A brief post after a power outage on a snowy day. I’ve been thinking about the fact that teachers of creative writing often teach us something when they don’t seem to be offering much instruction at all.
When I think of all the workshops that I’ve taken, it occurs to me that what I remember most aren’t specific techniques that I learned, but how I learned to think about writing the way my teachers did.
A teacher of creative writing is someone who’s been thinking about craft much longer than his or her students have—not only thinking about it, but coming to a deeper understanding of how a piece of prose or poetry works.
This is a passage of fact and nostalgia:
This is a post about teaching, but it starts with a visit to my doctor’s office to have some blood drawn for a routine check of my thyroid levels.
I smile at the nurse who draws my blood because she seems just a tad weary, or harried, or both on this cold, rainy day just after Halloween.
“Did you have many trick-or-treaters?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “No, we live out in the country, back up a long lane. Not many folks find us out there.” Then she looks at me, and I see a tremor of a grin at the corners of her mouth. “We lived in town when the kids were young and I loved to see all the little ones in their costumes.”
My cousin likes to tell the story of the time when she was a girl, about ten years old, and she was on vacation on Sanibel Island with her parents. They went to a gator farm, and there she was given a stick with a marshmallow on the end and told to hold it out to an alligator and the alligator would come and take the marshmallow from the end of the stick.
I’ve seen the photographs. I’ve seen my cousin crouching at the water’s edge, holding out the stick, less than three feet away from an alligator, just waiting for him to snap up the marshmallow.
I was thinking recently of all the ways that we sometimes keep ourselves from writing. Here are but a few:
1. We wait for inspiration to strike: Sometimes, particularly in the early years of a writing career, we get the idea that our writing is the result of being inspired, and if we just don’t feel inspired, well, then, we just don’t, period, and we wait for that inspiration to come, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait. . . . We need to recognize that when we write, we practice a craft, and the more we practice it, the better we become. It’s not inspiration that we need; it’s time, a quiet place, and effort.
One thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?
I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, but also to further define their own aesthetics.
‘Tis the season when some folks are starting to put their applications together for MFA programs. I hope, then, you’ll forgive me if I rerun this post from last October as a way of helping people think about how to choose the program that’s right for them.
Three Tips for Choosing an MFA Program
Follow the Money
Most writers are desperate for validation. We want someone to tell us we’re good. We want to know we’re good because people publish our work, talk about our work, give us awards for our work. We can spend a good deal of energy worrying about such things. The truth is so much of publishing and what happens beyond is out of our hands. The time we spend worrying is time that could be better spent paying attention to the things we can actually control. So here’s my list, for whatever it’s worth.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’ve agreed to speak to a local writers’ group that meets in a banquet room at an MCL Cafeteria. I’m doing this instead of working on the draft of an essay that I’m eager to finish, instead of prepping for the two workshops I’ll teach this week, instead of writing the numerous letters of recommendation that are waiting for me, instead of reading the book I’ve agreed to blurb, or the manuscript I’ve agreed to review for a press. I’m gathered with twelve people in this banquet room because I have trouble saying no.
- Accept the fact that you’ll never remember exactly what someone said. Trust me. You may think you will, but you won’t. The thing said is lost to time; all that remains is the shape you give it as you do your best to call it back.
2. Other people will remember the thing said slightly different than you will remember it. Let them. It may help in the composing process to hear what they remember. They may give you a line better than any you could have written. If it has the ring of truth, go with it. If it doesn’t have the ring of truth, put it away from you.