Let’s rewrite it with more specificity: After about four months, John asked me if I had any interest in dating him exclusively. My smile stretched so far across my face that I thought my cheeks were going to rip. I hugged him and realized that his body was warmer and more comfortable than my baby blanket, which I refused to throw away, even after all these years. He kissed me so suddenly that I lost my balance and fell into a pile of snow.

As you can see, I added a few sentences, in order to provide some more detail. But I didn’t use any big concept words (you could argue that “dating” is a big concept word, but I didn’t want to write too much).

Which example do you like better? Personally, I think the second example reveals more information that is very specific to these characters – not only do we learn that the narrator is “in love” but we also learn about her baby blanket. Do you see all the opportunities you’re missing when you rely on “big concept” words and phrases to communicate your intentions?

(Photo by Bob Doran)

Finish Before You Become Someone Else

I spend a lot of time revising. Over the years, I’ve become my own best editor, out of necessity. When you write as much as I do, you have to rely on yourself or have money to pay someone to read your work – asking my friends to constantly read my work becomes annoying for everyone involved.

If you want to be a serious writer, you have to learn how to be brutally honest with yourself. If something sucks, you need to be able to recognize that it sucks and admit to yourself that you need to change or discard it.

However, you also need to be forgiving. If something sucks, you can’t beat yourself up over it – you need to be able to reassure yourself that you can improve your writing through revision. That kind of confidence comes with experience; when you see that you actually CAN improve your writing, you will come to trust your ability as an editor.

The first part – being able to recognize when your writing sucks – is hard to do when you’re just starting out. If you’re a new writer, you will probably have a desire to hold onto everything you write. After many years, I have learned how to discard pages and pages of bad writing, without feeling any emotional attachment to it.

The trick is to not get emotionally attached to your writing. If you’re writing about something that affects you emotionally, you will probably have to wait to revise that piece of work until the feeling has passed. No way can you revise something with a clear head if you’re still attached to the subject of your work.

Also, realize that words are just words. Many have been written before you, and many will be written after you.

When you start to feel comfortable with the revision process, you will probably ask yourself, How do I know when I’m done? Beginning writers usually give up long before they’re done, simply because they’re sick of working on the piece. The truth is that, if you want to reach the point of “done”, you will probably have to work on a piece of writing beyond boredom and frustration. As with running, practicing revision will give you more stamina.

I’ve heard many writers admit that a piece of writing is never really done. Even after they have been published, years later, they will think of things they want to add or change in their books. I remember one writer admitting that she picks up a published copy of her book and sometimes makes notes in the margins, even though she knows she won’t ever be able to change it.

Once your book is published, you agree to send it off into the world, with all its imperfections intact. So, when does that point occur? If you’re “throwing in the towel”, your book is not done. If you’re just sick of looking at it, your book is not done. Your book is done when you realize that it could probably be better, beyond your abilities. You must feel that you have completely pushed your talent to an edge.

Maybe, in 10 years, you will have the experience and knowledge to improve what you need to improve, but would the same person be revising it? You need to finish a piece of writing in as close to a state of mind as you had possessed when you started it. And then push that version of you until you cannot push it any further. Then, your writing will be complete.

(Photo by jayneandd)

Instant Writing Makeover

Sometimes, a haircut, change of clothes, or even some make-up can drastically improve a person’s appearance. In the same way, a few quick fixes can improve your writing! If you don’t have a lot of time to revise a piece of writing (maybe you’re finishing an essay at the last minute or writing a business letter under a tight deadline), you will need to make the best of what you have, even if it’s not perfect! After all, no piece of writing is completely finished. Here are five things you can do to quickly improve a piece of writing:

1. Read your writing out loud. Make sure you read the writing naturally – read it as if you are speaking. Too often, people read text in a monotone voice, one word after the other, without any inflection. If you read your writing as speech, you’ll be able to detect incorrect use of punctuation, especially if you have trouble with comma placement. Reading your writing out loud can help you recognize where you pause naturally – each time you pause most likely deserves a comma.

2. Look at the beginning of each sentence. Are you always beginning your sentences with a pronoun (words like “he”, “she”, or “it”) or subordinate conjunction (words like “although”, “because”, or “before”)? If you notice that you’re using the same pattern again and again, try to restructure a few of your sentences. You should strive for sentence variety. Throw in a few short, punchy sentences and some long, luxurious sentences.

3. Look for the passive voice. In passive voice, the verb is being done by someone or something. In active voice, someone or something is doing the verb. More often than not, the active voices sounds more direct and authoritative. Passive voice is not incorrect, but writers should use it sparingly and with good stylistic reason. The easiest way to hunt down passive voice is to look for phrases like “it is”, “it was”, “there is”, “there was”, “there are”. When you find those phrases, ask yourself – can I rewrite this sentence in a more direct way?

4. Add paragraphs. By adding paragraphs, you will immediately increase the readability of your text. Readers are more receptive to writing with plenty of white space. Look for places where you start a new thought. Transition words and phrases like “in addition”, “however”, “finally”, and “therefore” are great clues.

5. Add one memorable image. If you want to make an impression on your reader, add one memorable image to your writing. Push yourself to think of a new way to describe or explain something. Avoid cliche. Think similes, metaphors, and figurative language. By adding a unique image, you will have a better chance of capturing the reader’s attention and demonstrating that you put forth a great deal of effort.

(Photo by vancouverfilmschool)

The Importance of Staring at a Wall

Over the course of the past month, I’ve had a bunch of random days off between semesters. My plan was to spend a lot of time writing, but I knew that I’d ultimately be distracted. So I decided to pay attention to my creative energy instead.

Though I had a great time last semester, I was mentally exhausted by the end. For about two weeks, I could do nothing more on my days off than stare at the wall and go to holiday parties.

Around the new year, I started reading everything in sight. I was devouring books, reading two to three books at a time, spending luxurious hours with books that I had been wanting to read, and rereading books that I remembered I had once loved.

Soon after, I started to write and revise voraciously, which I hadn’t really done (at least not at this pace) since early summer, when I had some time off between jobs. For the past two weeks (on the days I don’t work at my other job), I have done nothing but read, write, eat, and sleep.

I realize what a luxury this is, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to focus on my own work. But does it really have to be a luxury? In an ideal world, all creative people – heck, ALL people – would be able to recharge their creative batteries. Wouldn’t we all be more productive, capable, and creative members of society if we could just take one step back from our crazy lives and breathe?

I don’t believe anyone who says that people reach a creative peak in their 20s. Children are more creative than adults because they have more time to daydream. When was the last time you can remember being bored? “Boredom” is a key ingredient in creativity – you need idle time to let your mind flourish. Everything else is just clutter.

One day of vacation is not enough to inspire creativity. Usually, I just need one day to do things that don’t require any thought: painting my nails, cleaning the house. The real creative sparks don’t fly until I’ve shaken off all my mental fatigue, usually a week or two after the fact.

Can’t we all get sabbaticals of sorts? They’re usually more reserved for people who have “paid their dues” in the working world; these people have accumulated weeks worth of vacation. But I have so much creative energy that I squash with my exhaustion. We’d emerge so much healthier and more ready to conquer the most difficult challenges if we could all have some time to daydream.

Though excited to start the new semester this week, I’m kind of terrified of losing this creative streak. I’ll be clinging for dear life to this blog, which provides structured creative release. I’m just hoping I can continue some of the momentum I’ve gained, at least for a little while.

(Photo by kerryvaughan)

Will You Read Me a Story?

When I was a child, my mom used to take me to Story Hour at our local library. At Story Hour, one of the librarians would read one book out loud, slowly and deliberately. She would complete one page then open the book toward us so that we could see the illustrations. She had a great reading voice – pausing and creating inflection where appropriate.

Like most people, I don’t remember very many things about my childhood, but I absolutely do remember Story Hour.

These days, one of the greatest pleasures I can imagine is having someone read a story to me. But I’m rather picky. I can’t stand when people read in a monotone voice or stumble on words, unsure of pronunciation. The reader must know how to use punctuation as a guide. And, above all, the person has to read in such a way that demonstrates his or her respect for the written word.

For this reason, I like to attend literary readings where authors read their work. The annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is a great place to see literary readings. Listening to a writer read work can provide a lot of insight into the way he or she imagined the reader would interpret the work. Listening to a writer, you may think, Oh, the dialogue was supposed to sound this way?. Just as you may misinterpret the meaning and tone of a text message from your friend, you may be hearing words incorrectly (or just differently?) in your head.

In some cases, the reader can make the writing sound better than it actually is. I remember attending a reading in college (the writer’s name escapes me), and I was so charmed by the way she read her short story that I bought the book immediately after the reading. I even asked her to sign my book, admitting how impressed I had been with her use of humor. Later, when I read the same story on my own, I couldn’t find the same excitement in it – why had I liked it so much? The writing wasn’t that impressive.

A bad reader can also make the writing sound worse than it is. Not all writers are meant to read their work out loud, which is why they’re writers, not public speakers. But a good writer who is also a good reader is something of a bonus.

I like listening to people tell stories so much that it sometimes makes me seem socially awkward. I can become so totally enraptured by a friend or acquaintance who’s telling me a story that I forget I’m part of a conversation. I am so fascinated that I forget I will eventually have to say something. I could sit for hours listening to people I like tell me interesting stories.

Do I like listening to stories because it reminds me of my childhood? In a way, probably. But there is an inherent pleasure in listening to well-written prose – it should be musical, more controlled and varied than common speech.

(Photo by edenpictures)