My tips, generally speaking, will be broad or even unbearably mechanical. Some might consider them vague or esoteric. Others might consider them unhelpful.
Without turning this post into one about creative writing pedagogy, I think it’s vital to grant writers the space to be themselves, to explore their own tastes and desires in literature, to become the writer they were meant to be not the writer the world thinks they should be. (I acknowledge there are writers who want to write to market, and that’s great, but I’m not the best teacher for those writers.)
Which is to say I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to try to guide you toward figuring that out for yourself.
So when I was asked how I see the lines between bad, good, and great writing, I felt a little wary of defining bad, good, and great writing for others. I think saying the lines between them are subjective is a bit of a copout, and I think it’s wrong. I think we can define good art, though importantly, I think the bar for what constitutes good art should be set perhaps shockingly (to some) low.
I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.
One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.
Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.
I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.
I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.
What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?
When you’re a writer, one of the most common questions you get is about where your stories come from. I don’t know about other writers, but in my experience, stories begin like a loose thread you one day notice on your shirt. Smarter people will get the scissors, cut it off, and toss it aside, but not you. You’re compelled to pick and tug at it because there’s something satisfying about drawing it out.
The more you work it, the more your shirt unravels. Before long, the seam is open, and you can see something of what you look like underneath. You keep pulling, and eventually, the sleeve is in tatters. You keep going, and often, the thread jumps off the seam. That’s when it becomes grueling work.
The short version is I was accepted into George Mason University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. I’ll be starting this fall with full funding, including tuition remission, a stipend, and a GTA position. For the next three years, I’ll be taking classes, writing, reading, and teaching full time.
There is a popular sentiment that stories, like life, are about the journey, not the ending. I think good fiction has to differentiate itself from life, so stories are about the journey and the ending.
Maybe I’m hopelessly morbid, but I think about death all the time. I know I’m not the only one, but how I’m going to check out is constantly on my mind. It doesn’t frighten me or stop me from living, but like a good story, I do want to know how it all ends. Like reading a good story, though, I’m not eager to get there. It’s a paradox. I don’t want it to end.
In November, Lithub republished a list of ten rules for novelists by Jonathan Franzen that had originally appeared in the Guardian in 2010. It apparently raised a stink on the Internet. Reading the list now, I see why it was divisive. Some of his rules are obvious. Some are preposterous or pretentious. Overall, it’s just not a helpful list.
All of this is in my humble opinion, of course (this is my blog after all). Franzen has accomplished far more in his writing career than I probably ever will, but I see reflections of some broader issues in the literary community here that I feel the need to comment on.
To be clear, this isn’t really about Franzen’s list. This is about the impetus of some of his ideas. And admittedly, it probably reveals more about my own philosophies than Franzen’s, so take it for what it’s worth
Last week, a young writer asked if I had any insecurities about my writing. My initial response was, yes, of course I have insecurities. I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t on some level insecure about my writing (and in general about everything for always and forever).
However, after some retrospection, I realized I’m in a much better place than I was when I started.
Nick Mamatas went on a Tweet storm yesterday about creative writing teachers barring students from writing genre fiction. It sparked conversation in the various Internets where writers dwell. I had thoughts.
I think Nick took it too far. Were we close, I’d ask him who hurt him, but alas, we’re not. I do think Nick was onto something, though.
(I should preface the rest of this with the disclaimer that I am not a fiction teacher, nor have I ever had the opportunity of teaching fiction writing, and nor is this a criticism of any creative writing teacher in particular. It’s a hard and thankless job, and it takes a special person to legitimately be excited to help others grow and succeed.)
If you had someone encourage you to write when you were young, he or she may have said, “paint me a picture.” As it turns out, this would be the worst advice anyone would ever give you. Even more dire is it may be the foundation of what many people believe to be good writing, and it’s evident as one of the most pervasive problems I see in the work of new writers.
Sometimes I think, maybe one day, I’ll get to teach a creative writing class. I think I would really enjoy it, and I think I could be reasonably good at it. In these times of grand fantasy, I consider the lessons I might bestow upon the next generation of writers.
Chief among them would be, as the writer, you’re not the painter. You’re the person at the paint store. Your readers aren’t using your imagination. Your readers are using their imaginations.
Today, I recalled that I survived an author’s worst nightmare. I gave it some consideration, smiled off a painful memory that became bittersweet in context, and moved on with my thoughts before yanking myself back to ponder it some more. I thought maybe the experience could be useful for another writer. Therefore, here we are.
In college, I was on the selection committee for a student-run literary mag run. I also submitted a poem for consideration. You may already see where this is going.