Five things I believe about writing in general:
It is more important to be interesting than brilliant. Before a written work can be uplifting, edifying, important, or remembered, it must first be read by someone. When a reader puts your work down without reading it, it ceases to exist. First, it must entertain.
Note: This laptop dictionary defines entertain first and foremost as to provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment. That’s the word’s most common contemporary use. But the two creaky old ink and paper dictionaries on my shelves define it differently. My old Webster’sCollege Dictionary defines it first as to hold together, to maintain: And The fifteen pound four inch thick Random House Standard Dictionary defines the word “entertain” as to hold the interest of. That’s the way I’m using it here.
According to Janet Burroway in the textbook Writing Fiction, the poet William Stafford used to tell his students to write to their LOWEST standards of literacy. He says the students always corrected: You meant our HIGHEST standards. But he did not. He meant write with coherence, unity, and comprehensiveness in mind. Everything else you have to offer the world will follow. He believed that more new writing failed because of overreaching with pretensions of greatness than by aiming too low and simply writing well. Note: there are no latent geniuses. If you are a genius, it will come to the surface of your writing. If you are not a genius, your attempts to sound like one will also be revealed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take chances. But they should be authentic attempts at writing truly, not attempts at sounding writerly.
Hemingway said to write the truest sentence you can. And although pretentious writing is often rewarded in our society, that doesn’t make it any better. For an interesting essay on this subject Google B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto, published first in part as an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, July 2001, and then as a book of the same title. To give you an idea about the tone of this piece Myers says, “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'--not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”
I don’t agree with everything Meyers says, but I do flee from writing that sounds as he put it, “writerly”on first glance, only to dissolves into nonsense when examined.
There was a good example of this, in my opinion, in a quote I read from an essay in which one of our most famous living writers posits that in writing memoirs or personal essays we act on a longing to revisit parts of our past in the way that rivers, she said, seek to return to their old, former channels, now dry and overgrown with brush and trees. It’s a lovely metaphor, but anyone with a knowledge of riparian hydrology--or for that matter, anyone who ever took earth science in high school--knows that just the opposite is true: as rivers age they leave those oxbows behind because their singular intent (if I may continue the pathetic fallacy of personification and intentionality here) is to run straight to the sea by carving the shortest and most direct route there from their sources.
2.) While I believe in the need to write for readers, holding a reader’s attention is not a license to write poorly. And the popularity of a book is not a measure of its quality. According to Wikipedia, McDonalds sells 54 million hamburgers a day; that doesn’t make it good food. For some of us, that doesn’t even make it food, period. See above, The DaVinci Code.
3.) I believe that the admonition “Write what you know,” is great advice often misunderstood. In undergrad or intro to writing workshops I run into people who say “I want my story to say . . . .” They have some point to make, or some effect they intend to produce in the reader’s mind –they know what it is even before they sit down to write a piece. They see creative writing as a transfer of knowledge or information, or a delivery system for an idea. I see that attitude kill stories and essays all the time; I don’t teach poetry writing, but I’m sure that kind of thematic thinking has slain a few poems as well. I believe that, in all genres, creative writing should be an act of discovery for the artist.
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” (Robert Frost)
Eudora Welty says: “If you haven’t surprised yourself you haven’t yet written.”
My way of saying the same thing is “write what you wonder about; use what you know.”
But my favorite quote on the subject comes from Grace Paley, who says, “Write from what you know into what you don’t yet know.”
4.) At the other end of the spectrum, I believe that as Janet Burroway says, the word creativity has been “devalued to the extent that it has come to mean a random gush of self-expression.” She’s right, the word has been devalued by that new meaning. Unfortunately, admiration for what she calls gushing self-expression has not dwindled in any way. In many circles (and in some writing workshops), creativity and imagination are still vastly over-rated. Noting that a story or a poem is a mess, confusing, poorly written etc, “but that it is a very creative idea” is no compliment. Small children and chimpanzees are creative. Anyone can imagine an idea or a subject for a story or a poem. It takes a writer willing to do the hard work of revision to turn that into something worth reading, something artistic, fresh ---and yes, entertaining. I believe skill will trump imagination every day of the week.
5) I believe as I’ve heard said, that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned. --mostly by example: by teaching students to read like writers, by saying “Look at how this writer did this. Look at the effect and look how it was produced.”
I’m far from the first to say that you will learn more from reading good writers than from writing workshops. But I’ll also add that HOW you read is more important than WHAT you read. There is something to be learned from almost any successful piece of writing. Again, The DaVinci Code might be “horrible,” as my student put it. But the guy knows something about compelling plot writing. Once more, what can be taught is reading like a writer.
On Monday: Five Things I Believe About Fiction in Particular
Following my confession about my general ignorance of High Literature and my crush on Jane Eyre, I’d like to argue why the baggy old capital “C” Canon, while no longer venerated as widely as it once was, might still be useful to us here in the program.
Even if you set aside the equally baggy old and rather vague notion that a writer should be well rounded (meaning well read) and familiar with the world of literature and its history, there is a simple pragmatic reason to read the capital “G” Great Books: to avoid a Tower of Babel when we attempt to discuss the craft of writing in classrooms or workshops. Because, just as the larger culture is becoming less homogeneous and more diverse all the time, each new class of writing students brings a myriad of new literary influences and inclinations along with it.
It’s no news that at one time, maybe a hundred years ago, every English major leaving an American college would have read many of the same books as every other student of that time, from Homer to the Bible to Samuel Johnson and Keats and so forth. A conversation then, at the graduate level would assume a certain common base of referents. Today, our national religion being individualism, it seems that we can’t gather together ten students (or maybe even ten faculty) who’ve all read the same one book. In the mentorship mode of our program it’s not a problem: a teacher can assign books, or negotiate and find books the two parties have coincidentally read. But in larger classroom situations, it’s not easy.
Like everyone else, readers across the board seem to be more and more specialized today. Some read voluminously, but sometimes narrowly: say, almost nothing but detective novels, for example, or only nature essays, or whatever. In the day to day world, it’s not a problem. But the rise in respectability (or maybe it’s simply the grudging acceptance) of genre writing is beginning to raise questions about how to discuss writing when a smaller and smaller percentage of each class has read the same books. And if there’s any question that genre writing is becoming more acceptable, consider this.
Last week, an issue of the Missouri Review landed in my mailbox, as respectable a literary magazine as you could ask for. This issue includes a review and commentary on four novels; it is titled “Books With Bite.” Four vampire novels. Just imagine how the many “literary” novelists who sent their books to TMR to be reviewed feel about being overlooked in favor of the tooth-in-neck genre. I’m not complaining; it was a fascinating piece--and I’ve never read a vampire novel. I enjoyed it very much. But, then again, I don’t have a novel floating around out there trying to get attention in serious literary magazines.
However you feel about genre writing, there is no turning back the tide now. We will continue to get more and more genre writers in the program. And this is not entirely new. One of my best friends in Alaska is the science fiction writer, Michael Armstong. He received his MFA here at UAA in 1986; his thesis project was his first published sci-fi novel, After the Zap.
The argument for salvaging some part of the traditional Canon, for insisting that students are familiar with some of the old Greats, is that it provides us with some common referents. One of the most durable ways to teach the unteachable subject of creative writing has always been to show by example. The question is (for our purposes): which example? Even the Great Books add up pretty quickly. And, unless a student happens to have a BA in English Literature, the odds are still slim that a whole room full of people will have read the same long, dense novels.
However, anthologies of short works offer a possible solution. In fiction, one simple way to provide a wide range of good examples of good writing is to assign a big fat anthology of great short stories for all fiction writers--even if they want to write a dwarf and elf novel. Then, every aspect of craft can be easily pointed to in a classroom discussion. We can say, “Look at how Flannery O’Connor used dialogue to create tension between Julian and his mother.” Or, “Look at the way Chekov shows Guruov’s heartlessness when he sits there eating that slice of watermelon as Anna weeps for her lost honor.” Or, “Look how Fitzgerald first shows us his main character’s good intentions in 'Babylon Revisited,' and then shows how his weakness crushes him.” Elves and dwarves need to do all that stuff, too. So do cowboys and detectives and space aliens and fly fishermen.
The same goes for poetry and essay anthologies.
I’ll argue again and again that it is more important how you read than what you read. There is plenty to be learned from every successful work, regardless of genre. Those authors are doing something right. If it were really simple to write a successful wizard or western or sci-fi or detective novel, everyone would be home making millions doing that, instead of going to graduate school to learn how. Some of you have had to listen to me go on about reading like a writer, so I’ll spare you that here. And I’m not arguing that everyone has to read the old masters because they are good for you and will make you a better person.
I’m here to give writing advice, and I find that it’s a lot easier to do when a roomful of students have read some of the same writings as I have. The truth is, nobody can be widely read in every genre. But the building blocks of narrative are used in every story regardless of genre: conflict, character development, setting, action, summary, scene, dialogue and so forth. What I’m asking for is a way to talk about those things using examples students will recognize.
The Great Books are great because their authors knew how to do some of those things very, very well. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that.
P.S. I’m almost done with Blathering Heights. Some time, let’s talk about whether it was wise for Emily Bronte to use a first person narrator to tell us what is almost all told to 'him (inside quote marks) by Ellen Dean the servant, including lengthy (apparently memorized) passages of dialogue that she recounts verbatim (quotes within her quotes) between herself and other characters, and even including some overheard dialogue that another character recites to Ellen (quotes within quotes within quotes). Somebody should have said, “Emily, babe, I have two words for you: ‘third person.’”
Ok, here comes an ignoramus advocating for the traditional canon of literature. No, seriously, I’ve never loved traditions of any kind: too often they’re just excuses avoid thinking for yourself. And I really never loved the literary classics. In fact, I think it was Pride and Prejudice that ruined the very idea of a canon when I read it in a Masterpieces of Lit class about twenty-five years ago. I hated it so much I eschewed the entire nineteenth century for as long as I could.
The older stuff was even worse; I signed up for Medieval Lit and dropped it after two weeks, signed up for Renaissance Lit the next year and dropped that too. I did what grad students are inclined to do. I read the kinds of books I liked, the kinds of books I wanted to write. In my case that meant the short fiction then ascendent: Carver, Wolff, Ford, Dubus, Barthleme, Barth, Coover, Paley, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison. The shorter and more contemporary, the better. Somehow I did manage to read Shakespeare’s greatest hits for a semester or two, and seven or eight Faulkner novels. (They’re now the apotheosis of brain fog). But, mostly left to my own devices, I graduated with a writing degree knowing very little about anything other then short contemporary fiction. That was not smart.
Now, nearly twenty-five later, I find myself reading the books my high school age grandson is reading. Yes, the canonical chestnuts. Why now? Two reasons:
1) I’ve been working on something for a long time and I don’t want to be unduly influenced by popular, contemporary trends or voices. I’m weak-minded, and a bit of a mimic too. So, I’m reading things nobody would try to imitate.
2.) It can’t be good for you to stay ignorant forever. It just can’t.
Maybe it’s my age, but I’m not quite as impatient as I once was with books, nor as sure of my own judgment. It’s frightening. I’m almost becoming thoughtful. No. Really. For the past few winters I’ve been catching up a little. I finally read Moby Dick a couple years ago (terrific: learned how to fillet a whale---if I ever get one to rise to a dry fly), The Iliad (What’s not to like about hacking and hewing limbs off people?), Jane Eyre (loved it, loved her), Tom Jones (hilarious). I’m slogging through Wuthering Heights right now (Dithering Heights is more like it, but that’s another story). Others. I didn’t love everything old and revered, but I had enough patience now to appreciate the skill and the art in them. And very recently I discovered another reason they’re still out there being read.
On the lam from the Alaskan weather, I went to live, mostly alone, in Phoenix, Arizona, this past winter. The house had been my mother-in-law’s for many years, but she’s now 96 and living in a nursing home. I have to keep it maintained. My mother-in-law has been a packrat of epic proportions all her life. I spent several dusty, spider-fearing days going through three aluminum storage sheds in her back yard holding the excess inventory of things she didn’t need but wouldn’t throw away: pieces of old kitchen appliances, pieces of old furniture, pieces of weaving implements from a mid-life yarn habit she’d finally kicked in her eighties, an old-fashioned leather suitcase full of musty Arizona Highways magazines stained with rainwater and mouse pee. Everything had been baked by decades of Arizona summers. It was pretty bad. Even the spiders had moved out.
Her old books, however, were safe inside her house in a wall of shelves I built for her about thirty years ago when I was first dating her daughter, now my wife. My mother-in-law had read some of them as a young girl in school, eighty years ago and more: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and Longfellow’s poems, fiction from the moderns still alive when she read them: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Some names I didn’t recognize.
Days I wrote, and worked on the house. Each afternoon I risked my life jay-walking across the four-laned Glendale Avenue to the Safeway store and brought home things I felt like making into dinner that night. I listened to NPR news while I cooked, and had a cocktail or two. In the lonely evenings, I caught up on some long overdue reading (I have a hunch really well-read people have no friends and don’t get laid much.) On my mother-in-law’s old shelves, the first spine that caught my eye was Tale of Two Cities. I seem to remember a film version from my eleventh-grade English class. Actually, I remember a lovely girl named Darina-something who ran out of the room when the guillotine started falling on aristo necks. Reading the book now I found only one passage that sounded familiar. One of the male characters (maybe Carton, the dissipated but valiant lawyer who sacrifices his own life for Charles Darnay) was said to be vain about his shapely legs. Today it would be his abs.
But here’s the thing about this: At the core of the book the enduring questions it raises about human behavior still matter. In fact, they never mattered more than now. Madame DeFarge and the revolutionaries started out to dethrone the oppressive aristocracy, but mutated into a murderous Palinesque death-panel that no amount of health insurance could save you from as it kept feeding the guillotine to justify its existence.
On public radio, the news had shifted from the repercussions of the shooting in nearby Tucson to a revolution then underway in Egypt. When Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, the news people kept saying, “The question is, ‘Who is in charge?’” Would the fearsome Muslim Brotherhood, or some other potentially dangerous group take control of the country, become as blood-hungry as the “sans culottes?” No one knew how it would turn out. It sounded like a novel.
It was the first week of February, 2011; I was sitting in a small room I’d built onto that house in Phoenix in 1981, reading a book I should’ve read in school circa 1966 in Niagara Falls, and listening to voices from Cairo by way of NPR in Washington talking about the same ideas Dickens had considered in London in 1859, as he wrote a fictionalized account of events that happened in Paris in the 1780’s.
This is why we have a canon of literature. Not because the books have been declared “the best” by some hegemonic cabal of powerful literati, but because they continue to be relevant. Now the question is, “Who’s reading them anymore?”
Times change. Sure. Not too many men today will admit to being vain of leg. Ok, maybe RuPaul, but not too many lawyers. Still, once you get past the overstuffed nineteenth century verbiage and the melodramatic love story, that high school level classic still has something to say to us, even to a twenty-first century digital boy like me.
Part Two: How the classics can help us in the writing program.
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