Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Five Easy Steps to Brilliant Writing!

Every magazine at the checkout line at Ralph's seems to offer a quick and easy formula for something we'd otherwise find a challenge. Three Ways to Know if He's Mister Right. Five Secrets to Rock-Hard Abs. Ten Foods that Fight Fat.

The same reductive approach is true of the writer's magazines in the racks at Borders. Five Ways to Hook an Editor. Seven Secrets to Creating Believable Character. Ten Steps to Unleashing Your Creativity.

We have this tendency to reduce the most naggingly complicated things in life to formulae. Who wouldn't rather deal with five bullet points than with countless shades of subtlety? We hate hard work; we love shortcuts, and it's comforting to think that something as elusive and indefinable a developing our writing talents can be broken into a few easy steps.

As my kids went through public school, they seemed to be taught to write using formula after formula—the topic sentence, the outline, or (spare us all!) the Five Paragraph Essay.

Now, I have nothing against topic sentences or outlines—but I can't remember ever deliberately using either. I don't write that way, and I suspect that anyone who consciously tried would end up with a piece of writing as supple and nuanced as Lego. (I have nothing against Lego, either, by the way.)

My youngest son once informed me that, according to his second-grade teacher, every paragraph had to have four sentences. I told him that when his teacher asked him to write a paragraph it had better have four sentences—but that she was simply wrong. A paragraph could consist of one word, or it could fill a book. (Ever try to read The Autumn of the Patriarch?)

To prove my point—or maybe just to show off—I took him to my office and showed him William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying. There's an entire chapter in that book that consists of just five words: "My mother is a fish." My son seemed suitably impressed. He seemed to take what I'd said to heart. He asked if he could take the book to his room.

That Thursday night he brought me his Weekly Reading Log to sign. He'd listed all he'd read that week, and I was supposed to sign off to verify to his teacher that he'd actually done the work.

There, between Hop on Pop and The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist, he'd carefully printed, "One chapter of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying."

Ah, short cuts.

Friday, December 7, 2007

This Is Your Letter

At one time I wanted to be a philosopher.  When I applied to graduate school in philosophy, I got a letter from the American Philosophical Association.  It pretty much said:

You just applied to a graduate school in philosophy.  Don't do it.  It will only bring you grief.  Philosophy is the least popular college major.  There are no jobs for people who teach philosophy. If you can think of anything else to do with your life, do that instead.  We are not kidding.

Okay, those weren't the exact words, but the letter covered all those salient points.

Undeterred, I got my master's degree in analytical philosophy and got a job at a university satellite campus on a Marine base.  I decided, after teaching a couple of courses, that the American Philosophical Association was right: Philosophy was no career for a sensible person.

So, I decided to be a writer.  I wanted to publish stories and novels.

Someone, somewhere, should have sent me a letter.

Writing is no career for a sensible person.

I teach writing and hang out with writers, and no one I know actually makes a living writing. We all have sensible jobs as editors or teachers or Barnes & Noble employees or bartenders.

I work hard at my writing, and I've actually got a pretty impressive resume—over the years I've published twenty-something books; I've had a magazine column; I've published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; I've even had a play produced.  I published one book last month, have another coming out in April, and yet another next fall.

Yet, if you add up all the income I made from writing this year, it wouldn't pay for the Christmas presents I'm about to buy.

Sure, there's a glamour associated with writing that is lacking in most other, similarly lucrative, part-time jobs—Amway sales, let's say; or babysitting.  But it's a lot of work, and it won't make you famous, even if you're really good at it.  Unless Oprah smiles on you (and she won't), it's a tough, discouraging, and flinty life for most.

So if you're thinking of becoming a writer, don't do it unless you honestly can't imagine a life where you aren't doing it.

Consider this your letter.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Like Melody or Witchcraft

It’s a very old and very bad joke:

Q: Can you play piano?
A: I don’t know; I’ve never tried.

It’s one of those jokes that’s funny (sort of) because it’s just so stupid. Who could ever confuse playing the piano with one of those accidental abilities—touching your tongue to the tip of your nose or wiggling your ears—that you might be able to do if you just gave it a try?

And yet I meet so many people who think publishing fiction might be something they could do, if they just gave it a shot. People come by my office every semester toting book-length manuscripts they want me to read and critique. Usually, I turn them away. I tell them I can't possibly read everything I'm asked to read. But I have slogged through many a manuscript over the years, and they are almost always awful.

Emily Dickinson, in one of her letters to Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asked him to teach her to write. “I would like to learn,” she wrote. “Could you tell me how to grow—or is it unconveyed—like Melody—or Witchcraft?”

I like Dickinson's comparison of writing to melody because we all seem to subscribe to the notion that something called "ear" plays a role in music.

Yet I meet so many people who passionately want to write but just don't have an ear for it. Some are like those people in the first week of American Idol. Their ear is so bad, they have no idea they can’t sing. They honestly can’t hear the difference between what they’re doing and what a real singer does. We laugh at their absurd lack of talent, and, worse yet, at their glaring lack of self-awareness.

I make most of my salary teaching creative writing in a university English department, and that doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. The longer I do it, the more convinced I am that it’s impossible. Writing—real writing—requires such a complex cluster of skills, it can’t be taught. Not everyone has the innate ear for the cadences and nuances of language. There is a huge, unspannable gulf between literacy and literature.

I suppose all I'm saying is that writing—good writing—is a difficult thing. I think we need to show greater appreciation to those rare people who write us novels and stories—or emails and blogs—that charm us and inspire us with the melody and witchcraft of their words.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Brush with the Paranormal

Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d post my true story about the poltergeist that haunted my house back when I was in high school.

It began one night when I was alone in the house. I was upstairs in my bedroom doing homework when I heard a loud knock on my closed bedroom door. “Come in,” I said several times. No one did.

Annoyed, I closed my civics book, got up from the bed, and opened my bedroom door.

The house was dark, and I was alone in it.

It happened twice more that night: a loud, clear, undeniable knock on my bedroom door. Each time, I found myself alone in the house. When the rest of my family came home, I relaxed a bit, but I was rattled. I chose not to tell them.

A few days later my sister, at the breakfast table, told a strange story. She was wakened in the middle of the night by strange music—a violin playing and what sounded like a young girl singing along. The music didn’t sound like a radio or recording; it was too amateurish and old-fashioned. My sister could find no source for the sound. It seemed like it was coming from the hallway directly outside her bedroom, but every time she opened the door, the music abruptly stopped. The music kept going for some time before it stopped. I told her about the knocking on my door.

For the next couple of years, similarly weird things kept happening: footsteps mounting the stairway at night, bumps and thumps upstairs when we were all down in the living room, strange circling footprints that appeared on the rain-drenched back patio one morning.

One evening my mother clearly saw a man standing at the top of the stairs. (See photo above.) When she looked at him, he ducked into the master bedroom. My father and brother searched the bedroom, but, of course, no one was there.

The same week, my family, seated around the dinner table, twice heard a voice, out of thin air, call my brother by name.

After a couple of years the poltergeist activity tapered off and eventually disappeared entirely.

A few years ago, I bought the house from my mother, and my own family moved in. Almost every night for the first few weeks the doorbell would ring when no one was there. Our front door has a lot of glass in it, so it's hard to sneak up on, and the porch light has a motion-sensitive switch that turns it on when anyone comes up the walkway. But the light didn't come on until one of us opened the door to check the empty walkway.

The most recent event happened a few months ago. Our dogs ran to the front door barking, and my daughter, who was alone in the house, went to see who was there. When she got to the door, she heard a baby crying on the doorstep. She ripped the door open, but, yet again, no one was there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In Praise of the Pedestrian

I was at a party a few months ago at a friend’s house. Everyone there was a writer of some variety. I ended up in the kitchen trash-talking with a poet. I pointed out to her that so many great novelists—Faulkner, Plath, Hemingway—started out by publishing poetry. I suggested that once she got the hang of writing poetry, she might be ready to move up to fiction.

The poet leaned back against the kitchen counter and sized me up. "I refuse to write fiction," she said, "because I never want to write the sentence: 'He walked into the kitchen and turned on the light.'”

It was a great line, and I had no comeback for it. Even now, the memory of that moment makes my head hurt.

But the truth is, I apparently love to write about people walking into kitchens. I just searched my folder of short stories and novels for the phrase “into the kitchen” and found 102 documents that contain that phrase. One hundred and two. That’s a lot of kitchens being walked into.

I dug around in the files, and here are a few recent samples:

—I floated bonelessly into the kitchen.

—Kirby went into the kitchen and rummaged around in the cupboard for two glasses that matched.

—She switches off the porch light, puts her keys on the entry table and goes into the kitchen—all without looking at him.

—He stumbled frowzily into the bathroom for a luxurious sit-down pee, and then walked squinting into the kitchen rubbing his oily buzz-cut.

—A little after three, Frankie bounded up the back steps and burst into the kitchen, glazed in sweat.

—And then the next morning, Sunday, Alvie had come out of his bedroom and followed a strange autumnal scent into the kitchen, where he found a head of lettuce sweltering in the oven.

—I went into the kitchen, like I always did when I got home, and washed my hands again in scalding water.

Now it’s true that poets get to write opulent sentences like, "And this is why I sojourn here/Alone and palely loitering" or "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown"—and that must be a great deal of fun.

But those lines don’t get people from one room to another, and that is the stuff of stories. In fiction, good sentences DO things; they don’t just lounge around looking pretty. Our sentences aren’t FabergĂ© eggs; they’re coat hangers and wing nuts and shoelaces and tight-fitting lids on jars of baby food.

A lot of young writers worry that they don't have a style, a kind of fingerprint or DNA that marks their voice or diction as their own. A lot of students tell me they want to find their voice—as if it might show up in the pocket of their winter coat or in that junk drawer next to the refrigerator. But it’s just as important to write all those straight, clear sentences that have no need for poetry—the sentences where people pick up forks, or push the buttons on their car radios, or stir about in their purses for their house keys. Those are the sentences that get the work of storytelling done.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll just post this blog and head into the kitchen for a glass of water and some Tylenol.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

I Can't Help But Feel Partly Responsible

My daughter, Heather, told her friends a story in which I, as driver of the vehicle in the story, was peripherally involved. One of her friends posted it on YouTube.

It may look like my daughter is in a college dorm room. It's actually her cell.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Creepy Old Guy

A few months ago, my good friend and fellow writer Kevin Toth and I were waiting in line to see Joanna Newsom. It was a long line, and I, at forty-seven, was easily the oldest person in it. Behind us was a very young couple who seemed to be in the nervy, klutzy throes of a first date, and they were clearly casting about for something (anything) in common to talk about. They kept falling into gangly, awkward silences that stretched longer and longer.

Eventually the two of them stumbled upon that great first coincidence of passions--the topic they could build an actual conversation around: the Eragon books.

Carried away by their excitement, they kept gushing back and forth about how great the books were (I haven't read them, so I won't disagree), and after a few minutes of thrilled discussion, the young lady said the thing that made me want to call a taxi, drag myself back home and take a couple of Tylenol. She said, "It's just so cool that they're written by this really young guy, and not some creepy old guy in his forties who's writing for teens."

Yeah, that's me. I'm the creepy guy in his forties who writes for teens. But I promise you, I mean no harm.

I've just published a book called Snapshots, and my illustrious editor Andrew Karre (who strikes me as much too young to be an editor) wants me to keep this blog because, apparently, that's what young people do.