A tiny celebration for a small accomplishment: a little notebook full of handwritten poetry fragments. The first two entries aren’t dated but the third begins at 9:54 p.m. on Monday, August 15, 2016: “Maybe we take for granted the trees, where some of us are able to go when we are young to find peace, away from the chaos of home and hurt”
A work in progress, to be sure, but I keep these notebooks, and the Notes app on my phone, close at hand because these fragments arrive so suddenly and unexpectedly. There are a few other items inside, like a daily calorie plan, notes for a novel, notes about a reading by Karen Brennan I attended in March, and observations about “The Thing” in southern Arizona that helped me ground my poem “Roadside Freak Show” in concrete images and fill it with atmosphere.
The rest are poetry fragments. A fragment might make me cringe and hurry on. It might become a full poem someday. Tomorrow.
As midnight arrived on Sunday, October 08, 2017, I hurried to my little notebook with two lines in mind, frantic to capture them exactly as they were in those initial moments. Handwriting offers a kind of permanence. A few more minutes passed in free writing and then the notebook was full, this final fragment measuring two and a half pages long. That’s long enough, perhaps, to be considered the first draft of a new poem.
My Poetry Revisioning workshop instructor asked us to bring in some of our collected poetry fragments for an exercise.
I don’t believe in natural talent. I use “believe” on purpose because I might be wrong; nevertheless, there’s more to talent than whatever innate capabilities a person might be born with that makes them prodigy and genius. Natural talent is at best a leg up. At worst, it’s destiny and entirely uninteresting. I believe.
I did not start writing poetry until I was—ignoring English homework in K-12 and song lyrics when I was a teenager and foolish and in crush with anyone—forty years old. Fall 2013 at the University of Arizona in “The Elements of Craft in Creative Writing” course. Our professor introduced us to craft in poetry at the beginning of the semester, before we went into fiction and creative nonfiction. Why start with poetry? To paraphrase the professor, poetry is good for teaching all elements of good writing in general.
The poems I wrote in “Elements of Craft” are not examples of good writing. No natural talent. The professor’s feedback was kind and illuminating; it illuminated the ways in which my poetry was cliche-ridden, overwrought, and abstract. I became frustrated with my inability to write what might be considered good poetry, and then I became angry. I was not angry at my professor or other, better students. I wasn’t angry at poets. I was angry at poetry, the body of literature itself! I was angry at poesy, the act of composing poetry! For every poem I wrote and thought “this is finally the one that means I understand poetry,” the professor’s helpful critique and and better poems by other students quickly disabused me of my confidence. Did my classmates, most of them many years younger than me, have natural talent? Yes, maybe, no. Whatever they had, I did not have it. My poetry was not alive, it did not surprise, it did not have layers of meaning, it did not resonate with readers. My poetry failed miserably. This made me so angry!
But the anger I felt was strangely appealing. Anger made me read more poetry. Anger made me read poems more than once. Anger made me read poems out loud. Anger sat me down at my computer to write new poems. Anger made me focus on my images, on my lines, on ways I could make them stronger, on ways I could break my lines in more interesting places, on ways I could make my poems sound better.
Let me put this in context. My concentration in creative writing was fiction. After “Elements of Craft,” I jumped into my fiction workshops with excitement because even though I was not capable of writing good poetry, I had learned a lot about writing in general and I brought these elements of craft to bear in my fiction. Not great work, but promising. Not anger-inducing at all. In addition to our genre of concentration, students were allowed to take introductory workshops in other genres, like creative nonfiction. I loved my creative nonfiction workshop and used the same elements of craft in my essays. I liked what I wrote. I received helpful critiques from instructors and students to make it even better.
Oh, but how my anger for poetry seethed during all of 2014. I wrote poetry in anger all year long. The result was a huge “Poetry Fragments” text file in which I angrily typed poems and fragments of poems, sometimes late at night when these fragments burst into my mind like a haunting and the only way to exorcise them was to get out of bed, turn on a light, and in cold fury write them down. They spilled out of me, these terrible lines and terrible poems:
Sunday, March 16, 2014 ~11:15 PM: “There is terrible poetry / on my fingertips / splinter wooden shards / too thin to tweezer.”
Well, of course I used a cliched splinter metaphor. UGH!
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 ~10:46 AM: “The man in the mirror / is not the face of the man”
Yuck, yuck, yuck! Of course I would write something about the “man in the mirror”!
Sunday, June 8, 2014: “He can wear hats. / It comes with the green eyes.”
Well, of course… Actually, this poem was the easiest poem I had ever written. It spilled out of me, too, but not quite so angrily. In fact, its deep emotions arrived on the page with astonishing gentleness.
When the new school year started in the fall of 2014, I was desperate to do something about this obsession of mine. So I enrolled in the introductory poetry workshop. I discovered that eight months of angry writing had made me a better poet. Meanwhile, the other students in the poetry workshop were insanely great. Their mastery of poetry seemed well beyond my grasp. I learned a lot from reading and critiquing their poems, and from their feedback about my poems.
Friday, October 10, 2014 ~8:30 PM: “Ich fyrcht Den Tag / when a man / lacquered not from dust / but fallen into it / shrugs off his black dog skin, / animates shoulders / broadly drawn with loess, / and shuffles into / biting at her ears.”
Sunday, October 12, 2014 ~1:20 AM: “In one hole bury the bell. Bury the bell in dirt without ringing. In the dirt without ringing bury the bell. Bury it. The voice will ring.”
On Monday, October 13, 2014, I dropped revisions of my poems “He can wear hats,” “The Divorce of Lilith and Samuel,” and “The Talents” into a Microsoft Word document, carefully formatted them, and submitted the entry online to the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s annual undergraduate poetry contest. I was unexpected selected as one of 2014’s three winning poets. Cash prize. Public reading.
Oh, but how my anger grew! Imposter Syndrome met obsession met ambition met doubt. I complained to everyone. I didn’t want to be a poet! I had no idea what I was doing! I collected 98 pages of poems and fragments of poems between 2013 and 2014.
In 2015, the English Department changed their policy that prevented students in another genre concentration from pursuing a second concentration in poetry. I took the intermediate poetry workshop in the spring and the advanced one in the fall. I wrote at least 54 more pages of poetry in 2015. Then I graduated. An anger born out of frustration transformed into anger about my identity as a writer. In this country that has forgotten to value poetry, a country where poets cannot make a living writing poetry (as artists in general cannot), a country that teaches its children how to “decipher” a poem to uncover the poem’s “one true meaning,” I was afraid to admit that I might like to be a poet.
Still angry, I abandoned poetry to focus on fiction; a few hours later I had written yet another poem. I began purchasing collections of poetry. I added poetry by my college professors to my bookshelf (something I should have done while I was still in school.) I discovered speculative poetry and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. I discovered the poets who particularly inspire me, who write poems that suggest ways forward for me. I began to pay attention to news about poets. I enrolled in writing workshops at the Writers Studio and at the Poetry Center and worked on even more poetry.
During 2016—I don’t remember when exactly—I realized my anger was gone.
The process of accepting poetry into my life and accepting myself as a poet had begun. I have no natural talent in poetry. I crammed a lot of exploration and discovery into a few short years to become the mediocre poet I am today. Like trudging up a dune while sand slips and slides you back down and only after much annoying effort arriving at the crest breathless only to see that there is now an entire dangerous ocean left to navigate, I have some sense of this period being the end of the beginning of my life as a poet. I don’t miss the anger, exactly. What I feel today is much more complex and, perhaps, more mature. I appreciate how contemporary poets frequently use the word “consoling” when describing poetry. Poetry brings me comfort now. For someone originally from the Pacific Northwest, poetry is consoling to me the way standing on the beach against the loud ocean, gusty winds, chilly air, and light rain is consoling.
My anger may be gone, but my resistance is not entirely. I still write other genres. I still see myself as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer of short stories and novels, and as a nonfiction essayist concerned with technology and its impact on humanity. These were my early visions of myself as a writer and I’m still pursuing them.
As a poet, though? I’m soon to be a published poet.
I don’t believe in natural talent. I believe in exploring and learning what interests you, especially the one thing that makes you angry while it pulls you into its orbit anyway, makes you so damn mad that you keep at it. There is still a current of anger underneath my poesy today, so maybe my anger isn’t really gone. It keeps me insecure, challenged, and writing. It gives me ideas. It’s in my first published poem and so many of my most recent poems. In poetry, I believe, consolation and anger both.
When I first met with a new counsellor almost five years ago, I didn’t start with that. What was on my mind at the time was family drama, being gay, social anxiety, and my decades-long failure at finishing my undergraduate education. In the weeks that followed, we began to address what was underneath all my frustration, confusion, and fear. To tell you the awful truth, my issues stemmed from a cliché: an unhappy childhood.
The kind of rotten childhood that invades an adult is best uncovered, I think, by an impartial third party, and best addressed by a resolution to listen to them and try what they suggest. I had tried before. The first time was when I went away to college, eighteen years old and on the other side of the country from my family. In a Catholic campus group and then in group counseling provided by campus health and a counselor, I lost my religion and any hope that counseling would help.
Mostly. Friends can be pretty good counsellors. Siblings who experienced the same physical and emotional abuse, though they are often angry at you, too. A parent who years later leaves the other and acknowledges that, yes, none of that was any good. They’re not professional counsellors, though. They’re not impartial. They’re not willing to dive into the tangle of your mind week after week. Going into my forties, what I really wanted was to confront my past once and for all and move on to who I really wanted to be. That demanded the right counselor, someone I had never met before, someone with the right tools to help me figure out what was going on inside of me and in a positive and productive and caring way help me to confront, adapt, and change. Tall order.
If you seek a counselor—sometimes I think all of us should have our own personal counsellor to help guide us—I suggest you find the right one for you, even if that means meeting with several until you do. In fact, I went to two that first week. I thought one counsellor would help me with my family, anxiety, and school, and the other, preferable gay themselves, would help me with being gay. The gay counsellor suggested I pick one. He said if things didn’t work out with the other counsellor or if I really thought it was necessary to have two, then I could contact him again later.
I didn’t have to. The straight one, quite unrelated to sexuality at all, turned out to be the right counsellor for me. He helped me reexamine my past and uncover the ways it had shaped me, for better or worse. He also helped me to reshape myself, for the better, with a new perspective on my painful childhood that didn’t ignore it but allowed me to rise above it and move forward.
The results? I have better relationships with several of my immediate family members, and no relationship with others, which is actually for the best. I have set clear boundaries, avoided a lot of drama, and prioritized my own wellbeing while better managing the demands of being a member of a family with an unhappy past.
My counsellor’s acceptance and engagement with my sexuality helped me to better embrace and integrate that side of myself. Being gay has become both a nonissue and a integral part of who I am. My sexuality, like my hazel eyes, my average height, my aging, my interest in robots and emerging technologies, my love of superheroes, and my writing, is, well, me, in all due complexity and stark simplicity.
My counsellor’s work with me on social anxiety took me off a brief experiment with Paxil and led me toward comfort and ease with being the way I am instead of turning me into a sudden extrovert. I’m simply more comfortable in social situations now, whether or not I’m being particularly talkative or demonstrative. The spotlight of attention that always seemed to shine on me and left me feeling excessively self-conscious and prone to embarrassment and fear is much, much dimmer now.
And my writing? That’s the awesome outcome of this entire journey. It was clear from the beginning that what I really wanted to be was a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who writes and revises and frequently submits finished works. Within a year of starting counseling I had completed the first draft of an entire novel. Soon after, another. And another. Within three and a half years I had gone back to school and finally finish my undergraduate degree, this time in English and Creative Writing. Nearly five years later, I’m writing regularly, I’m committed to writing, I’m building my writing process, I’m finishing projects, and I’m sending them out to potential markets.
Counseling, when you find the right counselor and when you engage with them honestly and with a willingness to do what they suggest, can work wonders and reshape your entire life. Perhaps the most shocking result of these past few years in counseling has been how much simpler my life has become. When I first met with my counselor, there were just too many things I was trying to do, trying to be, trying to hold on to or understand or ignore. What rose to the top with guidance was me, and I’m now the person I want to be.
I also think I don’t need to see my counselor any more. Someday I’m going to mention that to him and see what happens.
Reading a second time Jordan Rosenfeld’s A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice, what I find myself focusing on is that subtitle. A year ago, I was most interested in learning how to be persistent, write daily, and “love the [writer’s] journey on the way to your destination” [pg. 13]. There is wonderful advice throughout Rosenfeld’s book about sticking with and cultivating a writing habit. This year, I feel ready to develop my writing process, one tailored for me, to help me start and finish first drafts, revise them, and, when they are ready, send them out to potential publishers for consideration. I again turn to Rosenfeld’s book; it’s just that fantastic. I prefer the word “process” and will mostly use it here in my post, but I appreciate the reasons why Rosenfeld uses the apt phrase “writing practice.”
A writing practice or process is individualized. You pay attention to your own patterns and preferences and begin to select the steps and tools that work best for you. You carve out your own space and time for writing. You reject what isn’t helpful and you practice what is. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing all of this and with my fledgling new writing process I crafted the first draft of a 5000-word short story. I’m not offering the details of my writing process as a model for what will work for you. Mine is just one example of a writing process that will hopefully inspire you to build your own.
Space and Time Enough
I’m fortunate to be single, have a flexible day job, and have lots of free time to carve out my own space and time for writing without having to negotiate or compromise with other people. You will have your own circumstances and responsibilities to navigate as you attempt to do the same. In chapter 6 of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Rosenfeld describes a lot of the boundaries writers may need to build in their own lives so that they can focus on writing. From creating “a do-not-disturb zone” to shunning people who are “energy suckers” to confronting your own negative behaviors, these boundaries let you divide your life between writing and everything and everyone else. I find it useful in my own process to carve out a very sacred space devoted to writing that is also devoid of distractions. It’s called Story Land and it’s a quiet and affordable writing space in Tucson, Arizona. I recently signed up as a member and it has transformed my process. I can write at home, but I’ve experienced much more productivity for longer periods of time by coming to Story Land afternoons after work. The benefits go far beyond the quietness. I find under warm lighting in the cozy corner I’ve picked out for myself upstairs a bubble of time and space that frees me from thinking about anything other than writing. Because my time at Story Land is so distraction-free and focused, I’ve discovered that I’m free to focus on work at work and on relaxing when I’m home. I had no idea that restricting overlap would improve all areas of my life!
No, you do not need to rent a space to write. That’s barely within my own budget. You can, however, carve out for you and your writing a place that is separate from your other activities and responsibilities. Be it the guest bedroom, a corner of a room, the hour before or after everyone else goes to bed, your lunch break at work, etc., the physical and temporal drawing of boundaries around you and your writing does wonders for your mental commitment to writing.
Why do you write? What is its value to you? Chapter 2 in Rosenfeld’s book is about building your own writer’s code as a foundation for your writing process. Rosenfeld asks you to first contemplate “What is the value of your writing?” [pg. 13]. I found that for me personally, writing is a part of my thinking things through. Writing helps me better understand the world and other people in the world. It’s been that way since I can remember. If I never published anything or made any money from writing, it would still be valuable because it’s part of how I process things. Writing as a process for another process. Neat!
After I discovered this, I found writing about writing to be especially helpful for my craft. That’s why I now have a section on my site titled “Writing Process.” I’m happy to share these essays and I hope others find something useful in them, but the act of writing them really does help me work out what is important to me about writing and how to improve my craft. What is my writing process? That’s what I’m discovering by documenting and articulating it here in this post.
I don’t think making money or finding fame are bad reasons for wanting to write, but they certainly aren’t the only possible reasons. Whatever your reasons, listing them will help you turn writing into a habit, into a process, into a persistent practice.
The Where and When of Writing
The next question Rosenfeld asks in her book as you build your writer’s code is “What is your writing rhythm?” [pg. 14]. I wasn’t really able to answer that last year, but this year I think I know. I prefer it quiet, so cafes and noisy restaurants don’t really work for me, and Story Land is perfect. I prefer writing in the afternoon and evenings, though I have enjoyed writing first thing in the morning on occasion. I seem to be able to write for about two hours before I need a break, and it’s often difficult for me to come back and continue writing, unless I switch from my current project to something like a blog post.
In the past two weeks, I have discovered additional patterns that feel natural to my process. For example, I found that I can generally write two days in a row but on the third day I often enjoy taking time away from writing to think about and research my story further, which sets me up nicely to write again on day four. This pattern will likely change dramatically depending on the project and genre I’m working on, but it was cool to see that pattern emerge so clearly now that I have given myself the space and time to write regularly.
Taking time to figure out your own patterns of behavior will give you a starting point for your writing process. The more responsibilities you have, the harder it might be to adapt your patterns, but at least you will have a better understanding of the where and when and other details of your writing, and a sense of the writing process you will want to aim for eventually. With this start, you will also be able to address the last two questions Rosenfeld asks that will lead to your own writer’s code: “What are you willing to risk?” [pg. 15] and “Who is your creative support team?” [pg. 16].
The Balance of Research and Writing
I’ve been writing on and off for decades and I’ve been finishing projects in just the past few years, but only in the past two weeks have I been working out how to do the necessary level of research for my stories. I started a short story about artists in Portland, Oregon even though I don’t know a lot about fine art or artists and I haven’t lived in Portland in decades. I was writing about an artists collective but I realized I didn’t really know much about them, let alone how they operate in Portland. I had written quite a bit of the story over a couple nights, but I decided on the third night to go home and spend a few hours reading up on artists and Portland and other details. The protagonist is loosely based on a real artist, so it was easy to find interviews with him and study his website and portfolio. I used Google Maps to explore downtown Portland and figure out where the locations in my story should be. I found Craigslist listings for artists and artist collectives. I reviewed a few studio websites. None of my research was that in-depth, but it provided the right level of information I needed to improve my story and avoid glaring errors. I also didn’t spend more than a few hours that evening on that round of research. I returned to my story with my head full of new ideas and jargon the next day, and I immediately sensed as I wrote how the research had improved my story.
A week later, I started writing about another character in the story and I realized that it was time for another evening of research. Research this time was a documentary I found on Amazon Prime. The documentary convinced me to modify the details of this character quite significantly. The character came alive not as someone who might have appeared in this documentary but as someone very different on the page. Research is great not just for confirming or enhancing details, but for discovering what details you might need to change or remove, too.
Research also happened unexpectedly while I was involved in other activities. I’ve been reading literary fiction recently, such as David Constantine’s In Another Country: Selected Stories and a couple stories in 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press. I realized while reading Constantine’s “The Mermaid” that his description of the wood carver’s activities provided a nice prompt for how to write about my own artist’s activities. How Zadie Smith crafted and used the third person narrator in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” suggested to me ways I could focus more on my protagonist’s thoughts and concerns related to his art and his understanding of success.
I was so struck by how my unrelated reading provided help with my current writing exactly when I needed it most. Rosenfeld refers to these unexpected parallels and that sense of a hidden order between your writing and other activities as “synchronicity” [pgs. 67-68]. Rosenfeld suggests keeping a synchronicity diary; I started a writing diary in which I also include any synchronicity that may have happened that day. The very idea of keeping such a diary led me to highlight the “Writing Process” section on my blog. Whatever forces are at work, I’m finding the various activities in my life inform each other in wonderful and unexpected ways, and this is leading me to new creative horizons.
So how much research is necessary? I knew that great detail about the subject matter was not particularly important in the story I was writing. It was enough to make sure I got the details I did use right. The next project I start, however, will likely require much more research. It’s a science fiction story about chimeras and if you have been following the latest research, the breakthroughs have been quite stunning while the ethical questions these creatures pose have been staggering. I don’t believe I can get away with a quick Google search about chimeras. I plan at the very least to read recent science papers and books about chimeras and related topics. I think there also might be opportunities to request interviews with local scientists who are involved with this kind of research. Interviewing makes me anxious and nervous, but I have interviewed experts before, so I know I can do it if I determine it will be useful.
Your writing projects will determine how much research is necessary for each, but one thing to remember: don’t use research as a procrastination tool! I really like the idea of spending a weekend doing substantial research before starting a new story on Monday, and then spending a few hours every few days doing a little more research, until the first draft is finished. I can then determine how much more research is necessary before I start the second draft.
I’ll admit here that the hardest part about coming up with my own writing process has been fitting in research. I’m only taking baby steps, but I’m slowly learning what works for me without becoming overwhelmed. I’ve discovered that I need to be flexible about how I spend the time I otherwise devote to writing. Most evenings I will indeed write, but an occasional evening spent on further research keeps me informed, motivated, and ready to tackle the next part of the story.
The writing process I’ve experimented with so far during two weeks of weekday evening writing, punctuated by a few hours of research, and devoting a few more hours to reading and being inspired has left me weekends to relax, plan, research, and, yes, frequently do some writing. I like this process so far, but what I haven’t added in yet, and will do so this week, is time for major revisions.
When I finish a story, I like to let it sit for a week or two before I jump into significant rewrites. Tonight I will start working on the fourth major draft of a fairy tale I plan to submit to Fairy Tale Review in March. I started this story back in September 2015, but since last summer I’ve been coming back to it again and again and finishing new drafts. For the third draft, I focused on the overall structure of the story and I fixed some glaring plot holes and confusing details about the proximity of various objects and locations in the story. Time away from this draft and focus on other projects lets me return to it tonight with fresh eyes. For the fourth draft, I plan to focus even more on each sentence and things like tone and mood. I’m giving myself two weeks, though I have no idea if that is more than enough time or not enough. And there’s the submission deadline.
I happen to like editing and revising a lot. I’ve found it exceptionally helpful to occasionally (usually with the second or third draft) waste the paper to print out a physical copy of a piece and with a pen and even a pair of scissors get down and dirty with my edits. Laying out scenes on my carpet at home gives me a very different view of my story than I get from scrolling through it on a computer screen.
I’m also developing a preference for the order of my revisions. For me, a first draft is really a series of drafts that eventually leads to a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s about getting the story out of my head and onto the page. The second major draft is about the overall structure of the story and refining the plot, characters, and other elements. Third drafts might be about structure again, but I also start to refine my language. Fourth and later drafts, as necessary, might focus on just one or two elements of craft at a time, such as one focused on characters, one on atmosphere, mood, and tone, and other on spelling and grammar. I’m really just beginning to immerse myself in revision, so I’m sure my process will change and be refined as I do it more and more.
100 Rejections a Year
The point of developing a writing process is, for me at least, to eventually finish stories and send them out to potential markets. A variety of sources have suggested that instead of measuring your success by how many stories you have had published, it’s much healthier and more helpful, especially as a beginner, to measure your progress by how many rejections you have received. I happen to love rejections. They make me feel a little sad, but they also make me feel really productive and accomplished. A rejection reminds me that I have successfully started and finished, revised and finalized, formatted and submitted a complete story.
I have a few rejections already, but this year my goal is to receive 100 rejections. Nearing the end of February, I’m beginning to think I won’t come anywhere close to that number by the end of December, but I’m going to do the best I can, learn what I can about this part of my writing process, and keep the same goal in 2018 and beyond.
My Writing Process
The writing process I’m building covers the writing, research, revision, and submission of short stories. I’m only a couple weeks into a preliminary idea for my process, so I’m being flexible and kind to myself while I work things out. I’m really happy to be at this stage in my writing career, and I hope this focus on process will eventually lead me beyond daily writing to many finished stories and frequent submissions to potential markets.
Books like A Writer’s Guide to Persistence are also a part of my process. I’ve spent decades reading books about writing to try to inspire myself to write more. Now that I’m writing regularly, I’m reading these books to help me build my writing process, to improve my craft, to be persistent, and to take the next steps toward the next milestones in my writing career.
The first step—learning to write regularly—can be a very difficult one to take and maintain, and I recommend you reach that habit, that dedication, that persistence, first. It seems like it took too long for me to get to this point, but I’m also thankful it didn’t take me any longer. What develops next is, in my opinion, the fun part: your very own writing process and taking the next steps to finished pieces ready for submission.
It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about The Writers Studio workshops I’ve been attending regularly for the past year. It has been such a positive experience that I think I have been trying to keep it all to myself. No more. This is the real deal and writers no matter what their level of craft may find The Writers Studio helpful.
The Writers Studio was founded by the poet Philip Schultz in 1987 in New York City and the Tucson, Arizona branch by the poet Eleanor Kedney, a former Writers Studio student, in 2005. You can find out more about the history of the program here. I first heard about it from acquaintances, but it wasn’t until after I finished college in fall 2015 and started to search for local writing workshops and meet ups that I decided to give the 10-week beginners workshop a try. I immediately fell in love with the program.
What’s unique about The Writers Studio is their focus on voice. Every week we are assigned a short excerpt from a poem, short story, or novel that demonstrates the author’s unique voice and writing craft. We then try their techniques in our own page-and-a-half response, relatively short because there can be up to twelve students in a workshop and we have one 2.5 hour session a week to fit in everybody. We bring in our work, tell the rest of the class a little about our experience writing it, let someone else read it out loud, and then sit quietly while the class and instructor provide constructive criticism, particularly feedback about how our work is like and not like the assigned excerpt.
One thing I never learned or understood from my college creative writing classes is that the narrator of the story, that first, second, or third-person point of view telling the story, can be a crafted character in their own right! This personal narrator is an entity separate from the writer and in third-person stories can be quite separate from the protagonist. The personal narrator is filled with attitude and has their own distinct view of the characters and story they’re telling. It took me many months to really get this and start developing this skill in my own writing.
In workshop we also focus on the difference between tone and mood. I think I only now understand the difference: tone is the personal narrator’s tone, how they are telling the story, be it matter-of-fact or with great affection for the characters, etc., and mood is the feeling with which you want leave your reader. Pairing the right tone and mood in a story is a powerful technique. For example, a matter-of-fact tone used by a personal narrator to tell a story that horrifies the reader, or an affectionate tone toward a character who is being abused can bring out deeply felt emotion and narrative complexity that a different approach might not.
In addition to the workshops, there’s a craft class that focuses on reading like a writer. Over a nine-week session, we read and analyze short stories, poems, collections of poems, and novels. For those who live in New York City, they meet once a week for a guided discussion about what we read and the elements of craft the authors used. For the rest of us, we listen to a digital audio recording of this weekly discussion. This week we are reading “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” by Zadie Smith and “Vision” by Tiffany Briers, part of the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press anthology. I read both stories on Friday and they are excellent. I was deeply moved by the stories and by the techniques the authors used to craft them.
The Writers Studio program might not work for everyone. I love the format, but not every writer will. The program is also pretty expensive, at least by my standards and budget. I feel it is worth the investment, though, and intend to continue at least through the end of this year. In addition to everything I’m learning and the great feedback I’ve received, I’ve created quite the repository of my own stories, a few of which I have finished, revised, and sent out to potential markets. In the intermediate workshop I’m currently attending, we recently read the poem “An Oral History of Blind-Boy Liliko’i” by Garrett Hongo from his book Coral Road. I wrote in response to this wonderful poem the beginning of a short story about an artist in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t stop at a page and a half (around 470 words); I kept going and now I’m over half way through the story with about 2500 words and a clear idea of how it will end. I’m using techniques demonstrated by Hongo in his poem such as unique and local languages and color, drawing on my own life and histories, and using a first-person narrator yearning or searching or doing something interesting. I think I have crafted an interesting character on his own particular journey through the art scene in Portland. It’s been a fantastic experience crafting this story and I hope to finish the first draft this week.
The Writers Studio workshops have been extremely beneficial to my writing. I love working on the exercises, I love going to workshop each week, I love receiving and providing constructive feedback, and I love how my own voice is emerging. I’ve met many local writers and instructors who inspire me weekly. I highly recommend The Writers Studio if you find this approach to the craft of writing in any way appealing. If you are located in New York City, Tucson, San Francisco, or any of the growing number of branches, there are writing workshops available. The Writers Studio also offers online workshops for writers who live elsewhere or who prefer the online format to face-to-face classes.
[Edited on Sunday, June 11, 2017 for clarity and to fix errors.]
In my mid-twenties and the World Wide Web still new, I found writing and critiquing communities like forums and Critters.org. These communities provide to writers the opportunity to give and receive useful feedback and learn we are not alone.
The problem with some men (Many? Just me?) in their twenties is that they won’t shut up and listen. Instead they pronounce. Loudly. I pronounced on a writing forum that the only writers who are successful and published are those who sacrifice themselves entirely and painfully to their art. I called out people I believed would probably never be published to defend my pronouncement. I called out housewives and retirees specifically.
I’m ashamed of what I said back then. As you can imagine, the members of the forum, writers from different backgrounds, identities, and writing experiences, reacted with outrage. The more people responded negatively, though, the more I dug in. I kept insisting that art was sacrifice and many people couldn’t or wouldn’t make the necessary sacrifice. I felt very libertarian. Very Ayn Rand. Very suffering artist. Very martyr. Very young. Convinced and convincing.
Yeah, I was a complete idiot.
The writers reacted with shock and anger. They’re just reacting to being called out, I thought at the time, these women with a few minutes to write in the morning before their children wake up. I thought of the retirees who I told waited too long they can’t take the blunt truth. Truth is truth. A is A. Getting emotional about it isn’t going to change anything.
Yeah, I was a mean fucking lunatic.
All that bluster and proclamation was me trying to convince ME to write. I wasn’t a disciplined writer. I’d get excited about an idea, write for a few hours over a few days, and then not write again for months or years. I was afraid I had neither the talent or discipline to write. Published work was the only measure of success in my mind. I used the forum in a selfish way that hurt others. I used my posts to declare myself someone better than the rest because I thought I knew the real secret to success. I found in alienation and controversy a fantasy of my own future success: I don’t have any kids and I’m still young, so I’ve got plenty of time! Next stop: bestselling author!
I’d like to say that as I got older, I learned to keep my mouth shut and show more restraint and empathy. Maybe. A few years ago, I joined a Tucson, Arizona meetup for writers. Most of the attending writers were retirees. They all told a similar story: how they had always wanted to write, but work, family, and life got in the way. They felt in retirement they finally had the time and space. I didn’t speak out loud, thank goodness, but there in my head I had the same old tired, irresponsible, dishonest, and uncaring thoughts: None of you are going to be published because you waited too long. That’s not going to be me, though, because I’m only in my thirties.
What utter bullshit. This is typical obnoxious white male bluster and prejudice to hide my own deep-seated fears. In the United States where this type of idiocy is on display 24-7 and threatens the very foundations of democracy, it’s a blast of frigid air in the face and gut to find in me all the ways I haven’t behaved any better. Pronouncements, dogma, and arbitrary rules without any basis in reality or consideration for others is what comes from unexamined privilege and prejudice. They give me tunnel vision, lead me to set the wrong goals, use the wrong measures, hurt others, and fail again and again. No one else is to blame for this but me.
I eventually sought help from a counsellor who pointed out just how many strange, useless, and impossible rules I created out of pure fantasy and have tried to live by. I learned that these rules were born out of my fear and prejudices. My counsellor helped open my eyes to how I have been just another awful person making up bullshit and trying to force it on others to make myself feel better.
Twenty years ago I posted bullshit on a writing forum. I ended up feeling alienated and I drifted away. How many years of good advice, inspiration, and companionship did I give up because I acted like a dick? Some sacrifice. I hope my ignorant posts have been deleted or buried by time. I hope I was mostly ignored back then. I hope those who pointed out my bullshit forgot about me entirely. They didn’t deserve to be treated like that by me and I don’t deserve to be remembered.
Writers write, but the details are up to the individual writer. Ignore the stupid blowhards. I’m only now beginning to figure out what works best for me. I might have learned a lot sooner but I didn’t listen to the very people who could have inspired me the most: housewives and retirees and many others writers in all sorts of situations with all sorts of writing experiences with all kinds of definitions of success.
But first: Twitter. When I tweet on Twitter, and don’t receive likes or retweets, I feel that the reasons why I have an account are hardly reason to continue. On social media. When I do receive feedback, it’s a jolt, like a hit, like I’m not alone, like I’ve connected a transect through humanity that happily includes me. It passes as quickly.
This is not a post about depression. Or isolation.
When I use Twitter the other way, in which I dip into the real time news/entertainment/slice-of-life river from all the accounts I follow, I find reality unfiltered and too damn large. All that outrage. All that eating. All those jokes and wit. All the news, the merriment, the sarcasm, the tears, the depression. All that humanity and artifice and the closest thing to a face is a little image or avatar and some emoticons. What would I be if I sat across from you while you verbally tweeted to me fragmented moments or sustained ranting, and your hand I held in my hand? Would I compete with you? Between your words, while you caught your breath, would I fit in my own careful observations about my current mood and the state of the world?
This is not a post about social media. About isolation.
There are several things I wanted to tweet about tonight.
I watched the first episode of that new The Exorcist series on FOX. It was really good! One really good scare, smart writing and directing, and a twist at the end that suggests a widening of the story. This is not a remake of the movie. A quick scene makes it clear this happens in the same universe as the first movie, but years later, to different people, from different backgrounds, with, perhaps, a much more involved and expansive plot by the forces of evil. What is it saying about the real world, though? What are the writers, filmmakers, and actors trying to tell me? I got the episode for free on iTunes; am I going to buy the entire season? Do I have time for more TV?
How I’ve not written much lately, but I have plans. In October: research mode including a few hours a week at the university library, watching horror movies and TV shows all month long, and reading back issues of Nightmare magazine. All of it in preparation for the supernatural horror novel I’ll be writing during National Novel Writing Month. Two solid months of effort leading to a first draft.
An apology and/or explanation for not tweeting my thoughts on last night’s Presidential Debate? But I shared other people’s tweets.
Some joke I’ve already forgotten. I would have laughed, tweeted it, wondered why it didn’t get any hearts or retweets, and then deleted it when I remembered humor is not my brand. What brand? My online writer’s platform, the one that includes Twitter, this blog, and LinkedIn.
Here are the reasons why I canceled my LinkedIn account this afternoon:
Earlier today, I was talking to a co-worker about something completely different but during the conversation I became convinced that the very best response I could make to what we were discussing was to cancel my LinkedIn account.
I dislike the site very much; it’s very ugly.
I’m in that minimize! and simplify! mood again.
Microsoft owns LinkedIn. It’s fine. It’s fine! I’m not sure how I really feel about that.
I’m not looking for a new job.
Two anonymous lookers looked at my résumé recently.
I change LinkedIn notifications to none yesterday.
I linked my LinkedIn account to my WordPress account and every blog post wants to automatically share to LinkedIn, but why would I share my blog posts there?
What am I using LinkedIn for?
What is my blog for?
My blog lets me write posts like this, missives that are much longer than tweets or even a series of tweets. Twitter is just not for long form writing. And that’s what I like to write: much more than 140 characters. Ever since Craig Mod and his team shuttered and archived Hi.co, I’ve been thinking I could have supported their project better, written there more, read other writers’ stories more. How I could read more longer form work if I stopped checking in on Twitter and its realtime blizzard of headlines and chatter leaving me time only to add articles I want to read to my reading list. Why is my reading list full of so many things I haven’t read yet?
I read about the city of Flint in Michigan in the United States and the contaminated drinking water there. I learned there are other towns with the same problems. It’s really about racism and greed. It’s about aging infrastructure and lack of priority. It’s about a basic need, the lowest tier on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of our very basic physiological needs, and how it remains unmet even in the 21st Century here in the United States let alone around the world. What can I do about it? Be aware. Share. Donate. Vote. That’s not enough.
This is not a post about what I can and cannot do. This is not a post about how people are isolated.
What this blog is for are the following:
To be the center of my writer’s platform.
To share my stories, poems, and essays.
To review my favorite media.
To share things I like.
To write about science and technology.
To write about longer things.
That list is not helping. I think what I am saying is that I don’t want to tweet any more. I think what I am saying is that I feel little connection between my online presence and my offline presence, but I don’t feel they are that different, either. I guess what I am saying is that the question about what my blog is for is hard to answer. Am I the audience? Would it matter if I had more followers? If I opened up comments again? If I shouted into the wind and no one heard me whisper? What I’m trying to say is that the online, digital experience is still uncertain and I can see what is not working for me but not what will.
What I would have tweeted would have taken much less time and left me much less satisfied. It’s easy to get lost when there are fewer characters to work with.
It’s not clear that many more words will make it any easier to be found.