Finding Your Voice

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So, I just finished teaching my 5 week summer class–hence my temporary disappearance from this blog. I don’t normally teach anymore in my current role (just one class in the summer) and I find that teaching, while exhilarating on one level, works a part of my mind that leaves me emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I am out of practice, I suppose. Or maybe, because I am not in the trenches every day, not teaching a several-course load anymore, I am even more aware of the challenge I face as an instructor–hyper-aware of the difficulty of reaching students who, largely, don’t want to write, don’t care about writing, and don’t see it as relevant.  Many of them feel that writing is only for budding English majors and for “arty” people, but the rest of the world needs “real” subjects such as math and science.

So, with that in mind, I always begin the term by letting them know that the ability to write–just on a competent level–is relevant to them. I explain why: No one in the work place can escape writing a competent email, for one. Even now, in our video world, we will largely deal with people via the written word. I explain how I come from a family of business folks and all of them write more than I do (a slight exaggeration, but I will say they write almost as much as I do). I get some nods after this sales pitch and once I feel I’ve gotten some buy-in from at least a few folks, I move on. Yes, world, you have to know how to write. It’s not just for us English-y peeps.

The other half of the class, however, doesn’t believe that writing is irrelevant, though. No, these folks feel it is very relevant and hence, they are terrified to do it because they don’t believe they do it well. They don’t believe they can do it well. That’s the other part of the sales pitch. I have to reach those folks as well.  They feel they are “not good writers,” and therefore, they have a deep fear of being in freshman composition, which they have to have to move on with their goals in life.  And yes, some of them are NOT good writers, for whatever reason, mainly a complete lack of practice and training over their entire K-12 educational experience. They CAN be good writers, but they are going to have to work at it and put in some hard work to make up for the fact that they haven’t written an entire paper in years prior to college.  Yet, practice is everything! I once told my older son, when trying to explain to him the importance of writing when he was in high school that just as when he stopped swimming for a few weeks, he gained time and lost the edge, what did he think would happen if he stopped reading and writing often? All skills take practice, including writing. Especially writing, given the complexity of the skill. How on earth can you get better at something if you don’t do it?  I try to sell this concept to the terrified students. You absolutely CAN write, I tell them.  You are just as smart as anyone else here, but writing can be difficult and like anything difficult, you have to practice it.

They haven’t practiced when they get to me. I’m not blaming anyone, mind you.  I am simply noting my experience from what I see as a professor and a mother, both.  Even at the high school where my kids went (a good one, too. We moved to his location because of this school), there is a huge differential between the Pre-AP and AP English classes–where they write essays now and then, although still not enough, in my opinion–and the “Regular” English classes where they hardly read a book and never write one single essay over the course of the semester.  I’m not exaggerating–I saw it first hand. I see it with students who, when writing the very first “diagnostic” essay (and don’t know me yet), will write at the end, “I am sure you aren’t reading this anymore, but if you are….” because they are certain no one actually is reading their work. Someone in their past didn’t read their work–it’s obvious.  And as a parent, I know that it was only once my dyslexic kid (who took “regular” English classes) got into college did he learn how to really write with any kind of compentency, only because he had to write tons of papers and expend a lot of effort doing it. Shocker.

I can tell the students who have a mastery of writing because they are comfortable with their voice. They may make mistakes, but they are calm, relaxed, familiar with writing.

New writers posture. They pretend to sound writerly because they view writing as something foreign, something they can’t claim for themselves. I see this all the time in students who write essays in a stilted voice. Or they can write a fairly-competent essay in first person, but when asked to change the tone to third, they clam up because they have no experience doing this–a skill they will need to finish a college degree. They talk circles around a subject because they are scared of language and because they are scared of language, they are scared to explore and play around in a way that allows them to learn.

My job is to talk them out of doing that. I will meet with them in my office and ask, “What did you mean here?” and point to a convoluted sentence that makes zero sense. The students will hem and haw and then I’ll say, “Just tell me in your own words what you meant.”  They will do this and I’ll say, “Write that down.”

“Write that down?”  They are distrustful. They don’t want a bad grade.

“Yes, write it down. Use your own words.”

“I can do that?”

I tell them yes, they can. They not only can, they should. Write it in your own words.  Use your own voice, just like you speak. Then, if you have to, you can neaten it up later and fix general grammar errors, but over all, your writing needs to be your voice.

I never fail to see relief on their faces when I say this. When I tell them that they can be themselves on paper, with their own ideas, their own words. Writing IS for them.

With luck, they will even write more often, even after they leave Freshman Composition.

 

 

Thoughts On Choosing Verb Tense

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In addition to making decisions about point-of-view for a piece of writing, another issue new writers grapple with is deciding on which verb tense to use when writing a story. Obviously, you will write in past tense if something occurred in the past, and present tense if something is occurring in the present, but is there more to it?

Past Tense. Past tense can be used to tell a story that happened in the past, or to provide backstory before jumping into a present-tense narrative. Beyond this obviousness, however, using past-tense is important if you want a first person narrator to be able to have a larger realization that can only come from hindsight.

Which makes sense when we consider that we don’t always have the best insight to events that have are happening in the moment. As events unfold, we may not have full time to process or make sense of what has happened, which is especially true if we are telling a story from our somewhat unreliable first person narrative. The same is true for fiction. Characters are capable of a certain level of deeper understanding if things have happened in the past.

Present Tense. Present tense can have the effect of being edgy and fast-paced, and the urgency can work well in terms of speeding up pace.  Writing in present tense can give readers the sense that the world is unfolding right now, a sense of “what will happen next?” The drawback–or benefit, if exploited properly–is that the characters may not have the ability to process as much realization as with past tense. This can sometimes work very well, though, if you are using a first person narrator who is unrealible to begin with. If the reader can see the disconnect between the character’s realization and what maybe should be a potential realization, then this tense can work very well.

Future Tense. Flashing forward to what will happen can add an entirely new sense of gravitas to a story. If we know a character is ultimately going to die, then flashing forward into the future can add an entirely new dimension to a narrative.

It’s fun to play around with the tense of your tales (couldn’t help that, sorry)–and good practice for writers as well.

Practice Makes Better

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Last week, I started teaching a summer class–a Comp 1 class–filled with nervous freshmen. They are all inherently likable, arriving to class with their notebooks and highlighters, filled with fear and optimism. The fear is usually at the forefront for most of them, though, and I forgot how often they utter the phrase, “I can’t write,” or “I am not good at writing.”

Part of my job is to convince them that they CAN write. After all, if they don’t think they can, they won’t try.  So I need to restore that hope, the concept that as with anything a bit complicated, it just takes practice.

I ask them to share with a classmate a skill they have, something they are good at.  Soccer. Basketball. Working out. Taking care of people. Cooking. Playing an instrument. Surfing. Re-building cars. Then, we come together and discuss how all of those things took practice and time, as does writing. So, it isn’t a matter of them not being good writers–or even just competent writers–but just that they may need more practice.

Writing is a complex act. Even if we aren’t writing poetry or fiction, we have to make decisions on audience, point-of-view, word-choice, and organization. We have to write a clear message, which isn’t always easy. We have to offer details and examples and be logical about the whole process. It’s no less complex than playing a guitar, yet people will beat themselves up if they can’t master an essay in one draft.

I try to learn from them on the level that I’m at. All things worthwhile take time. They take effort. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.

Making Your Writing A Habit

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One of the most challenging elements of being a writer is the art of habit-creation.  I am not talking about writing when we are inspired, of course. When we are inspired, writing comes easily.  We look up and three hours have passed….how did that happen?  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

No, inspired writing is not the problem. The problem comes when we are uninspired. When we are tired. Or cranky. Or scattered. Or wanting to eat pizza and binge on Better Call Saul. As with anything that requires daily habit to keep on track, once I allow myself to slip up and not write for a day (or two, or three) it becomes that much harder to get back in the game.

It’s not that we can’t catch up if we fall behind–it’s just more difficult. And if we aren’t careful, months can pass before we realize we have fallen off the writing horse and it has now galloped on ahead, four towns over. I liken it to exercise.  Several months ago, my husband and I were in the habit of running (albeit slowly. Jogging is probably a better word for it since neither of us would win any races, but it sounds so much sexier to be a “runner,” no?) 3.2 miles at least three days per week. The other four days, we walked that distance, often a little more. Then, one day, for reasons I don’t remember, but which fell along the lines of  “what a DAY! Let’s go get pizza!” and while we walked, we walked to the local pizzeria, which also has $2 beers on Tuesdays.

And you know, that was not a big deal on the surface. It was just one day, right? The problem was, the next day, with our bodies loaded with carbs and our minds still equally exhausted (because that never really goes away. If you wait to do the important things when you are feeling at the top of your game, you’ll never get anything done),  we were equally uninspired and instead took a shorter walk around the neighborhood instead. The next day, same thing. And so it goes.

Yesterday, however, I decided to get back in the swing of things and when I got home from work, I donned my running clothes, stretched, and hit the road.

Let me just say, it was every bit as terrible as I thought it would be. Whereas a few months ago, I could run that 3.2 miles easily and feel as if I could run another mile at least, yesterday evening, I thought I was going to die.  I ran slower than ever  and the entire time,  I imagined scenarios in which I passed out from heat-exhaustion and concerned neighbors had to rush out and dial 911. I made it 1.5 miles (barely) before deciding to walk the rest of the way. While I was glad I started running again, it would have been so much easier if I hadn’t ever stopped.

(Runners everywhere are laughing at me and my pathetic 3.2 miles, but alas, I have never been speedy.  Still, the idea wasn’t speed, but physical fitness and the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could outrun a zombie in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Right now, a zombie would catch me for sure. All because I got out of my little training habit).

Bit by bit, little by little, we build ourselves into who we want to be. We live our lives the way we want to live them, and this is reflected in our habits. This is true of any habit, which it is so important to do your best to stay on the horse, keep pushing ahead, even if you don’t feel like writing (or running, or whatever else it is you do).

So, what did I learn from this? Here are some thoughts on how to making writing a habit:

Schedule Your Habit. Probably the biggest thing you can do is to make time in your schedule for the important things you want to do, which will include writing. Understand that our lives are filled with a ton of tasks that need to be accomplished, but if we really want to do something, we must schedule time and make it a priority.  Then, prepare for your habit. Charge your laptop. Tell people you will be working from 5:00 to 7:00. Etc. I have read that the best plan is to do everything important “before 8:00 am” and I agree with this, although for me, it’s a far stretch to do “everything” important before 8:00 am since I also value my sleep and have to also be at work by then. This is why I have to move some of these things into the afternoon (i.e.: running). I do try to write in the morning, though, when I’m fresh, because writing is more important to me than running. It’s all about making priorities and living accordingly.

Have Smaller, Achievable Goals. When I am training for the zombie apocalypse, I have a goal of 3.2 miles, three days a week, with walking the other days. When I am writing, I have a goal of 500 words per day Monday through Friday.  I can write beyond the goal, but that is the goal. It’s modest, achievable, and I’ve found that by having smaller goals I can meet, I am more likely to write beyond my goal.  I also have smaller goals–finish this short story by the end of the day, revise this short story by next week, send out this one to ten journals by Monday, etc. This is just what works for me–you might have different goals and this is fine. Know thyself and what motivates you, but have a goal each day so you can concretely say you have “met” the benchmark you have set for yourself.

Remind Yourself Of The Reward (And The Consequences).  I have always been a writer and while I have had short stories, articles, and academic articles published, I have done so slowly and in spurts. Why? Because I have made other choices in my life at the expense of my writing (not that I have any regrets. If I had the chance to go back and do things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing other than getting rid of cable sooner and spending less time watching baby animals on YouTube). My writing career has been haphazard due to these other priorities taking place–some of them were noble, but some of them fell akin to going for a walk to the pizzeria instead of staying focused.  So, when I am tempted to not write for a day, I only have to remind myself of the short story I wrote five years ago that was still unedited when I started seriously writing again. Five years slips by quickly, people. “Just one day” of not writing can add up, day after day, and suddenly, you realize you haven’t progressed and you have a fairly decent draft of a short story sitting in a file somewhere for the last few years. If you had made writing a habit, that story would be published by now.

Schedule Vacations. I am a huge advocate of taking mental breaks, though. So while this is going to sound counter-intuitive, I feel it is important to allow yourself some planned vacations from your habit. Not too long, but small vacations can give you much-needed perspective. The key here is “schedule” the vacation.  Going back to the pizzeria trip that derailed our running goals, that could have been avoided if we had planned to walk to the pizzeria in the first place. If we run three days a week and we know there is a special deal on Tuesdays, then we could have scheduled our runs on other days and made a plan to walk to the pizzeria on Tuesday. The same is true for writing. I sometimes just need to think–unhindered from the idea that I am supposed to be doing something else.  This is why I don’t require writing on the week-ends (although I often write anyway). Or if I decide, in advance, “I’m taking a mental break on Friday and going to the beach” and not writing for a day, as long as I make this plan ahead of time, as long as it is scheduled, then it will not have the debilitating effect of derailing me in the long run. It’s all mental. It’s not the fact that you aren’t writing–it’s the lack of discipline and feeling of failure for not sticking to your plan that derails you in the long run. If you feel you have given into temptation, you are more likely to do it again tomorrow, but if you schedule the break, then you have control and accountability.

Log Your Success. Keep track of your days of writing and whether or not you met your goals. This can be jotting it down in a notebook or ticking it off on a to-do list or calendar. Whatever works for you. It can be incredibly helpful to see your progress and, again, hold yourself accountable. This is how you can also avoid five years passing without returning to a short story draft you wrote. Or thinking, “I wrote this, when?”

Keep Trying. So, as a fallible human, despite your best efforts, you might still follow the siren call of that unplanned pizza night, metaphorically-speaking. If it does, don’t waste time beating yourself up over it.  Just lay out your running shoes–or charge up your laptop, or sharpen your pencils–and start all over again. You can catch up. You’ll just have a rough patch at first.

Happy habit forming!

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On Creating Characters (Spying On The Neighbors, Part Two)

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Welcome back! So, before we begin, let me reassure you that this post will ultimately deal with how to develop character in your writing. Promise.

I do, however, need to back up a bit. In yesterday’s tale, I made it seem as if I saw the former trio of neighbors for the first time as I watched them from my twin daughters’ bedroom window, but this is not actually the case.  That was just the first time I realized they might make good story fodder. A few weeks before that incident, however, they had already begun contributing to my fictive rendition of their lives.

See, when they first moved in, I didn’t actually know who had moved in. I only knew that someone had bought the house, a moving van appeared, a general ruckus ensued, and after the dust settled, the kids and I baked the new neighbors some chocolate chip cookies, stacked them on a paper plate, and trotted around the corner to their front door. We rang the doorbell. We waited. And waited. We could hear movement inside the house, but no one came to the door. Then, just as we started back down the walk, the kids excited to eat the cookies instead, the door opened. The younger woman—who was about my age at the time—answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and clearly, we had interrupted her—maybe she’d been in the hot tub—and I felt bad. I hadn’t meant to intrude on her life, but when we moved in, our other neighbor across the street brought us cookies, so I was trying to learn some civility and be more like her.

I apologized and bumbled around, telling her we had made them some cookies—welcome to the neighborhood! She opened the door a little wider and I introduced myself and each of the kids. Then, however, instead of taking the cookies, she explained she didn’t eat cookies or allow her daughter to eat them either. Cookies had sugar.  Sugar wasn’t good for kids.

She eyed my brood of five, who saw where this was going and began to inch closer to the cookie plate. You have to move fast if you want the competitive-cookie-edge at our house.

“Oh. Okay. Well.”

Such went our first meeting.

The second meeting occurred a few weeks after that when she showed up at our door.  I smiled when I saw her. Maybe she felt bad about her previous decline and made us cookies? Or maybe she had a question about preschools? Maybe she wanted to go to the movies? I invited her in, but she declined and stood there on the doorstep with her daughter dressed in a pink ruffly dress, eating a popsicle.

Then she asked me if we had a CAT? A black and white cat? Because if so, this was a “courtesy visit” to let us know that our cat was sitting on their outdoor furniture and if it happened again, they were going to take the cat to the pound.

Oh no.

I explained to her that the cat was not ours, but belonged to the neighbor across the street (the super nice one who bakes people cookies without awkwardness).

“The cat is always at your house,” she said. “And we are allergic to cats. We cannot have cats on our outside furniture, so this is a courtesy visit to let you know to take care of your cat and keep it inside.”

“You said that,” I said, once I found my voice and stable ground, “but the cat really isn’t our cat. You’ll have to talk to Flora. It’s her cat. But Flora is really sweet. I’m sure she’s going to help keep the cat somewhere safe.”

She harrumphed, thanked us, and strutted across the street to harass Flora. Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.

So, long story short, a narrative of this family had begun to form—even before they began hosting their frequent parties.

Before we continue, though, I should say that I wasn’t tempted to write about this woman yet, or base a character on her.  Mean, small-minded cat-knappers do not by themselves make strong characters.  And why? Because the characters of great stories need to have some type of realization through the course of the story. Characters need to have some epiphany for the story to exist at all, but the previous run-ins I’d had with this person indicated that she, in her current state, was not capable of realization and change.  I’m not saying she didn’t have reasons for her behavior–I’m sure she did. We all have something going on–but at that point, I couldn’t see them or imagine what they could be. So there was no story. After all, not everyone is capable of having an epiphany  at every moment of their lives and clearly, this woman was not about to be dissuaded in her quest to box up Flora’s cat and cart him off to the pound. (In fact, she DID do this, a month later, but I’ve already turned this into a soap opera as it is. But don’t worry. It ended well and Flora got her cat back although he had to live inside forever after).

The Grinch can only be the Grinch if his heart is capable of growing. The ghosts of Christmas appear in Scrooge so that we can learn why Scrooge came to be Scrooge and only then we can understand how he might have the ability to change and grow. Hamlet can’t just rant and whine for the entire play….eventually, he has to make things right, however late. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard To Find” has to recognize the humanness of the Misfit and thus her own humanity. And so on. The upshot here is that we can’t have a story based on hateful people who steal cats, unless the hateful cat-stealer has something else going on, something to help us see the mustard seed of redemption. And I just didn’t see the potential for that yet. So, no story.

But then they started hosting parties.

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(Now we actually do have a black-and-white cat. Cats love to adopt us.)

Not long after I first saw the younger woman in the hot tub from the twins’ window, they held their first party.  It was no big deal, really–just some music and people drinking–completely normal partying. No one fell into the hot tub or danced on the outside furniture from which the cat had been ejected. I know this because I combat-crawled across my daughters’ bedroom floor as they slept and peered through the blinds. Okay, I’m not proud of this, but as a child, I read Harriet the Spy more than ten times and not much had changed for me in that department when I reached my thirties. At the time, I was in grad school as well and, living in the suburbs, I took what story fodder and entertainment I could get.

From there, they began to hold small parties every night.  After the child went to bed for the night, the mother and her daughter would have four or five different men over for drinks. Every. Single. Night.

Wow.

Starting about nine every night, I could hear their voices and know it was time to crawl across the floor and, ducking just so to keep out of sight, I’d watch the older mother waltz in and out of the sliding glass door with drinks. I’d watch the younger woman slow dance to music with her arms above her head as the male guests watched. They laughed and smoked cigarettes and played music and what on earth were they up to over there? I guess you could say that it was at this time that I found the sympathetic quality, the detail that helped me to see the younger woman’s redemptive abilities, the oyster inside the shell. Because however cruel she may have been to the cat, and however rude she had been to her new neighbors, no matter what they were up to in their back yard each night, I now had a better sense of the humanity of this woman.

As the weeks wore on, however, the neighbors–and often their guests–started looking up at the window and eventually, they built a fancy enclosure structure with red curtains that they could close off around the entire porch.  Which they did. Game over.

But by then, I had my story. I did notice that after awhile, the younger woman had a new live-in boyfriend.  He drove a yellow jeep and stayed all night most nights and the younger woman seemed happy with him, judging from the way she ran to him and flung her arms around his neck after he’d pulled up into the driveway and exited his Jeep. And I hope she was. I hope she is. At least she is when I get to write the story.

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You Can’t Capture Reality

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One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

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Rejection Email Blues

guinea pig sad

First things first. If you are a new writer, you have to be prepared to get many, many, many, many rejection slips. Many. Many. Did I say many? Yes, many.

When you receive a rejection slip (and actually this is a metaphor because actually, you probably aren’t going to get a rejection “slip” in the mail, but a rejection email. I realize that some literary journals still take—or even require—physical copies of submissions as in, through the mail using STAMPS (I know! Right? How 1985!), but I personally don’t submit my work to those journals. Why?  Because if a journal editor does not embrace technology and accept submissions via email or by using Submittable (or similar), then I figure they probably won’t appreciate my experimental, non-traditional writing style, either. But I digress).

Where was I? Oh, yes, when you receive a rejection email, don’t fret. Don’t be sad! All a rejection slip means is that what you currently sent the journal just wasn’t what they were looking for at that moment.  It does NOT mean you are a terrible writer and that you will never get published or any of that. Don’t even think it. It just means that out of the hundreds (or even thousands) of submissions they receive, yours was just not the one they chose. That’s it. So, like water off a duck’s back, you need to file it away and move along.

There are a variety of reasons for a journal rejecting a story/poem/what-have-you and most of them are purely subjective.  I know because I have worked as a fiction editor in the past and I am here to tell you, it’s a subjective world out there. I have had very heated discussions with my colleagues about which pieces to accept and reject for a contest and when it comes down to it, the decision was highly subjective. I have heard (and can easily believe it to be true) that decisions can be made about things as simple as the use of first person (“We don’t want any stories that rely on the crutch of first person”)  or that editor’s dog just died and you just submitted a story involving a dog. Or your main character is named Sam and reminds the editor of his cousin who stole his screen play….you can’t control any of that (although if you know that a journal doesn’t want stories written in first person, then don’t send them any, although sometimes they won’t tell you in advance what POV they currently prefer).

Some things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance, of course, is to:

Read the submission guidelines. Read them carefully and do EXACTLY what they say.  If they say they want the short story cut and pasted into an email in Helvetica with a specific heading in the subject line, well heck, you’d better do that. Don’t give a cranky editor a reason to decline your work before she even gets to the first paragraph. Some of these guidelines can be super picky and pretentious, but just take a deep breath and do them.

Read some back issues.  You want to determine if your work aligns with the rest of what the journal publishes in terms of style. I don’t actually belabor this too much, but if they seem prefer a minimalist style and your story is jam-packed with twisty-winding sentence constructions, you will want to send that one someplace else. You also want to make sure you would be cool with having your work published that journal. It may sound great to be published, but if you read a few pieces and realize that the journal should be named BuxomBum Esquire, then you may want to submit elsewhere (I made that up. I hope that journal doesn’t really exist. My apologies if it does. I recommend you don’t google that, especially if you are at work).

See their response time and make sure they take simulteneous submissions.  I am surprised at the number of people who don’t realize that you can and should send out simultaneous submissions.  After all, if you send off a story and then wait patiently for six months, receive a rejection, cry, send another one out again, wait six more months….you don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out how long it would be to actually publish that piece. So, don’t do that.  Most journals will accept simultaneous submissions (and if they don’t, do it anyway. This is the one submission guideline you should ignore. Just make sure you keep good records so you can withdraw your piece if it is published elsewhere), so a good rule of thumb to send out about ten journals at a time.  This is fine to do, as long as you make sure you keep organized records of where you submitted each piece and when and then promptly withdraw your work once the piece is published. I also withdraw my work if I don’t hear back from a journal in six to eight months. I also don’t submit my work to journals that say, “If you don’t hear back from us, that means we passed on your piece.” (Does it, now? I feel that if I am going to consider sending my work to a journal, they can at least send me an email to let me know if they reject it. That’s a professional courtesy.)

Keep track of “nice rejections” and take note.  You will get a variety of rejection emails. Most are polite and encouraging to all, which takes the sting out of the rejection, so I always appreciate the effort. Most of these are still templates, sent to everyone, however.  Sometimes, though, you get a rejection email that is clearly written to you, personally, and these will be more encouraging. These will tell you that your work is really good and the only reason your piece wasn’t chosen was because of space restraints, or it just wasn’t chosen this time, but will ask you to make sure you submit more of your work in the future.  This is a good thing and a very special kind of email to receive because it reinforces how you really don’t suck at writing. Make a note of that and submit your next story to that journal. Also, these rejections should make your day because they do validate your skill as a writer.

Send them at the right time of the year. Generally speaking, if the journal is run by an educational institution, don’t sent over the winter holidays or the summer.

The approach we all need to take to rejection slips is to embrace them for what they are—each one is evidence that you are progressing. You are moving forwarding with what you want to do. And that counts for a lot. Just keep it up and don’t become discouraged!

When to Use First Person Point-Of-View

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When I was writing about The Blank Page the other day, I pointed out that one of the most difficult choices to make initially is deciding which point-of-view to use.  Whether you choose to write a story in first, second, or third person POV will depend on a variety of elements and, ideally, should be an intentional decision you make at the outset. It’s not always intentional, but upon revision, that choice should make sense.

A first person narrator, for one thing, will ALWAYS  be at least a little unreliable.  Always. Why? Because a first person narrator can not necessarily be depended upon to tell the entire truth about his or her experiences, even if the narrator is sane and reliable on the outset. With a first person narrator, everything in the story is filtered through that first person conciousness.

For example, you are probably sane for the most part, but pretend you get a speeding ticket and later, you are telling someone about that speeding ticket.  You may, as the unreliable narrator of your life, change the details of your life just a bit so as to paint yourself as not driving so fast. You may paint the cop as being unfair or brusque or determined to give a ticket.  Or maybe, you want to depict yourself as a speed demon, so you tell the tale where you are driving very fast, with flames following you down the road, but then, you slowed down just in time–so it could have been worse!–and yet you still got a ticket because you were going that fast.  And so on. The details you choose to tell in that story will be filtered through your consciousness–they will be the details you choose to tell so as to continue on with the narration of your life, so no matter how truthful you may be on the bare facts of life, you are still not fully reliable.  And this is only a speeding ticket. We can only imagine what you might say (even to yourself) when depicting the deeper elements of your life–the things that keep you up at night. We all do this, which is why first person narrators are unreliable.

So, if you plan to exploit a narrator’s unreliability in your story, then you should write your story from first person. If the lack of reliability adds to your story, then you should write your story in first person POV.  For example, take the narrator from the “TellTale Heart” or the novel You by Caroline Kepnes or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Those are extreme examples, but even John Updike’s “A & P”  would not be the same story unless it was written from a first person point of view. That story is told from the perspective of a 19-year old who doesn’t fully understand why he walks off his job, except that it makes him feel “squishy” inside to see the way the girls were treated. He can’t even articulate his emotions or why he chooses to take certain actions and this adds volumes to that story.

I am always very careful when using first person POV because in order to use it responsibly, first person POV HAS to exploit that lack of reliability some way and this exploitation has to add to the story in order for it to work. You can’t just use first person as an immediate go-to point-of-view because you like it (Well, you can, but your story will be stronger if you don’t).  You will use first person POV because the character is lying to herself, maybe, and this inability to see the truth is part of the story.  Or your character is very young and unable to see the bigger picture or come to a full realization due to inexperience.  Or your character is insane or going insane and you want to raise the question of that insanity (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).  Or your character is hurting deeply and lying to himself about the reason for that pain.  Or your character is doing something wrong and lying to himself about that wrong (for a brilliant example of this that will reduce you to tears, read “Dark Meadow” by Adam Johnson. Read it. Then read it again. And again).  But whatever the reason, you need to have a purpose for exploiting the first person’s unreliability and that needs to add to the story. This doesn’t happen often.

Not everyone understands this. I once ran across—years ago—some editor’s comments in the submission guidelines for a literary journal (not sure which one) which said something to the effect of how the magazine didn’t want short stories that “used the crutch of first person.” That comment always bothered me because first person POV is NOT a crutch. It’s actually harder to write an effective short story in first person POV, but beginning writers don’t always know this. Nor do editors of certain literary magazines, apparently. Or maybe they just worded this badly.

I rarely use first person when writing fiction because it IS more difficult to do.  Still, if I choose to use it, the aforementioned are the reasons.  If there is no particular unreliability at play, then third person or second are possibly more appropriate choices.

At any rate, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and it has saved me rewriting stories on several occasions.

Conquering The Blank Page

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So, I’m about to face The Blank Page this morning. I tried to face The Blank Page yesterday, but in the end, I had to work on other things to meet my daily writing quota and give The Blank Page some further consideration before I began to type. After all, The Blank Page cannot stay blank forever.

I have a love-hate relationship with The Blank Page, and I’m sure I’m not alone. On the plus side, The Blank Page offers so much potential. It is an unscripted world I’m about to create and I know that I can write anything I want on that page. It is an unpainted room awaiting a brilliant accent wall. It is a new garden in springtime. It is a refrigerator full of food that I can combine to make a delicious meal. The Blank Page is an uncut pattern and two yards of luxurious fabric. The Blank Page is full of beginnings and possibilities.

The Blank Page also holds risks, which often prevents me from writing at all–as it did yesterday. The Blank Page holds the potential of a paint color that dries too dark to be beautiful. The Blank Page can get taken over with weeds to choke out the roses.  It is a refrigerator full of substitute ingredients that don’t quite work. The Blank Page is an ill-fated home-economics throwback jumper. The Blank Page is so….blank.

Usually, when I first approach The Blank Page, I already have an Idea. Having an Idea is not really the problem—as I’ve aged, I have tons of great Ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s just my life and experiences and outlook have come together to marinate just so to allow me to have endless writing ideas or what, but I am currently backed up three story Ideas already. And all of them are currently Blank Pages.

No, it’s the smaller details. I know the big picture, but The Blank Page forces me to face the little details before I even begin and I must make choices. Once I puzzle my way through these, I am able to write some words.  So, yesterday, here is what I concluded:

First, the biggest question we need to ask ourselves is which point-of-view to use. I am going to write about this in more detail with my next post, but this might be the most important choice we make when we are facing The Blank Page. We have to ask ourselves, who should tell this story?  There are some very specific reasons to choose first person POV over third person POV, or vice versa and it pays to be intentional with this choice.  The problem is, we don’t always know the whole story before we write it (at least I don’t), so we don’t realize a story should be told in first person instead of third until we are several pages in. C’est la vie. We still have to face The Blank Page.

Next, we need to decide how to structure our story, more or less.  Are we going to tell it from the present tense fully? Why? Or will it all happen in the past? Why? Are we going to flash back to various events? Are we going to circle back into the past, then up again in the future, then to another point in time, in a figure eight?  Or will it be a frame story? Are we going to focus all of the scenes over one image or theme?  What is our reasoning, more or less, on any of these decisions? Eventually, the structure will find itself, but a little forethought can get us going. Then again, sometimes we just feel like telling a story a certain way and we have absolutely no reason for it. Generally, though, when this happens, we aren’t staring at The Blank Page.

If we want, we can put a character in a situation and see what happens—to an extent.  I love to put a character in an interesting or difficult situation and see what happens. Or give the character an object and see what he does with it. Still, this sometimes gives me angst because it can cause spinning wheels after a page or two, or start a story that slides into ennui if nothing happens. Or I know I will have to hack off the first half of the story on rewrite and start it in the middle if this happens, which is   one reason why I like to have a basic idea about what the story MAY be about. I might be wrong about what I think the story is about—in fact, I generally am—but I like an idea to have some sense of gravitas before I begin. I am nearly always wrong about my stories—they always end up being about something entirely unforeseen as my unconscious works its magic, but I like to be able to answer the question, “This story is about x” or “This story explores y,” even if I am wrong.

We will revise anything we write, so we need to not get too worried about any of this.  All of the above is just to get us started writing. To have a game plan of sorts.  It does not mean that we have to stick to it and not change anything. Think of it as a general guide for a road trip. If we want to, we can just hop in the car and go (that would be fun), but most of us, due to time and financial constraints, like a little focus. So, we navigate the trip, plan a few rest stops if we are organized about it, and maybe decide where we’d like to eat. When we actually leave the house, however, we never know if a road will be shut down and we will have to take a detour, or if there will be an accident, or if we will all decide to pull into the Amazing Cave of Bats because why the heck not? or buy fake-grass flip flops at a funky cafe.  The trip itself will pan out—we just need to make some general plans to get us on the road.

So….if you are having to face The Blank Page like I am currently facing, those are just some thoughts to consider to get  you on your way.

Well, let’s see if I can follow my own advice….here I go! Wish me luck.

Using Concrete Details in Writing (The Love-Coat Hanger Story)

coat hangers

When I used to teach creative writing, I realized early on that new writers needed to learn the difference between concrete and abstract words.  After reading how a girlfriend or boyfriend was “the most amazing person,” or throwing the word “love” around all willy-nilly, I knew that we had to discuss this very important skill upon which believable writing relies.

I’d ask them to name a concrete word. Sometimes, someone knew what I meant, but usually, they blinked and looked confused.  So then I explained how concrete words are words that readers can experience with their five senses.  Then, I’d name them, ticking them off on my fingers as I went because I’d always forget one:

Smell. The scent of popcorn popping. Sea salt in the ocean.

Taste. Dill pickles. (“Salt in the ocean, too!” someone would interject. Exactly!)

Sound. Rain on a rooftop. Tinny music from an old radio.

Sight. A red dry-erase marker (I’d hold one up). A blue Volkswagen Jetta (I’d point out the window).

Touch. Sand clumping between toes. A bumpy seam on a sock.

Then I’d tell them that abstract words are words that cannot be experienced with their five senses and such, the reader cannot form an image of those words.

“Take love, for example,” I’d say. “If we all heard a knock on the classroom door and we opened it up and saw Love standing there, would we all be able to say, ‘OMG!  It’s love knocking!  Come on in, Love!’? No, we could not.”

This elicits laughter and then I go on.  I tell them that we do not know what love looks like. We cannot recognize love like we can recognize a dry erase marker or the President of the United States because love is not a concrete thing.

“Well, what about Valentine’s Day?” someone will inevitably say. “That’s love.”

“Well, I can see why you say that, but no, Valentine’s Day is Valentine’s Day. Technically, it’s February 14th on the calendar and that’s that, but it is not love.

I explain to them that when use concrete words, we are able to create an image in the mind of the reader using his or her five senses. The only way people CAN interact with the world is through their five senses–otherwise, those words are only black dots on a white page. They can’t come alive unless they transmit their images into another person’s mind.

“So, we can’t write about love?” someone will inevitably ask. I just wait for them to ask it because they always do.

I tell them that of course they can write about love. And hate. And freedom. And war. And sorrow. And loss. And redemption. And everything else because those abstract big concepts are the heart of why we write. Yet, we need to use concrete words to get there, to make the reader share in the world we are creating.

This is when I launch into the “Love-Coat Hanger Story.” To begin with, this story has a nice hook with the title and all that. I’m a little proud of the title and the story, which I invented it on the spot one day as about thirty eyes stared at me, waiting for me to illustrate the whole “use concrete words to access the abstract idea” point I was trying to make. So, I gave the story a title and then launched right into it. It worked out so well that I went on sharing it with future classes and now, I’m sharing it with you.

My husband and I share a closet. It’s a large walk-in closet with two doors–his side and my side–but once inside the closet, the closet is all one room. My clothes hang on the right side of the closet and also throughout most of the middle, but my husband has the left hand side. In the mornings, my husband, rushing off to work and taking a shirt off of a coat hanger, doesn’t always know what to do with the hanger. When I remove clothes from hangers, the hangers go in a special place on the bottom right-hand side of my closet on the lowest rod so that I know where all of the empty hangers are located. This makes it easier to either use them again or find them when I need to take a bunch to the laundry room for more clothes-hanging purposes.

My husband does not have a coat-hanger system as I do, so instead, he began tossing his daily hanger across the closet, so it landed on my side of the closet, on the floor.

Eventually, a small pile of three or four coat hangers grew and one day, irritated with his actions, I scooped up the whole pile and let them fly, back over to his side of the closet. Then I went on with my day.

The next day, I saw the pile back on my side, plus one.

I scooped them all up again, plus one more from my own blouse, and tossed the whole pile back to his side.

The next day, the pile was back on my side, plus one.

The pile grew considerably over the next few weeks, until the coat hangers not only fell on the floor in a haphazard pile when they landed, but also scattered across the rest of the closet, hooking in t-shirts and landing on the shoes which lined the floor. At this point, neatness prevailed and I declared him the winner of our little game. I gathered all of the coat hangers and took them to the laundry room.

In the morning, however, he said, “Where’s our coat hangers?”

“In the laundry room. Where they belong.”

“Oh. But I thought that was our little love game.”

So, the next day, I felt bad and tossed a coat hanger onto his side, but later, he told me, “It’s only fun it if it irritates you.”

At this point, people laugh and some people sigh and say, “Awwwww.” Which is a good time to debrief the story.  In order for that story to work, you have to have a pretty good sketch of the inside of my closet.  You don’t need to be overrun with details about which of my specific clothes hang where, but you do have to know enough concrete details to understand the layout of the room so you can see how it is possible for the coat hangers to be thrown. You also have to have enough details to hint at our personality differences.  I don’t want to say, “I am neater than my husband” because again, “neat” is an abstract word.  I need to show the relative neatness by describing how one character has a plan for dealing with accumulating coat hangers and the other has no plan except to toss his to the other.  These details speak volumes about our relationship, as does the romantic qualities of my husband, who sees romance and fun, even as he is attempting to irritate me.

All of those details are important because they reveal volumes about the complexity of our love, which an abstract statement such as “I love my husband” cannot. This is why it will not do to simply write,  “I love my husband.” The abstraction of that statement is meaningless, and in fact, we probably shouldn’t use the word “love” at all–only “tell it slant” to quote Emily Dickinson. Each love has a complexity to it and one can only get to that complexity through the revealing of concrete details that help create that meaning and access the bigger issue of our unique love.

So, there you have it. The “Love Coat Hanger Story” on using concrete words in your writing.