5 Tips for Editing When You Can’t Afford an Editor

Many publishing professionals will tell a self-publishing author that, despite the high cost of hiring a professional freelance editor ($50/hour and up), he or she can’t NOT afford an editor. A poorly edited book will look unprofessional and amateurish.

Many publishing professionals will tell a self-publishing author that, despite the high cost of hiring a professional freelance editor ($50/hour and up), he or she can’t NOT afford an editor. A poorly edited book will look unprofessional and amateurish. What’s the point of spending thousands of dollars on printing costs if the finished product is going to look like crap?

I ignored this advice and decided to edit my collection of short stories, The Prescribed Burn, myself, not only because I can’t afford an editor – I’d rather dedicate my budget to production costs – but also because I don’t trust many readers. Some friends and family members have read the manuscript and have made suggestions, but no one has read it critically, red pen in hand, scribbling notes in the margins and helping me shape my work.

Was not hiring an editor a foolish decision? I have yet to find out. However, I’m very confident in my editorial skills and my eye for detail. With more and more writers self-publishing these days, fewer of them have access to editorial assistance. Not everyone should attempt to edit their own work, especially if time is an issue, but I believe many writers are perfectly capable of editing. Here are five tips for editing when you can’t afford an editor:

1. Read your work aloud. Or, ask a willing friend to read it to you. In the past, I’ve used free voice recording software like Audacity to record myself reading my manuscript. Later, I’ll listen to the recording with either a notebook or a printed copy of my manuscript in hand, noting moments when the sentence structure seems awkward or when I start getting bored. If my mind’s wandering, that means the writing isn’t engaging enough.

2. Between reads, take a few weeks – or months, if you can afford it – away from the manuscript. Editors are great when you don’t have time to step away from your work and gain some perspective. As someone who’s never read your manuscript, an editor can approach your work with a fresh eye. If you have the time and aren’t in any rush to publish, set aside the manuscript for at least two weeks and work on other projects. Don’t even let yourself think about the manuscript until you pick it up again.

3. Make a style guide for yourself. The problem I most often encounter, especially when I’m working with a book-length manuscript, is that I forget conventions: spelling a number rather than just typing a number or using an Oxford comma. Regardless of the stylistic choices you make, you need to be consistent because a careful reader will notice. You may want to make a style guide – a document saved on your computer’s desktop – that lists all your stylistic choices so that you can refer back to them when in doubt.

4. Pay special attention to beginnings and endings. Beginnings are your chance to capture the reader’s attention. If your manuscript lacks a strong beginning, then the rest of it won’t matter because the reader will stop reading. Make sure the beginning is as perfect as you can make it. Finally, focus on crafting a powerful ending. If your ending is hurried or poorly constructed, nothing you wrote before the ending will matter to the reader. He or she will simply be disappointed.

5. Dedicate time for marathon readings. If you have the time and energy, try to read your complete manuscript in one sitting. This activity will be exhausting and probably require a significant portion of your day. Make sure you have snacks on hand! However, I think it’s important to do at least one or two marathon readings to make sure you’re not missing any issues of consistency and continuity. Also, note any moments when you become really tired or bored. These emotions can be clues to problems in your writing.

(Photo by TheCreativePenn)

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)

The Challenge of Collaborative Storytelling

In my creative writing course, I try to incorporate as many group writing exercises as possible. You may be thinking, “But isn’t writing a solitary act?” Writing can be both an individual and community effort. Two projects that my students particularly enjoy are the group novel and the class short story.

In my creative writing course, I try to incorporate as many group writing exercises as possible. You may be thinking, “But isn’t writing a solitary act?” Writing can be both an individual and community effort. Two projects that my students particularly enjoy are the group novel and the class short story.

For the group novel, I divide the class into pairs or groups of three. As a class, we brainstorm the novel’s major elements: main characters, setting, central conflict, point of view etc. Then, we roughly outline 10 chapters and try our best to make a narrative arc. Each pair or group is assigned a chapter they must write to the best of their abilities, consulting with the writers of chapters before and after them to make sure each chapter flows into the next. At the end, I collect all the chapters and compile them. The class has a chance to revise the novel together. Some group novels have come out better than others, but the students always enjoy this exercise because it manages to be completely ridiculous and instructive at the same time.

Another favorite group writing exercise is the collaborative short story. All students write their names on a blank sheet of paper and then free-write on any subject for two minutes. Then, the students pass the sheets to another student. In two minute spurts, the students must continue the story, and the task becomes more difficult as the stories become longer; students must skim what has already been written and simply continue to write. At the end of this period, the writers receive their original sheet of paper. I believe this exercise teaches students how not to censor themselves in a first draft and how to maintain narrative drive in a story.

In an effort to show the power of collaborative storytelling, I would like to complete a version of these exercises and publish the resulting story in my upcoming collection The Prescribed Burn. As an added incentive for potential backers of my Kickstarter campaign, I’ve decided that, if I can reach 75% of my goal by this Friday, I will give all my backers – regardless of their pledge amount – the chance to help me write a new story for the collection. I’ll invite all backers to contribute a word or phrase that I will have to include in the new story. After each word or phrase, I will insert a footnote that cites the contributor’s name.

Have you ever tried a collaborative writing exercise? What was the result, and would you ever consider doing it again? I personally enjoy these types of challenges because they push me out of my comfort zone and inspire me to write about subjects I wouldn’t normally pursue.

(Photo by michaelcardus)

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Kickstarter

In the process of preparing and launching my campaign and also by backing other projects (mostly writers), I learned that Kickstarter can benefit writers in more than just the most obvious way, which is to help them raise money for their creative projects.

Last week, I launched my Kickstarter campaign to raise the money I’ll need to print my collection of short stories The Prescribed Burn. In the process of preparing and launching my campaign and also by backing other projects (mostly writers), I learned that Kickstarter can benefit writers in more than just the most obvious way, which is to help them raise money for their creative projects.

Both navigating and using the crowdfunding platform can be a great writing exercise in itself. Here are five unusual lessons that writers can learn from Kickstarter:

1. Most writers aren’t also filmmakers, but storytelling is storytelling. Making the pitch video for my Kickstarter project was probably the most difficult part of preparing the campaign. I have very little experience with film making and felt uncomfortable working with the medium. I completed at least two dozen takes and tried filming in at least three different settings. In the end, I finally decided that “fancy” doesn’t necessarily make for the best pitch video, and the same is true with writing. Good stories aren’t necessarily full of elaborate images and five-dollar words. A good story has a beginning, middle, and end, and it maintains the reader’s interest in whatever way it can.

2. Talk about your project in a way that non-writers will understand. I noticed that many writers on Kickstarter provide updates about the technical aspects of their books, but they seem to forget that the people backing the projects (their fans and future book purchasers) probably don’t care about the technical stuff like editing, printing, and layout. The fans and future readers just want the book in their hands to enjoy. The last thing on their minds is how the book came together.

3. Get used to the hustle. When I was younger, I thought that published writers had it made. A publishing company waved its magical wand over the head of a talented writer, and that writer would forever be blessed. Eventually, I shook myself out of that daydream and realized that even writers picked up by some of the bigger publishing companies have to be their own hustlers or risk being dropped by the publisher when book sales don’t satisfy projected six-month goals. Kickstarter is the best way to test your confidence and your hustling skills because you’ll need them whether you self publish or publish with a larger publishing company.

4. Don’t be a stereotype. Who do you imagine when you imagine a successful or even an amateur writer? Someone wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette? Someone like Hank Moody in “Californication“? The Kickstarter projects that have most impressed me include pitch videos with the writers in front of the camera, being themselves. They have vibrant, charismatic personalities. They break any and all stereotypes that we might associate with writers. They are quirky and memorable. You have to be the face behind your book.

5. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. If you expect people to support and read your book, you should probably support and read other people’s books too. You don’t necessarily have to love the work you support, though it helps if you do (and your endorsement will come across as more genuine). Above all, you should appreciate all creative endeavors. As a writer, you should know how difficult it can be to follow your dream and you should honor and respect the efforts of others.

Have you ever been a Kickstarter project creator, or have you backed projects on Kickstarter? What lessons have you learned?

Why I’ve Decided to Self Publish My Writing

I can’t wait to send my short stories out into the world because I’ve poured my heart and soul into them. So what’s a young woman to do now that she’s ready to share her project with the world? A young woman cannot make demands on the world nor can she expect the world to be ready when she is.

I can’t wait to send my short stories out into the world because I’ve poured my heart and soul into them, and I’ve revised them to the best of my ability. So what’s a young woman to do now that she’s ready to share her project with the world? A young woman cannot make demands on the world nor can she expect the world to be ready when she is.

I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on entry fees for writing contests and countless hours perfecting my pitch letter to show to big-city literary agents. Most of 2012 was devoted to sending my writing everywhere. As a result, I have received enough rejection letters to paper a wall of my apartment. A wall of rejections would probably discourage most people. However, I’m not discouraged because writing is my life’s work, and I’m pretty sure that the rule about life’s work is: as long as you’re alive, you should probably keep doing it.

I have just one problem though: waiting for someone to tell me that I’m good enough is, in my opinion, one of the most demoralizing experiences. I don’t seek approval in any other aspect of my life. I wouldn’t subjugate myself to that in my personal relationships, and I wouldn’t put up with it very long in a professional environment. However, the book publishing industry, as it stands today, demoralizes both talented and untalented writers on an hourly basis. And writers are meant to feel like the constant demoralization is a rite of passage.

My creative writing background is very much academic and literary, and, within the academy and the close-knit community of literary writers, self publishing is almost completely dismissed as a form of vanity and a sign of mediocrity. Though I’ve toyed with the idea of self-publishing for a while, a little voice in my head – that combined voice of my peers and role models – is telling me that to self publish is to admit defeat. I’ve spent many sleepless nights torn between two thoughts: 1) I no longer want to wait for someone to tell me I’m good enough and 2) I wonder if deciding to self publish means I’ve thrown in the towel.

I decided to read more about self publishing, and I talked to some authors who have self published their work. My friend Mark Mariano is a great example of a thriving self publisher. I started to realize that self publishing is a bold move that empowers the well-informed, business-minded writer who knows what he or she is doing. I have some experience in almost all the aspects of the publishing process: editing, design, marketing, and production. In fact, I started to think it would be fun to get my feet wet and put all my undergraduate summers toiling at publishing internships to some good use.

Deciding to self publish The Prescribed Burn required a paradigm shift, one that I decided I was ready to make with the arrival of my 27th birthday. I’ve always been rebellious (isn’t self publishing rather rebellious?) and nontraditional, and my former blog Comma ‘n Sentence was named after one of the most influential self-published texts in the history of our country: Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” I admire audacity.

I wish more of my peers would stop looking at literary agents and publishing houses as if they were gold-crusted deities because I see all around me many talented voices just sitting back and hoping to be discovered. Making myself vulnerable to criticism and judgement is frightening, yes, but sitting around and waiting for something to happen erodes my confidence and stifles my ability to dream.

(Photo by orcmid)

But My Hand Is Starting to Hurt

When was the last time you hand-wrote an important document? Could you imagine hand-writing e-mails before typing and sending them? Would you consider hand-writing a term paper before formatting it according to your instructor’s specifications?

When was the last time you hand-wrote an important document? Could you imagine hand-writing e-mails before typing and sending them? Would you consider hand-writing a term paper before formatting it according to your instructor’s specifications?

Blogger (and writer/teacher) Greg Graham recently interviewed writer and teacher Heather Sellers, author of the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know and believer of handwritten drafts. In the interview, Sellers says:

I always ask the students in my advanced course to submit a story in advance of the workshop. I noticed, when I was reading the advance submissions over break that three were just stunning–prose that read like poetry. The stories had such a beautiful quality, each of them rife with what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning.” They were nearly finished stories–fascinating, original…I went to class, and I asked the first three writers how they worked. Each student in that top three said, “I write by hand. Always. Always.” I didn’t single out the weaker authors but I did ask the group, “Do y’all write on the computer?” Each one said yes.

Sellers believes that writing by hand is in itself a creative process and that it’s important for a writer to compose without censoring him or herself. A writer should begin the thought process without interrupting it. Using a word processing program, a writer can too easily add or delete without consequence, writing with too much shame and self-consciousness. Writing by hand, the writer must remain comfortable with his or her imperfections and missteps.

Before reading this interview, I had not paid much attention to how a mode of writing affects the quality of a student’s work. I usually ask students to type their writing when possible, simply because too many students write illegibly, and I can’t serve my students if I can’t read their work. However, by allowing and even encouraging my students to type their work, I worry that I’m simply ignoring the real problem: shouldn’t students have learned how to hand-write legible drafts? According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, handwriting is a skill that improves memory and idea generation and should be taught in schools.

Upon further reflection, I can admit that most of the work handwritten by students during class time and then typed/revised for homework or at a later date has more depth than first drafts generated with a word processing program. I believe this is true because the student has to carefully craft one detail before moving to the next detail. Using a word processing program, the writer sometimes types faster than he or she can think, with the goal of reaching the required page/word count and the intention of returning to the vague parts during the revision stage.

Typing, a writer is bound by the conventional page size, font size, and margins of the word processing program. However, while handwriting a draft, the writer uses a size and stroke that makes him or her feel most comfortable. After reading Sellers’ brilliant testimonial, I would love to require my college level students to hand write all first drafts, but I believe the practice should be both taught and encouraged in younger grades. Do students even learn cursive anymore?

(Photo by photosteve101)

5 Ways to Make Your Writing More Specific

The comment I make most often to my writing students has nothing to do with grammar or punctuation. It has nothing to do with sentence structure or the number of sentences in a paragraph. I’ll usually write these two words on the board at the beginning of class to serve as a reminder. Can you guess them?

The comment I make most often to my writing students has nothing to do with grammar or punctuation. It has nothing to do with sentence structure or the number of sentences in a paragraph. The comment consists of only two words, which I’ll usually write on the board at the beginning of class to serve as a reminder. Can you guess what the two words are?

Be specific. Good writing is specific on many levels: through its diction, imagery, and syntax. I believe that 100% of non-professional writers could stand to be more specific. Specificity captures the reader’s attention and doesn’t allow that attention to wander. It personalizes the writing and makes it unique to the writer. It also helps the writer convey his or her arguments in a stronger manner and in a way that’s less likely to be challenged.

Now that you’re convinced of the benefits of specificity, you probably want to know how you can make your writing more specific. Below are five ways that you can take your writing from general to precise.

1. Conduct a verb inventory. The biggest misconception student writers have about specificity is that they should use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. However, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs can weaken the specificity by distracting the reader with unnecessary words. Instead of cluttering your writing, make better use of the words you already have. Conducting a verb inventory means underlining your verbs and asking yourself if you could exchange them with stronger verbs. For example, instead of “walk,” could you use “stroll” or “creep”? Pay special attention to forms of “to be” verbs; not only can you usually replace “to be” verbs with stronger, more appropriate verbs, but the “to be” verbs may also be a sign that your writing is passive.

2. Reconsider five-dollar words. Sometimes, a five-dollar word (multi-syllabic word that’s often difficult to pronounce) can help you make your writing more specific; in some cases, using a “big” word is the only way for you to convey your meaning. In most cases, however, five-dollar words can obscure your meaning, especially if you’re using many five-dollar words in a row. Don’t avoid five-dollar words completely, but remember that any carefully chosen word, no matter how impressive it sounds, can convey a specific idea.

3. Support with examples grounded in reality. If you find yourself using words like “most,” “some,” “all,” “people,” or “everyone,” you’re probably not being specific enough. Try replacing the first three words with a specific number, and the last two words with a more specific group of people, like “children,” “college students,” or “Americans.” History and personal experience are your Bank of Specificity. Draw from what you know and speak to specific instances. Use generalities and risk stereotyping or constructing a weak argument.

4. Consider proper nouns. To expand on the previous tip, consider using proper nouns when appropriate. Because proper nouns, by their nature, refer to a specific person or group of people, using a proper noun is an easy way to ensure that you’re being specific.

5. Revise, revise, revise. Specificity never happens on a rough draft. Twenty revisions later, I’m still finding ways to make my own short stories more specific. Revising for specificity means asking yourself if you’re getting the most value for your words. I like to compare it to analyzing your monthly expenses. Do you still need that ridiculous cable bill, or could you downgrade your plan to save money? Strive for efficiency.

(Photo by juggernautco)

10 Lies about Writing You’ve Told Yourself

Working one-on-one with writing students, I’ve been shocked by the misconceptions they reveal. Some of these misconceptions were passed on by teachers who either don’t appreciate the craft of writing or don’t have the patience to work with students who require extra help.

Working one-on-one with writing students, I’ve been shocked by the misconceptions they reveal.

Some of these misconceptions were passed on by teachers who either don’t appreciate the craft of writing or don’t have the patience to work with students who require extra help. Other misconceptions are simply lies that lazy students tell themselves in order to avoid the hard work that writing requires. In this post, I describe the 10 most common lies that students have told themselves about writing. Have you believed any of them?

1. You can’t write. I’ve had teachers tell me, in the least constructive ways possible, that writing just wasn’t my forte. Luckily, I was able to discover my passion for writing independently of school, and I honed my skills until I was able to find teachers who could help and did believe in me. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t write. With practice and patience, any person can learning how to write effectively; the learning is a life-long process.

2. You need to use “big” words to sound smart. I’m guilty of it! When you don’t feel confident writing about your subject matter, you may be tempted to mask your uncertainty with “big” words that don’t necessarily mean anything. Choose a topic that makes you feel comfortable and be sure your sentences mean something. Using five-dollar words, you’ll only impress readers who are too lazy to figure out what you really mean.

3. You should never begin a sentence with “because,” “and,” or “but.” Whenever I tell a student it’s okay to begin a sentence with “because,” he or she looks at me as if I’ve insulted a close family member. “But my teachers always told me I couldn’t do that!” The student will protest. Your teachers told you to avoid these words because it’s easier to advise a student to avoid “because,” “and,” or “but” completely than to explain situations when the use of these words is acceptable. Instead of avoiding these words, use them wisely.

4. If you can’t get published, your writing sucks. The publishing market is competitive, and publishers only take chances on books they think will be sure-fire hits. I know many talented writers haven’t published books. Don’t judge a writer based on his or her publishing history and, most importantly, don’t get discouraged if you haven’t been able to publish your work. Consider the lack of opportunity as a chance for you to become a better writer!

5. You can’t write without inspiration, or you have “writer’s block.” Writer’s block does not exist. It’s a figment of the lazy person’s imagination. Many times, I believed I had nothing to write, but once I committed myself to brainstorming or free-writing, the ideas started to flow. The trick is to start writing, not censor your ideas, and allow your inner idea-machine to generate steam.

6. The “rules” of grammar are inflexible. If you ever have a chance to study the history of English grammar, you should do so; armed with the knowledge that the “rules” of grammar have changed tremendously since the 16th century, you’ll think your English teachers were crazy for being such sticklers about comma usage. It’s true that grammar is a set of rules the writer should follow in order to make him or herself understood. However, some rules regarding comma usage are negotiable.

7. The main goal of creative writing is to be as descriptive as possible. I used to think that in order to write creatively I had to employ as many descriptions as possible. I was so caught up with my ability to create new images that I neglected how bored my reader would be. A well-placed image in an otherwise not-very-descriptive story is more valuable than a plotless story filled with dozens of images. Choose your images wisely or risk losing the attention of your reader.

8. Writing is a solitary act. When writing an academic essay, college students will usually retreat to some dark corner in the library where they can work alone the night before the assignment is due. The physical act of writing, which involves the writer typing or handwriting his or her thoughts, may be a solitary act. However, writers should actively seek feedback; the writing process requires the writer to ask questions and make conversation.

9. Constructing an outline is annoying, so why bother? If I had a quarter for every time a student tells me that an outline isn’t required because he or she has been writing successfully without an outline for many years, thank-you-very-much, I’d be writing this blog post on my diamond-encrusted MacBook. An outline is an extra step that requires time. However, students who don’t invest the time in making an outline usually receive poor marks when it comes to organization. I myself do not enjoy making traditional outlines, but I had to learn how to make a traditional outline first before I could come up with an outlining system that works for me. Yes, I outline.

10. Revising and proofreading are the same things. Changing spelling errors, adding a few commas, and correcting a run-on sentence are great examples of proofreading, but they do not qualify as revision. Revision is a process that requires the writer to distance him or herself from the work and then come back to the work with courage. When revising, the writer may cut or add whole paragraphs, rethink an argument, or reconsider sentence structure. Proofreading is a final step, done after revision.

(Photo by karindalziel)

Why Bother Writing More Than 140 Characters?

A few years after my exploratory dips into writing, I came of age at the very same time that updating social networks and engaging constantly with a screen became part of a young person’s routine. I waddled through my formative years with one foot in the “boredom” that Feller describes and one foot in distraction.

Despite a particular hatred of literature class and some teachers’ assertions that I lacked talent for writing, a 16-year-old version of myself felt compelled to explore her feelings through the written word.

Why? Composing music, painting, and dancing required training and materials I didn’t have. At the very least, I was literate and had access to both pen and paper. And few other mediums could ensure a teenage girl, as long as she is careful, privacy.

At first, my writing was self centered. I chronicled typical teenage disappointments: being ignored by boys, feeling unsure about the shape of my body, and wondering more and more what I wanted from friendships with other girls. Later, I learned that I could use imagery to camouflage my confessionals from people who weren’t meant to read them. After a time, the effort became pleasurable and comforting; I could manipulate my surroundings by writing about them. When I realized that the structure of a sentence could wield power and even impose order on a world that made absolutely no sense to me, I sparked in myself an interest in literature unrelated to what I was learning in school. I embarked on an education of my own, both voraciously reading and writing everything my teachers would never assign.

I don’t often think about my roots as a writer, but an article called “The Reader and Technology“, recently published by Granta, made me wonder if my interest in writing had anything to do with boredom and if future generations, protected perhaps from boredom, will be able to experience the call to write.

Toby Litt admits, “If the computer games which exist now had existed back in 1979 I would not have read any books, I think; I would not have seen writing as an adequate entertainment…Similarly, I find it difficult to understand why any eleven-year-old of today would be sufficiently bored to turn inward for entertainment”.

A few years after my exploratory dips into writing, I came of age at the very same time that updating social networks and engaging constantly with a screen became part of a young person’s routine. I waddled through my formative years with one foot in the “boredom” that Feller describes and one foot in distraction.

My writing, which at first came naturally, sometimes began to feel like a chore. Many times, I regretted the hours I spent sitting in front of a computer chatting on Facebook or looking through photos posted by some boy I liked. Blogging became important to me because it allowed me to continue writing – perhaps not with depth but with consistency – in those brief moments between distractions, when I didn’t have time for sustained thought, the prerequisite for writing.

I easily could have abandoned writing, dismissing it as an exercise that requires too much effort and dedicated focus in a world that offers too much distraction. However, I think what made me immune, to a certain extent, from distraction is that writing was an essential part of the story I told myself to help me figure out who I was and am. Despite my uncertainty about everything else, I knew what I loved – writing – and I would need to remain true to that or risk losing myself.

I feel lucky to have had the chance to begin to explore writing before social networking because I was able to glimpse what writing could do for me. At least I could understand what it meant to write in a world that was just a little less saturated with information.

Even so, I have hope for future generations of writers and disagree with Litt’s idea that an eleven-year old today could never be bored enough. Though not bombarded with as much technology, that 16-year-old version of myself could have been and was distracted by thousands of other pursuits: shopping, chatting on the phone, listening to music, making ice cream sundaes with her best friend, worrying about what a boy thinks, and reading magazines.

Distractions have always and will always exist for those who do not want to confront themselves. Some people will find looking inward and exploring the self a worthy pursuit no matter what new video game has just been released. And I believe that the people who surrender themselves to the sometimes terrifyingly unfamiliar landscape of the mind never really have any other choice other than to pay attention to that gnawing “boredom” and follow it. If they can continue to do so in the midst of distraction, then perhaps their art will be all the more richer for it.

Whether or not those people will find an audience is a topic I don’t yet think I’m brave enough to explore.

(Photo by cambodia4kidsorg)

Beware Writers Who Make You Feel Inferior

Some contemporary personal essays and memoirs that I’ve been reading possess a quality that annoys me deeply, but I’ve been having trouble articulating that quality and would like to try to explore it here.

“There’s nothing dramatic about self-inflicted crisis.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, written by PhD student and blogger Joseph Kugelmass, and how it relates to the genre of creative nonfiction, which I’ve been exploring lately. Some contemporary personal essays and memoirs that I’ve been reading possess a quality that annoys me deeply, but I’ve been having trouble articulating that quality and would like to try to explore it here.

Kugelmass was writing in response to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which I had been reading but couldn’t continue reading because, despite my best hopes, it possessed the quality that I’m going to try to articulate. I also had the same reaction to a personal essay titled “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner“, recently published by The Atlantic. And just to show you that I don’t simply hate the genre of creative nonfiction, I would like to demonstrate how essays like Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and Mark Doty’s “The Unwriteable” can tackle extremely personal subject matter without annoying the reader.

I first became a fan of Strayed’s work while she was writing under the pseudonym of “Sugar” in an advice column for The Rumpus. I was so excited to finally learn her real identity, which she revealed earlier this year, and even more excited to learn that her memoir, which describes many experiences alluded to in her column, was being published.

I purchased Wild despite reading the New York Times review, which was positive but not convincing. The reviewer himself admits, “There were very frightening moments, but nothing particularly extraordinary happened to her.” I decided the problem was simply that I was reading the excerpts out of context and that the summary could do it no justice. I purchased the book and read the first 50 pages quickly and voraciously, noting that I had read such a book before (the first 50 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are quite similar).

The way Strayed reacts to her mother’s death, which is the beginning of her own story, made me feel like I don’t love my own mother enough; she is so completely and utterly shattered by the death of her mother that she cheats on her husband, shoots heroin, and sells all her belongings to spend a summer backpacking on the Pacific Coast Trail. Placed in her situation, no doubt would I be profoundly sad, but would I go to any of these extremes? Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I would behave so destructively. Does that mean I don’t care enough?

Of the decision to backpack, Strayed writes:

I would walk that line, I decided — or at least as much of it as I could in about a hundred days. I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men.

What I hear in the narrator’s voice are self-pity, indifference, and a tiny bit of boastfulness. And why not? Why would the reader want to read about a completely purposeless journey? Where is the self reflection? Where is the hard work of growth? Where is the humor? Despite some of the action – sex, encounters with wild animals, bruised toes – , the memoir lacks drama because it relies on self-imposed conflict but doesn’t bring perspective to it. Writes Kugelmass:

I could wake up tomorrow, empty seven dollars in quarters into my pockets, and try to walk to Reno. It would be perilous. I could easily die. But it wouldn’t make a great story, and neither does Wild….Wild is the most self-aggrandizing tale of trauma that I’ve read in many years. Yes, it’s horrible to suffer abuse and poverty, but that does not explain or excuse every single unethical act an adult chooses to perform. People who think it does become abusers themselves. Has Strayed ever met a junkie or an adulterer who didn’t have a sob story? I certainly never have.

Kugelmass’ insight could teach a writer interested in crafting a personal essay or memoir how to write about personal experience in a way that doesn’t alienate the reader. In the midst of my thinking about this subject, I stumbled upon another piece of writing that inspired the same gut reaction I had while reading Wild.

I originally started reading John Fram’s “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner” because I was fascinated by the subject matter. However, like Strayed’s memoir, the essay made me feel like I’m incapable of loving another person. Would I stay with my partner if I found out he was HIV positive? I don’t know. I especially don’t know what I would do if I had only been with that person for less than a year, which is the case in the essay.

Connecting the observations I had about Wild with the observations I had about the HIV essay, I discovered that I’m wary of writers who write about personal experience in a way that pushes the reader away. While reading both essays, I felt like I wasn’t X enough, like I wasn’t human enough to know what these writers meant.

When the writer romanticizes experience, when he or she fails to put enough time and space between him/herself and the piece of writing, and when he or she isn’t ready to fully let it go, to make it not only personal but now universal, then the writer alienates the reader. The writer should have 1) purpose (why tell it now?), 2) perspective, and 3) a desire not just to tell the story but also the hope that the reader can learn something from it.

One of my favorite examples of an essay that’s extremely introspective yet not at all indulgent is called “The Unwriteable” by Mark Doty, originally published in the spring 2012 issue of Granta. I actually heard Doty read the essay at a bar in Manhattan before I had a chance to buy the copy and read it. Rarely does a piece of contemporary creative nonfiction make me feel like it took the author courage to write it, but I approached Doty after the reading and told him he was courageous.

He writes, “I have been a masked man – not for a long time now, but there was a period in my life, in my twenties, when I – how to say it? – lived in hiding, lived a double life, was sexually duplicitous? All problematic terms. I was married to a woman and having sex with a man.” Like Strayed, Doty explores adultery and , and like Fram, he includes the theme of homosexuality. On one hand, a reader could argue that Doty’s conflict, like Strayed’s and Fram’s, is self-inflicted. Still exploring and discovering his sexuality, Doty cheats on his wife. Why should we feel sorry for him?

Doty continues,

We got drunk on Scotch, talked for hours in a state of increasing enrapturement, and made out in my car. ‘Made out’ is deceptively casual. I think it must have felt momentous to me: I must have felt I was doing something I was supposed to do. These statements are speculative because I feel, in some sense, I wasn’t there: I was giving myself up to a current, I wasn’t making a decision, I was being carried in the direction the world intended….

Naivite isn’t the best excuse, but how can we fault him for being so honest with us?

Another example of a deeply personal essay that still manages to engage the reader is Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”. Didion writes about her experiences first moving to Manhattan in her twenties.

That first night I opened my window on the bus into town and watched for the skyline, but all I could see were the wastes of Queens and big signs that said MIDTOWN TUNNEL THIS LANE and then a flood of summer rain (even that seemed remarkable and exotic, for I had come out of the West where there was no summer rain), and for the next three days I sat wrapped in blankets in a hotel room air conditioned to 35 degrees and tried to get over a cold and a high fever. It did not occur to me to call a doctor, because I knew none, and although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?

That last question, so simple, is a line I consider one of the most memorable of all that I have ever read. Her tone is self deprecating yet sympathetic at the same time. The reader can tell that the narrator is a woman who has done the hard work of growing, of finding perspective, of being able to look back at her former self with both awe and pity.

Many people have asked the question of Strayed’s memoir: why now? Why is she choosing to write about and publish her experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail now, 17 years later? I think a good personal essay or memoir doesn’t make the reader ask that question. The narrator’s reason for telling the story, no matter how far away he or she has moved from the triggering event, should be apparent.

In “The Unwriteable”, Doty answers that question directly. “Why write this now? Because Alex is dead, just this week, of cancer. My wife is years gone, and now him, and thus of the three of us I live to tell the untold tale, what I promised, at least tacitly, I wouldn’t say.”

Didion writes, “But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York.”

And in writing this blog post, I was hoping to explain to myself and possibly to others why some pieces of creative nonfiction alienate the reader and why others, despite similar subject matter and a deeply introspective tone, engage us and invite us to reconsider our own lives because we are all fundamentally the same.

(Photo by trix0r)