Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Granted, there’s probably more than a nugget of truth in what O’Connor said, but this quote has me thinking of the teaching of creative writing and what I can offer my students, or the people I meet in any of the workshops I teach at writers’ conferences in the summers. It’s not my job to be discouraging. My job is to find something positive in everything I read, something I can point to and say, “See, right here? That’s where you’re a writer.” Then I owe it to each student to be honest about what I see as his or her shortcomings. I offer the caveat that opinions about one’s talents are often subjective, and the writers should feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt. I make clear, though, that from my perspective here are a few things they need to work on if they decide to keep writing. I want people to feel confident enough to continue to work at their craft if they’ve decided that it’s important enough to merit their further efforts. Let the process itself determine whether they should be discouraged. Who am I to crush anyone’s spirit or call into question the validity of the work they’re trying to do? I want them to listen to me with the thought that, if they do, they might become better.
I’ve often reported a saying of my father’s: “If if’s and but’s were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” For a man who didn’t read any book but the Bible, he had a way with language. His saying takes me into the land of if-only’s, and I start to think about how we might use a trip there to help us think about the different aspects of our persona when we write a memoir. Too often, memoirists concentrate on the person they’ve decided they were—the cad, the victim, the scamp, the whatever—at the risk of making their characterization of themselves one dimensional. In addition, memoirists often write from a position of self-pity that ends up suffocating the reader.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about memoirs that don’t tell their stories in traditional narratives. Maybe they shake up chronology. Maybe they fragment it. Maybe they let it spin off into patterns of association. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call these lyric memoirs, though I suppose we could just as easily call them mosaic memoirs, or collage memoirs, or segmented memoirs. There are many ways to tell a story other than the traditional causal chain of events that drives a more traditionally structured memoir.
I just came back from a weekend in my native southeastern Illinois where it’s harvest season. Combines are cutting soybeans and picking corn. Sixty years ago, my father made the mistake of trying to clear a clogged shucking box without first shutting down the power take-off. The spinning rollers in the shucking box pulled in first one hand, and then when he tried to free it, they pulled in the other hand as well. I’ve written often about the accident and its aftermath, particularly the anger by father brought into our home and the difficult relationship we had until we reconciled late in my teenage years. But there was sweetness, and humor, and, yes, even love, within all that difficulty.
So You Want to Be a Writer: Ten Tips for Handling Disappointment
I remember a time when I was frustrated with the whole writing game because it was just too darned hard, and I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted when it came to publication. Now was that thirty years ago, or last week?
My point is disappointment is a hazard of any writing life. It’s not going away anytime soon, so if you don’t have a strategy to deal with it, it’s time you got one. Here are some thoughts that might help.
I spent Sunday afternoon at an all-class reunion for my high school in Sumner, Illinois. Our town was a small town; our school was a small school, the sort where everyone knew everyone else and where your embarrassing and criminal moments stood out and became the stuff of stories to be told for years and years. I’m sure you can understand, then, that I went to the reunion with a certain amount of dread. I couldn’t help but carry with me all the memories from those high school days along with the fear that others would remember all the stupid things I did. It turned out, though, that everyone was kind, and I had a very enjoyable time.
If you’re like me, you remember very well the magazine, Highlights for Children, and one of its regular features, “Goofus and Gallant.” Six panels of drawings compared the comportment of the two boys: the always ill-behaved, Goofus, and the ever. . .well, the ever-gallant, Gallant.” The first panel on the left might say, “When Goofus loses, he runs away, crying.” The right panel might then counter: “Gallant doesn’t cry when he loses in games.” You get the idea. Goofus illustrates poor choices; Gallant shows us how to conduct ourselves.
To begin, a confession: I never wanted to write a blog. A few years ago, when I was getting my first web site, my designer, who specializes in authors’ web pages, said, “You’ll need to do a blog.” I told him I didn’t want to do a blog. He said, “But you have to. That’s what will draw people to your web site.” So with much resistance, I began.
I just finished teaching an online workshop in flash creative nonfiction for the fine folks at Word Tango. I loved this group of writers who were fearlessly vulnerable as they captured those illuminating moments that surprise us at the end of a good piece of flash.
One question that arose was how to know when our experiences are better suited to fiction or nonfiction. As someone who writes both, I often get this question.
On the last day of my father’s life, he mowed his yard. It was the hottest day of the year, and he mowed because that grass needed cutting and he wasn’t about to leave it undone. His heart seized with the effort, and my mother saw him, collapsed on the grass, already dead. She’d tried to persuade him to stay inside. “I’ll have supper on the table in just a bit,” she said, but he’d have none of it. He had a yard that needed cutting. He’d finished the front, and he just had the back to do and the time with which to do it. It wouldn’t take much, he told her, and she surrendered. She knew from over thirty years with him that when he had his head set on something, nothing could dissuade him.