3 Ways Creative Writing Can Improve Reading Skills

Many of us take for granted the fact that we can read and understand a newspaper article. Did you know that, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 29% of adults in the United States don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?

Many of us take for granted the fact that we can read and understand a newspaper article. Did you know that, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 29% of adults in the United States don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?

Not only is the lack of reading comprehension skills a problem for that segment of the population, but it’s also a societal issue with deeply felt and long-lasting consequences. How can citizens be informed voters if they can’t educate themselves on the issues? How can they improve themselves, their families, and their communities if they don’t know the opportunities available to them or the challenges they’ll have to face in the “real” world? How can they bridge racial and cultural differences if they don’t know how to relate to people outside of their immediate circles?

From my own experience working with students who struggle with reading comprehension, I’ve noticed that three major factors prevent students from understanding these newspaper articles: 1) the students’ limited vocabulary, 2) the students’ limited knowledge of the historical and current events that may be referenced in newspaper articles (especially op-eds), and 3) the students’ tendency to shut down when faced with varied sentence structure.

Recently, I’ve been introducing creative writing exercises into my reading skills class and think that some creative writing exercises can address these common issues. Here are three ways that creative writing can combat the three challenges I mentioned above:

1. Timed descriptive writing exercises can expand students’ vocabulary. Learning how to write descriptively is one of the first skills I teach my creative writing students. By giving students who struggle with reading comprehension a timed descriptive writing exercise, I can challenge them to continue brainstorming new ways to write about a subject. I assign a time period that makes them just slightly uncomfortable (about 10 minutes) and a subject – like a desk – that’s relatively boring. Using Google and websites like Thesaurus.com, the students can explore and discover new words and phrases to use once they’ve exhausted their own ability to write extensively about one specific subject.

2. Writing a character into an assigned setting can help students learn history lessons they didn’t learn in school. Many of my reading students have a limited knowledge of American and world history. Before we tackle a piece of writing that references a historical or cultural event, I will try to give them background information. For example, today I shared with my students an article about physicist Isaac Newton, who dabbled in alchemy, the process of trying to turn base metal into gold. We also explored the time period during which he lived. Asking your students to write a short story by placing a character into 17th century England, among the alchemists, can generate interest and curiosity. The background knowledge may also help them understand a more current piece of writing.

3. Asking the students to rewrite a boring paragraph can help them feel more comfortable with varied sentence structure. Most of us are familiar with the most common sentence structure: subject + verb + direct object. However, passages that consist only of sentences written according to that formula are excruciatingly boring. I can give my students the following sample paragraph:

I went to the store. I picked up some orange juice and tortilla chips. I waited in line for 10 minutes. I realized I forgot my wallet in my car. I left the store.

Boring, right? Invite the students not only to elaborate on some of the details but also to rewrite the sentences so that they don’t all begin with “I.” Allow them to impose their own creativity on this paragraph and then ask them to notice how each sentence is different. The more they feel comfortable writing varied sentence patterns, the more they will open themselves to reading varied writing styles.

Have you ever had trouble understanding a reading or even another subject? How did it make you feel and what steps did you take to help you move toward understanding?

(Photo by inju)

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)

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)

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)

Imagine a Bookstore Where Books Had No Titles

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, but I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button. When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays until I could come up with something better. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title.

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, even if that title only serves as a temporary place holder. I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button.

When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays and term papers until I could come up with something better, usually right before I printed it. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title, and didn’t hand in a paper called “Fuckity Fuck”.

A title is a necessary component of any piece of writing, as necessary as a name for a human being. What you are named informs you, and your personality informs your name. What would you be without your name? Even if your parents hadn’t given you a name, you would earn one eventually. People would have to address you somehow.

Similarly, a title informs a piece of writing, and a piece of writing informs its title. If you were in a bookstore where none of the books had titles, you would have to find some way to distinguish among them.

You may not realize how much you rely on titles. Even if you don’t necessarily know what a title means, you know that it makes the beginning of any piece of writing – beginnings aren’t always easy to recognize on their own. Have you ever lost a paperclip that was holding together a stack of photocopied pages? At least the title will help you find the beginning easily. Titles are a formality, and they create an expectation for the reader.

Sometimes, a title can say more about a piece of writing than the actual piece does. Especially in a poem, the title might actually tell the whole story.

For example, in “Wants”, a two-page story by Grace Paley, the narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library, when she’s returning books that are many years overdue. The narrator and her husband have an awkward conversation during which they decide that the reason their marriage fell apart is because they wanted different things. The reader must think about which wants are worthy – did they want different things? Were their wants trivial? Did the narrator want for nothing? The simple title – a word that can be used as either a noun or a verb – really says it all.

Many beginning writers struggle with titles. So, how do you get used to writing titles? Ask yourself: What is the most profound or the strongest image in the story? Is the narrator preoccupied by something? Does the setting play an important role? What do you want the reader to notice the most? Name those things.

Pretend you are in a dark library with your story or poem. You are afraid. You are trying to call out to it.

“Story,” you say. “Poem,” you say.

But, because you are in a library, surrounded by books, you need to be more specific. What would you call it so that it recognizes you?

(Photo by malias)

On Reading Texts that Annoy You

When I first started taking writing classes, I was shocked that my professors allowed us to express our appreciation for or hatred of a text. In my high school English Literature classes, I could never say that I didn’t like Moby Dick, even though I was thinking it. Then, liking or not liking a text was besides the point.

I had a feeling that my students would hate the excerpt from The Anthropology of Turquoise that I assigned for Tuesday’s class, and I was right – I’ve already received some reading responses that made it clear.

When I first started taking writing classes in college, I was shocked that my professors actually encouraged us to express our appreciation for or hatred of a text. In my high school English Literature classes, I could never say that I didn’t like Moby Dick, even though I was definitely thinking it. In high school, liking or not liking a text was besides the point.

In a good writing class, the teacher will stress that your aversion to a text can actually be instructive. The fact that you don’t like something can teach you about your own writing style. But it’s important to ask yourself WHY you don’t like something.

After reading The Anthropology of Turquoise excerpt, most students didn’t like it because they found it wordy, self-involved, and plotless. The voice is tedious.

In some ways, Ellen Meloy, the writer, handles description well – she avoids cliche by describing color in unique ways: she uses all her senses to describe something we can only see. In other way, Meloy fails; her writing depends so much on description that it can be hard to follow.

Many beginning writers get so caught up with the new-found thing called description or sensory imagery that they lose themselves in it, sacrificing an actual narrative for the sake of vivid language.

I was definitely guilty of that when I first started writing. I was so impressed with my ability to write a simile or metaphor that I neglected the fact that my story or poem had absolutely no point. My mom would always say, “Laryssa, your writing is beautiful, but it’s really hard to read.” Eventually, I realized that she was right.

I hope that, by reading something that annoys them, my students will realize how much they might be annoying their readers when they spend too much time describing something. In real life, aren’t we most annoyed by people who are somehow like us? Perhaps the fact that you hate something says more about yourself and what you need to change.

So, hate something you read. Read it again. Ask yourself why you hate it. Don’t repeat that writer’s mistakes. Realize that your preferences inform your writing style and reflect more on you than they do on the text.

(Photo by purplbutrfly)

Summer Reading: 15 under 40

I love to read new and emerging fiction, and I get particularly excited when I read a great story by a peer. Below are the 15 writers under 40 who make me really giddy. I probably could have chosen 20 with some more thought, but 15 came to mind very easily. I included both fiction writers and poets.

Every year, The New Yorker publishes a Summer Fiction Issue. This year, the editors decided to compile a list of the best 20 writers under 40. I don’t necessarily agree with this list so I decided to make my own.

I love to read new and emerging fiction, and I get particularly excited when I read a great story by a peer. Below are the 15 writers under 40 who make me really giddy. I probably could have chosen 20 with some more thought, but 15 came to mind very easily. I included both fiction writers and poets, and my list is arranged alphabetically.

1. Nick Antosca, fiction writer (b. 1983): I first discovered Antosca when I read his story “White Apple“, published online at Spork Press. When I Googled him, I learned that he is only two years older than me but has already published two novels: “Midnight Picnic” (Word Riot Press, 2009) and “Fires” (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Hustler, The New York Sun, The Huffington Post, and other publications. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter!

2. Matt Bell, fiction writer (b. August 29, 1980): About a month ago, Matt Bell did a cool experiment; he wrote and edited a short story live on the Internet. He is the author of “How They Were Found”, a forthcoming collection of short stories published by Keyhole Press. In addition to publishing three chapbooks, Bell has stories in over 70 literary magazines, including American Short Fiction. He also writes book reviews and essays, which have been published by The Los Angeles Times and American Book Review, among others.

3. Kevin Brockmeier, fiction writer (b. December 6, 1972): I first read Brockmeier in grad school, when my professor Merrill Feitell encouraged us to check out “Things That Fall from the Sky”, a story included in a collection of the same name. I will forever remember this story as one of the most heartbreaking (in a good way) things I have ever read. What I like best about Brockmeier is his ability to cross genres; he has published two collections of stories, two children’s novels, and two fantasy novels.

4. Stacie Cassarino, poet (b. February 15, 1975): Cassarino’s poem “Northwest” is one of my favorite poems of all time. She writes: “The mind loves hope. /Dumb heart, come down from the walnut tree. /All the distance is ultimately a lie.” In 2008, New Issues Press published her first collection, “Zero at the Bone”. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, and Georgia Review, among others.

5. John Grochalski, fiction writer and poet (earned B.A. in 1996): Grochalski is identified as more of a poet than a fiction writer, but I really like his short story “Bill Smells“. He is the author of poetry collection “The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out”, published by Six Gallery Press in 2008. His poems have appeared in Avenue, The Lilliput Review, The New Yinzer, and The Blue Collar Review, among many others. His fiction has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pequin; one of his stories will be included in “Living Room Handjob”, an anthology.

6. Anya Groner, fiction writer and poet (b. January 26, 1982): I don’t mean to brag or anything, but Groner and I are Facebook friends. She just completed her MFA and lives in Mississippi. Groner’s story “Tenderly Now, Before I Expire” is one that I love dearly. I first read it in Flatmancrooked’s anthology “Not about Vampires”. Her writing has been published by Fiction Weekly, Memphis Magazine, and Bookslut.com.

7. Victor LaValle (b. February 3, 1972): LaValle visited the University of Maryland when I was a student there; he even came to speak and answer questions at one of our creative writing workshops! I tend to confuse him with Junot Diaz, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. He is the author of a short story collection, “Slapboxing with Jesus”, and two novels: “The Ecstatic” and “Big Machine”. “The Ecstatic”, my favorite, was a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

8. Sarah Manguso, fiction writer, poet, and essayist (b. 1974): Manguso’s most recent book, “The Two Kinds of Decay”, is a memoir of her struggle with a rare autoimmune disease. Her poetry collections include “Siste Viator” (2006) and “The Captain Lands in Paradise” (2002); the Village Voice named the latter a Favorite Book of the Year. She has won a Pushcart Prize and numerous prestigious fellowships. She currently teaches at Fairfield University.

9. Christopher Merkner, fiction writer and poet (earned B.A. in 1996): I saw Merkner read at AWP this year, and I really enjoyed his poems about marriage and children. You can read some of his poems online at Gulf Coast, a journal of literature and fine arts. I’m not familiar with his stories, but he recently had fiction, a story called “The Cook at Swedish Castle”, published in the Black Warrior Review. He teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado Denver.

10. Mary Miller, fiction writer (age 32): I read about Mary Miller in HTML Giant, the “internet literature magazine blog of the future”. Then, I read her story “Go, Fish“, published in Barrelhouse in 2008. Miller writes:

The cherry falls from his cigarette. It lands on the carpet and she thinks, this is how fires start. She steps on it, pretends it’s a spider that refuses to die. When he looks up at her, she says, “Your cherry,” and he says, “Oh.” Then he asks her to sit on the bed with him and she says she’s comfortable where she is because it was an unexpected offer and her first inclination is always to decline.

Miller’s stories have also appeared in Oxford American, Mississippi Review, Black Clock, and Quick Fiction.You can purchase her chapbook, “Big World“, online.

11. Meghan O’Rourke, poet and critic (b. 1976): O’Rourke is best known for her role as contributing writer to Slate, but she is also a talented poet. She is the author of “Halflife“, a collection of poetry published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2008.

12. Marissa Perry, fiction writer: I can’t find very much about Perry, and I’m only assuming that she’s under 40. I know that she lives in New York City, that she also designs websites, and that she has an MFA from the University of Michigan, which awarded her a prize for her thesis in 2006. I loved her story “Trespassing”, which was published in Tin House’s 2008 Summer Issue. I think I e-mailed her once, to ask her some questions about process and craft; however, she was really busy at the time. You can read her blog, Abandon, and her story “The Invisibles” in Zoetrope.

13. Josh Peterson, fiction writer (b. December 7, 1978): I know Peterson’s work the same way I know Groner’s; I discovered one of his stories in “Not about Vampires” (Flatmancrooked). Peterson is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas and works part-time as a freelance writer. His story “The Nipples of Men” is forthcoming in The Tomfoolery Review, and another story, “An Infinite Amount of Monkeys,” is forthcoming in Defenestration.

14. Selah Saterstrom, fiction writer and poet (b. 1974): Saterstrom’s book “The Meat and Spirit Plan” is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’m pretty sure that every 20-something woman should read it. Like LaValle, Saterstrom spoke at one of my creative writing workshops in grad school. Her earlier work is experimental and can also be classified as poetry. Her work has appeared in Tarpaulin Sky, Monkey Puzzle, 3rd Bed, and in the Seattle Research Institute’s anthology Experimental Theology. Please read her.

15. Emma Straub, fiction writer (age 30): Like Peterson and Groner, Straub is also a Flatmancrooked author. I bought her book, “Fly-Over State” at the Flatmancrooked table at AWP; I even had a chance to meet her! As she promises on her website, everyone who buys her book will receive a personalized love letter. Straub also co-edits Avery: An Anthology of New Fiction and the Read section of the Dossier Journal website. I highly recommend you follow her on Twitter!

Who’s your favorite writer under 40?

(Photo by el7bara)

No One Would Read James Joyce’s Blog

One reason people have so much trouble paying attention to digitized content is because it’s updated so frequently. Writers and content are so numerous that readers don’t become married to any one writer or publication; they don’t develop trust and the confidence that what they will read will change them or help them learn something new.

After years of staring at Ulysses on my bookshelf, I finally decided to start reading the epic 800-something-page novel by James Joyce. Reading this book is an investment, especially since rumor has it that it’s a “difficult” work, one that doesn’t always make sense and is too language obsessed.

However, I really enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I like a challenge, and I’ve heard that the personal rewards of completing this book are really worth the effort. With that in mind, I pick up the book and say, “I trust you, Mr. Joyce.” And I also trust all the smart, creative people who have loved the book before me.

Otherwise, would I read this book? Even consider reading this book? Probably not.

On Tuesday, I published a post (“Attention Spam“) in which I claimed that writers, not the Internet, are the reason that readers have trouble focusing on digital content. After I committed to reading Ulysses, I realized how very true this is.

When Ulysses was first published in the United States, censorship issues caused quite a stir. The 1933 court case, “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses” drew a lot of attention to the book and the issue of free expression. Ulysses was not to be published in the US for more than a decade, but that only sparked readers’ interest. Travelers were smuggling copies of the book from France.

This was exciting. This made people want to read Ulysses. Would Joyce’s writing be tolerated if someone published it for the first time today? Published online? In blog format?

Joyce, at that point a controversial, lauded, and respected writer, had the luxury of not needing to cater too much to the reader. He could be an artist and experiment with language and form. Joyce knew that his audience trusted he would take them somewhere new, even if that destination was not initially clear to them. I’m sure the length and difficult level of his novels were the last things on readers’ minds.

One reason people have so much trouble paying attention to digitized content is because it’s updated so frequently. Writers and content are so numerous that readers don’t become married to any one writer or publication; they don’t develop trust and the confidence that what they will read will change them or help them learn something new. They don’t push themselves to a challenge that might be rewarding. Sadly, there may be no room for “challenging” or experimental writing on the Internet.

Nicholas Carr’s new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains“, is receiving a lot of attention and acclaim. Personally, I think Nicholas Carr’s writing is difficult and bore-inducing. How can Carr convince us, in an unfocused book, that we have no attention span?

Reviewer Darcy writes: “This incohesive book must have been written for the attention deficit victims of web browsing that Carr continuously talks about, because its limited information content should have taken the more appropriate form as two or three succinct blog posts.”

As long as we use the Internet as a publishing platform, writers need to recognize that they need to be as concise, specific, and reader-catering as possible. More writers are writing – and that can be a good thing! But writers shouldn’t expect to be worshiped like a Joyce or find patience among readers wanting the clearest, most concise writing possible.

(Photo by maxf)

Curiosity Made the Cat

Marketing expert Seth Godin wrote: “I’ve noticed that people who read a lot of blogs and a lot of books also tend to be intellectually curious, thirsty for knowledge, quicker to adopt new ideas and more likely to do important work. I wonder which comes first, the curiosity or the success?”. Here is my answer.

Today, on his blog, marketing expert Seth Godin wrote: “I’ve noticed that people who read a lot of blogs and a lot of books also tend to be intellectually curious, thirsty for knowledge, quicker to adopt new ideas and more likely to do important work. I wonder which comes first, the curiosity or the success?”.

Well, since he asked, I decided to take time out of my busy day and craft an answer.

Curiosity absolutely precedes success. Curiosity is born from a desire to create, develop, and cultivate a passion or interest. Most people that are able to develop and pursue their passions are able to find success (whether professional or personal) with their chosen passion.

I am convinced that some people are just naturally more curious than other people, and that it takes a certain kind of person to find the drive to become successful. These people see the world as a playground of never-ending possibilities, where every day is a chance to learn something new and exciting.

If you have a certain passion, you will naturally gravitate toward reading books and blogs about your passion. If you don’t yet have a passion, or you’re trying to cultivate a new passion, then you may read about a variety of subjects to see what does and doesn’t appeal to you.

Either way, your natural curiosity propels you to learn and grow. If you don’t care to have passions or interests, then you probably won’t read at all.

I read a lot of blogs and books, but I usually only read blogs and books about certain topics. I either read for entertainment, or I read for knowledge, books about writing, creativity, marketing, design, and technology. Reading is time-consuming, and I make sure that I spend my time with books and other reading materials that will appeal to my interests.

However, nothing I learn is a waste of time.

Sure, the Internet makes it easy for me to read about certain subject matter. Blog aggregators, RSS readers, niche online magazines and publications, search engines, and “smart technologies” like AdWords and Facebook ads serve up content particularly tailored to my interests.

Nowadays, my greatest challenge is to access content that is different from what I would usually read. Reading outside of your interests may not hinder your success, but it could help you be even more successful, more empathetic, and better able to understand how the world works.

All this being said, can you become more curious? I don’t think you would be asking yourself this question if you weren’t curious to begin with, but I think the answer to this question is more existential than anything else: being alive, how can you NOT be curious?

How can you not be totally moved by all that is mysterious and dazzling in this world?

(Photo by altemark)