Your Author Photo Isn’t Cute Enough

Walking past a local bookstore, my boyfriend and I noticed a line of people beginning to form outside. So devoted were these people that they were sitting in lawn chairs or propping themselves up with backpacks. We peeked into the window to see who would be visiting the bookstore that day.

Walking past a local bookstore, my boyfriend and I noticed a line of people beginning to form outside. So devoted were these people that they were sitting in lawn chairs or propping themselves up with backpacks.

We peeked into the window to see who would be visiting the bookstore that day. Lauren Conrad, a television personality best known for her appearances on MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills, would be reading from and signing copies of her book The Fame Game.

I have nothing against Lauren Conrad. In fact, I think she’s rather cute and savvy. I thumbed through a copy of her book, on prominent display inside the bookstore. Though Conrad did strike me with her radiance emanating from her author photo, she didn’t exactly win me over with a plot centered around petty jealousy and words like “Botox” and “backstabbing”. On one hand, I’m charmed by her; on the other hand, I had to keep reminding myself that she’s not a writer, in the traditional sense.

By even considering buying her book and attending her reading just to catch a glimpse of her (I decided it wasn’t worth battling the crowd of adolescents), was I supporting what writer Chuck Klosterman refers to as the loss of a “middle class of writers”? In a recent interview with BULL Men’s Fiction, Klosterman admits, “What worries me is that the culture of the publishing industry is really going to polarize what books exist…And so the only kind of people who are going to write books are going to be those who are already rich and can write a book without an advance, or whoever is the new Kafka who writes because he loves it and has to.”

I reluctantly (only because I don’t want to agree) agree with Klosterman’s prediction. The only people receiving huge advances for their books are people who have already attained some kind of celebrity, whether through their non-writing career or because they’ve already written a best-selling blockbuster. On the opposite end of the spectrum, writers write without any hope for an advance, simply because writing is their passion. Can a balance exist?

Upon further inspection of the bookstore’s window, where readings are advertised, my boyfriend and I realized that about 90% of future visiting authors are people known for their celebrity, not for their writing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that none of the visiting “authors” actually wrote their books.

I find it rather discouraging that a bookstore doesn’t believe a reading series filled with writers could generate enough interest in the community. I was also very discouraged by the self-indulgent nature of the displayed books, many of them memoirs, which offer solipsistic stories that will matter only as long as that person’s reality show exists.

I don’t blame people for wanting to see a celebrity they admire, but the interest in celebrity-hood, which has spilled over magazine racks filled with tabloids, fuels the publishers’ incentive to keep publishing books by people who don’t write. I know that publishing is a business and that publishers need to sell books, but I wonder if these monolithic companies cave too much to consumers’ most guilty pleasures. Maybe if we didn’t make so many of these throw-away reads so accessible, publishers could spend time putting the talent of their marketing departments to work, trying to sell books that might be a little more difficult to sell.

Until then, writers everywhere will have to start going to the gym, getting their hair done on a regular basis, and trying to land a role in one of the many reality shows that networks like Bravo are constantly cooking.

(Photo by Ashley Cooper)

Everything Is Amazing for Five Minutes

I can think of some contemporary authors who have defined me as a writer and who have also defined the Generation Y-ers of the literary community, but I’m not sure any one piece of writing speaks for and represents the generation as a whole. Would you agree or disagree?

“Everything is amazing for five minutes,” said one of my colleagues, expressing worry about the possibility that future generations will have nothing to define them. Will anything matter longer than the length of time it takes to read an article on CNN or even Twitter?

As someone who is very concerned about the future not only of the publishing industry but also of the way we create and consume the written word, I tried to apply my colleague’s statement to writing. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill…Today people write as never before—texting, on blogs, with video cameras and cell phones, and, yes, even with traditional pen and paper. People write at home, at work, inside and out of school.” I have no doubt that being able to write well is a highly important skill, which, with time, will only become more and more essential.

However, I doubt that writers will continue to want to invest the time it takes to craft a well-written piece of writing when they know that readers can consume and forget that writing in a flash. Knowing how little the readers value the work, the writers will invest less effort, and the cycle will continue until we’ve evolved into a society filled with lazy writers and ungrateful readers.

My parents, who came of age in the 60s and early 70s, are members of the “baby boomer” generation, which was defined by beat, hippie, and feminist writing. Authors like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukoski, J.D. Salinger, Betty Friedan, and Erica Jong come to mind. I believe that most educated Americans, even if they don’t necessarily appreciate literature, have heard of at least one of those names and could probably pinpoint the time period when those authors wrote.

If you were to ask any educated American to name authors or works of writing that define Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (born between the late 70s and the late 80s), what texts would most people choose? I can think of some contemporary authors who have defined me as a writer and who have also defined the Generation Y-ers of the literary community, but I’m not sure any one piece of writing speaks for and represents the generation as a whole. Would you agree or disagree?

Why doesn’t our generation have any defining texts? Are books published today only worth the length of time they can remain trendy?

(Photo by Inti)

Violence as Narrative Drive in “The Hunger Games”

Every writer successfully crafting a narrative, just like any runner successfully crossing the finish line of a marathon, needs some kind of driving force. For a runner, that force might be years of training, headphones along with a good running playlist, and a carb-loaded meal eaten at just the right time.

“When you resort to violence to prove a point, you’ve just experienced a profound failure of imagination.” – Sherman Alexie

Every writer successfully crafting a narrative, just like any runner successfully crossing the finish line of a marathon, needs some kind of driving force. For a runner, that force might be years of training, headphones along with a good running playlist, and a carb-loaded meal eaten at just the right time.

Just like a runner, a writer can use tools and employ certain strategies to make the reader want to keep reading until the end; I call the thing that moves a narrative forward “narrative drive”. When I teach narrative drive to my creative writing students, I usually explain to them that a narrative can be driven by five different forces: plot, character, setting, form/language, or idea/concept.

A plot-driven story is any page-turner like a crime drama or mystery; think The DaVinci Code or Lord of the Rings. Examples of character-driven stories include The Catcher in the Rye or almost anything a student might read in a high school English Literature class. A setting-driven story is 1984 because the narrative depends on the fact that the world Orwell describes is so unlike the one where the reader lives. A book driven by form/language might be James Joyce’s Ulysses, and 1984 – in addition to be driven by setting – could also be driven by an idea/concept because of the way Orwell explores a dystopian future. As you can see, not all narratives are driven by just one force.

I’m especially interested in how best-selling authors like Suzanne Collins use narrative drive to their advantage, making books fly off the shelves. Excited to discover what makes The Hunger Games “tick”, I began reading it with an eye for its driving force.

Almost finished with the book, I have decided that the book is driven by a mix of plot and setting, with plot being the most dominant driving force. The book is indeed a page turner. However, the more I thought about what keeps making me want to turn the pages, the more I started to think about the violence very graphically described throughout the story. Did the violence, though cringe-worthy, make me want to keep reading? Violence is a plot device used in many plot-driven – especially crime and murder-mystery – stories.

When I first started reading The Hunger Games, I couldn’t help but think of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” (read it!), which describes a village’s annual lottery very similar to the one described in The Hunger Games. What’s different about Jackson’s story, however, is that the narrator describes no violence until the very end; still, the reader is compelled to keep reading from beginning to end because of all the mystery surrounding the premise of the lottery. In Collins’ novel, the violence is extremely explicit, and no secrets are kept from the reader. In fact, we keep reading because we want to indulge ourselves. We want to see the violence performed for our reading pleasure.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with including violence in a narrative, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Collins should have censored herself. However, I do believe that violence used as narrative drive can be rather perverse, a cheap trick. Even further, I believe violence used as narrative drive in a book marketed to young adults (American Library Association defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18; this just so happens to be the exact age group subject to violence in The Hunger Games) is clearly just a book-selling strategy, meaning the author is not as interested in exploring the idea of violence on a serious level as much as she’s interested in selling books.

In contrast, authors who use violence in their narratives but who also successfully use it to prove a greater, more important point include Dave Eggers (What Is the What) and Selah Saterstrom (The Meat and Spirit Plan). In the first novel, the narrator experiences violence in the form of war, while in the second work, the narrator experiences and inflicts violence upon herself. The descriptions are graphic and made me more uncomfortable than The Hunger Games ever could, but I’m still less disturbed by the violence in the first two books than by the violence in The Hunger Games because the violence in both those books is presented very carefully, with thoughtful and deep reflection done by the narrators. Violence described on a superficial level is simply gratuitous.

Many people would argue with me. I’ve heard readers search for deeper meaning in a book that I believe lacks meaning unless the reader is really trying to analyze the hell out of it. David Denby of The New Yorker writes, “Trying to explain the trilogy’s extraordinary popularity, critics and commentators have reached for metaphors. Perhaps it’s that the books offer a hyper-charged version of high school, an everyday place with incessant anxieties: constant judgment by adults; hazing, bullying, and cliques; and, finally, college-entry traumas. If you stretch the metaphor a bit, the books could be seen as a menacing fable of capitalism, in which an ethos of competition increasingly yields winner-take-all victors.” The thing is that readers don’t know what the violence is supposed to mean, and if people like Denby and I, who read and write seriously for a living, don’t know, then why should a 13-year-old know or even try to discover the reason for it?

Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I suspect that watching it will confirm my thoughts. The movie, edited slightly to reduce the amount of violence, loses the narrative drive, the very thing that holds The Hunger Games together and moves it forward. In his review of the film The Hunger Games, Denby writes, “[Gary] Ross consistently drains away all the tensions built into the grisly story—the growing wariness and suspicion that each teen-ager must feel as the number of those still alive begins to diminish, or the horror (or glee) that some of them experience as they commit murder.”

I don’t advocate banning The Hunger Games or advising readers to avoid it, but I do invite everyone to examine what it is that makes you want to turn the page.

(Photo by michi003)

The Danger of Impersonal Rejection

Can you imagine a famous writer corresponding with a no-name writer through a series of hand-written letters? Can you imagine such a correspondence lasting six years and the writers never meeting? Wouldn’t it be nice for every young writer to find that much support?

Can you imagine a famous writer corresponding with a no-name writer through a series of hand-written letters? Can you imagine such a correspondence lasting six years and the writers never meeting? Recently, I asked my creative writing students to read an excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke. These 10 collected letters chronicle the correspondence between Rilke and a young, aspiring poet Franz Kappus. Rilke reads Kappus’ poetry and advises him on matters of writing, relationships, and life. Wouldn’t it be nice for every young writer to find so much support and feedback from someone considered an expert?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea that digitally sending a piece of writing to a magazine, agent, or publisher can sometimes feel like sending writing to black hole, where the writing disappears. In the post, I meditated on how this ever-growing reality affects my attitude toward submitting work, but lately I’ve been spending more time thinking about how this trend of little-to-no-feedback affects a new generation of writers: my creative writing students and other ambitious young writers all over the world.

It’s true that a writer who’s going to “make it” needs to believe in him or herself first, without seeking validation from others. Conviction in one’s own abilities has been necessary since the invention of the printing press, when writers finally had the means of being able to share their work with others. However, I think very few aspiring writers would choose to continue writing if they hadn’t received validation and confirmation from someone – preferably someone who would know – that they should pursue writing.

A writer who decides at age 16 that her dream is to become a published novelist may keep writing for the next 10, even 20, years without ever receiving any professional feedback on her work. If she’s lucky enough to be able to study writing at school or have access to writing group, she might receive feedback from peers, classmates, or instructors. By reading the work written by her peers and by other great writers, she’ll probably figure out a few things on her own.

At some point, she may decide that her manuscript is polished enough to send to agents, contests, and maybe even small presses. Her manuscript could be excellent, but she wouldn’t know if the right person doesn’t see it. Given that her manuscript most likely sits in a pile with thousands of other manuscripts, her work may never see the light of day.

On the other hand, her manuscript might need a lot of work, but how will she ever know how to improve her writing? This young woman may be an otherwise talented writer with potential, but how is she to know where to shift her focus if no one is willing to give her even a sentence worth of feedback? What is she to do when many agents send form letters that read something like this: “Your writing is great, but your manuscript isn’t quite the right project for us.” Is the manuscript really great? Or does every person receive the same letter?

I’m sure that many people would argue with me, saying that no worthwhile writer should write to please an audience or publisher. For the most part, I think this is true. But doesn’t every writer want to make his or her work accessible to some kind of audience whether an audience of one or an audience of millions?

One way for the writer to escape the powerful gatekeeper is to consider self-publishing, which doesn’t require the approval of anyone but herself. But let’s be honest: very few people will buy a self-published book (or any book for that matter) unless they hear from a friend or a trusted source that the book is worthwhile. So why would the writer go through all the hard work and put forth the money that self-publishing requires if she didn’t have at least a hint from potential readers that all the work hours and money would be wisely spent?

I fear the lack of feedback in a society that makes it easy to avoid giving feedback is actually hurting the society’s creative future. The people who want to write will find a way to keep writing, but won’t they be better served by some tether, some correspondence with the gatekeepers, the people who decide what’s worth reading and publishing?

When my students ask me about what it’s like to continue writing outside of a creative writing class, I feel terrible letting them know that they will never, beyond this semester, find the same level of feedback and encouragement. It’s true that not all writers should be encouraged, but many of the students who shouldn’t be encouraged will eventually find that out themselves or simply lose interest in the pursuit. The ones who won’t give up are the ones who may not yet be prize-winning writers, but who still have so much to learn and need to be encouraged so that they can grow into the prize-winning writers they dream of becoming.

(Photo by Terwilliger911)

On Being Easy

In their final papers, many of my students admitted that they entered the semester with the notion that Intro. to Creative Writing would lead to an easy A and not require a lot of work. Well, they were surprised by assignments that were rigorous and demanding. Why do students expect creative writing to be so easy?

In their final papers, many of my students admitted that they entered the semester with the notion that Intro. to Creative Writing would lead to an easy A and not require a lot of work. Well, they were surprised by assignments that were rigorous and demanding.

Why do students expect creative writing to be so easy? Why hasn’t the discipline earned the same level of academic respect as composition or English literature?

In grad school, as the only MFA student in a composition pedagogy class filled with students studying (you guessed it!) composition pedagogy, I spent an entire semester researching this. I knew that my professor looked down on me, and I worked hard to prove to everyone that I was indeed a serious student and that my expertise was worth something.

I came to the conclusion that creative writing as an academic discipline isn’t taken seriously because a lot of people practice creative writing as a hobby. Few people write theses about postmodernism in their spare time or do rocket science in their basements. But anyone can write creatively, which is why a lot of my students came with the attitude that they already knew what they were doing.

However, in a world over-saturated with information, creative writers who actually want to be read must learn the techniques that will charm an audience. That is no easy task. And very few people can do it well.

Many of my students don’t think they will ever utilize creative writing in the workplace. But they are so sorely mistaken. Skills that students learn in creative writing are both practical and valuable. In fact, these skills can give an ambitious employee an edge over his/her coworkers or other people in the job applicant pool.

Just last week, my boss at my other job asked me to help him with a presentation that had nothing to do with creative writing. But, to make the presentation more interesting, I included a sample script with imaginary characters. My boss and I agreed that this would make the presentation more palatable. I mean, what’s the point of a presentation if no one pays attention to it?

Creative writing is not an easy A because I never graded the students’ creativity. Each one of my students expressed his or her creativity, in varying degrees. I gave them feedback about how they could improve the effectiveness of their message or push their imaginations.

Over the course of the semester, many of them were confused about their grade standing because I wasn’t giving any letter grades. But their final grades were based on whether or not they completed assignments, came to class consistently and on time, and followed directions.

When many students failed to complete assignments, come to class consistently and on time, and follow directions – yet still expected an easy A – I realized just how little respect students have for creative writing. Wouldn’t any other professor of any other discipline expect and enforce the same policies?

Creative writers may never find the cure for cancer or solve world hunger, but they may be able to write about those things in such a way that inspires the right person for the job.

(Photo by howieluvzsus)

Blogging as a Creative Writing Exercise

Not everyone who has a blog uses it to create high-brow literature, but bloggers do write to charm a unique audience, one that’s unique in that it can interact with them. As a writer, blogging helps me supplement my other writing projects. It helps me discover my own voice, explore my characters, and experiment with different styles.

Blogs can be literary forms, just as much as short stories and poems are literary forms. Not everyone who has a blog uses it to create high-brow literature, but bloggers do write to charm a unique audience, one that’s unique in that it can interact with them.

As a writer, blogging helps me supplement my other writing projects. It helps me discover my own voice, explore my characters, and experiment with different styles.

I’ve been struggling with a short story that I’m trying to revise. A friend who is helping me revise this story said that my first person narrator should speak more honestly, like I do in my Comma ‘n Sentence blog posts.

No matter how I restructure this story, the characters remain flat and lifeless. I get so caught up in the language that I forget my characters need to resemble people. I just can’t seem to get inside their heads.

On this blog, I write in my voice, and I try my best to penetrate the surface of whatever subject matter I am exploring. So how can I get the characters in my stories to speak in a similar, substantial voice?

Earlier this semester, I asked my students to complete a faux blogging exercise that required them to create a concept for a blog and write three blog posts in the voice of a fictional or celebrity character. My students wrote blog posts from the perspective of Spongebob Squarepants, Paris Hilton, and George W. Bush, among others.

My favorite posts explored an emotional side of the character that most people never see. For example, in one blog, “Katy Perry” wrote very detailed posts about the nail polish she is wearing. The posts were believable because Katy does like unique nail polish, but they were also creative because Katy doesn’t actually write about her nail polish. The student had to use her imagination to create the content. She was able to maintain Katy’s voice throughout the posts by mimicking what she does know about Katy’s persona and the way she speaks.

The blogging exercise was supposed to inspire my students to think about how they could write from the perspective of someone else. Now that I’m struggling with writing in another character’s voice, I should probably follow my own advice.

Blogging requires a certain candor and simplicity that I sometimes lose when I’m writing fiction because I’m so focused on language and structure. When I blog, my goal is for the writing to be as clear and direct as possible. I have no idea why I can’t carry that over to my fiction writing.

But I think a great exercise for me would be to write “blog posts” in the voice of the characters I just can’t seem to penetrate. I might be able to get to know them better and let them help me discover the emotions that I really need to write. If I can uncover their insights, musings, and thoughts, their stories should write itself. In this way, I will be able to build multi-layered fiction.

(Photo by Tony the Misfit)

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

I asked my students to come up with a plan for the future of their writing lives. If they want to continue writing outside of class, how will they motivate themselves? What will inspire them? Where will they go to write? Who will they ask to read their work? Many of my students decided that forcing yourself to write just ruins the experience.

I asked my students to come up with a plan for the future of their writing lives. If they want to continue writing outside of class, how will they motivate themselves? What will inspire them? Where will they go to write? Who will they ask to read their work?

Many of my students decided that forcing yourself to write just ruins the experience. You should write when you feel inspired and not worry about making it happen. If you must force yourself to write, you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway.

I both agree and disagree. I must force myself to write. I love the act of writing but sitting down to a blank page or a story that I know needs a lot of work makes me anxious and exhausted. If I didn’t force myself to tackle these things, I’d never probably never write anything.

Based on my students’ logic, I should probably just stop trying.

However, I do try because I know that, once I start, I will enter my “happy place”. Once I find my momentum or start tinkering with words and sentences, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. And usually, when I force myself to sit through the uncomfortable feeling of beginning – even if I don’t finish with something perfect (I never do) – what I do gain is something more than I had when I started, which was nothing.

If I updated this blog only when I felt inspired, I’d probably never update it at all. Having an active blog is important to me so I stick to a schedule. Many times, when I sit down to write a blog post, I have no idea what I’m going to write. But I always write something, and I usually surprise myself – sitting with my thoughts for a few minutes reveals that I have more than a few things on my mind. And, even though many of my posts are far from perfect, at least I can see that I have something written where nothing before existed. I can only move forward from there.

I frequently feel inspired, but I don’t always feel like writing. When I was younger and had more free time, I could sit down with a pen and paper and capture every inspired moment. Maybe my students take for granted the time they have to daydream document their thoughts. These days, when I feel inspired, I’m probably busy with something else or about to fall asleep. But carrying those thoughts, when you’re inclination is to write them, can be a huge burden.

In an interview with the Paris Review, writer Fran Lebowitz said, “…I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Scheduling time to write can be cathartic. I know that when I force myself to write, even if I don’t immediately feel inspired, eventually something will spark emotion or an idea. If I don’t necessarily feel inspired to work on one thing, then I scrap it temporarily. But I won’t stop writing. I’ll focus more closely on my blog or try to develop another story or poem.

Anyway, if you’re serious enough about writing that you want to develop it to the point of completion, you’ll have to revise. Revision is not easy; you’ll have to be honest with yourself and trudge through something that you likely don’t want to revisit. You’ll most likely have to force yourself to revise, but knowing that you’re most likely improving the piece helps.

As a class, we concluded that, if you have interest in writing for yourself only, then you can wait for inspiration to strike. But if you have interest in writing for an audience, any audience, you are going to have to motivate yourself beyond waiting for that aha moment.

(Photo by Bohman)

In the Beginning, I Had a False Start

In writing, as in life, a temporal beginning does not always make for the best beginning. Amateur, even professional, fiction writers tend to start a story at its chronological beginning. Because we think chronologically, our natural inclination is to begin a story with a character waking up from a dream or by introducing a stranger.

When we say “the beginning”, we usually mean a measure of time. Your date of birth marks the beginning of your life, your eyes opening mark the beginning of your day.

But the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to take action, “to begin”. I’m sure the moment you wake up isn’t the moment you feel most human. I usually don’t feel human until 10 AM.

In writing, as in life, a temporal beginning does not always make for the best beginning. Amateur, even professional, fiction writers – in their first drafts – tend to start a story at its chronological beginning. Because we think and remember chronologically, our natural inclination is to begin a story with a character waking up from a dream or by introducing the new stranger in town.

But those are not always the most interesting places to begin.

Of course, traditional narrative is linear, which means it moves from beginning to end. Think of your favorite novels or stories. How many begin at the temporal beginning? How many begin in the center of the action and then extend outward? How many begin at the end?

How can you find the beginning of your story? Just assume that the first beginning you write is going to be the wrong beginning. But you need to start somewhere! Don’t feel too badly about your false starts. You will write to discover your beginning, even if that happens 12 pages into what you’ve written.

One of the first things you should do, when you evaluate your rough draft, is ask yourself: where does this story really begin? If you write a 15-page story, you’ll probably be angry when you find your beginning at page 12.

Anything before the beginning usually deflates the story. Think of the story as a balloon you’re trying to fill with helium so that you can let it float. If you’re struggling with the story, you just can’t seem to fill that balloon with helium . It inflates then deflates, inflates then deflates. You are not good with the helium tank. You let out all the air. But once you find your beginning, the balloon inflates and grows steadily larger.

Just remind yourself – you would have never found your beginning if you hadn’t written everything leading up to it. The same way that many people have come before you, many words may come before your story’s beginning.

Writers usually struggle with endings, but I think beginnings are exponentially more difficult to write. Your characters help you arrive at an ending, but a beginning can begin anywhere.

And isn’t life like that? Don’t we all have false starts? Doesn’t it take some of us years to start living? If you think writing is hard, try living.

(Photo by russelljsmith)

Not Far from the Maddening Lib

Yesterday, my students and I discussed literary magazines and their role in literary culture. I think my students were surprised by the broad range of subject matter that writers cover (a poem about photographing snakes, a story about drunk girls in stilettos, another poem about a burning Christmas tree) and how a magazine exists to suit every interest.

Yesterday, my students and I discussed literary magazines and their role in literary culture. I think my students were surprised by the broad range of subject matter that writers cover (a poem about photographing snakes, a story about drunk girls in stilettos, another poem about a burning Christmas tree) and how a magazine exists to suit every interest.

Many creative writers write because it’s the only mode of expression that allows them to do things ad libitum (ad lib), or “as you wish”. If you had the chance to write whatever you wanted, wouldn’t you try to push the boundaries?

I was showing off an issue of one of my favorite literary magazines, Tin House, and explaining to them what I liked about the magazine’s various features: stories, poems, essays, interviews, book reviews, pictures, even games!

I flipped to a two-page spread of a mad lib, which the editors had created by deleting words from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. I wanted to prove to my students that literary magazines can be fun and even interactive!

“Let’s do the mad lib!” The chorus of voices overwhelmed me.

We had reached the end of class, and I had already finished my lesson. The fact that a literary magazine was getting them so excited brought a huge smile to my face. So I told each student to share the first word that came to mind: ninja, derelict, placenta, Kanye West, and toad were just a few.

What made this mad lib unique was that the blanks didn’t specify a part of speech. So my students were free to choose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and even adverbs, even though those parts of speech didn’t necessarily fit in the context of the story.

I wrote each word in the corresponding blank. When we finished completing the blanks, I read the story out loud (you can read the story here). I could barely finish reading it because we were all laughing so hard.

Yes, the exercise was funny, but I actually liked doing this mad lib because it forced us all to reconsider how words can and cannot bend their parts of speech. Even though a lot of the words didn’t necessarily match the part-of-speech that Poe intended, they still somehow seemed to work in the context.

For example, if you use your imagination, you might be able to imagine how a word like “disingenuous” could be a noun, or how a word like “snowflake” could be a verb.

Also, this exercise made a story that we’ve all heard a million times (assuming that you’ve studied Poe in an English class) seem new again. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is actually a brilliant story, but many boring English teachers have ruined it for students. Despite the fact that we butchered the story, it still retained its original meaning and tone. Playing with a story can make it fun again!

The process of completing a mad lib, where anything goes, mimics the process of creative writing. When you approach a blank page, you never know what might happen. Opening yourself to the possibility of touching the unknown is sometimes scary, but the result will always surprise you. And sometimes even make you laugh.

Magic Tricks of the Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by kennymatic)