Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thinking About Advice

Sometimes when I’m writing a story I start imagining a writing professor teaching the story. The writing professor is very nice to my story. She makes all my failings seem like genius. “See what he’s doing here,” she says. “This whole story is really about destabilizing our sense of narrative. The aunt’s seemingly cliché character traits are deft commentary on the modernist tradition. See?”

I mock the excuse-making writing professor. But at least she’s nice. At least she’s not the mean, flat-topped bully who tells me what I need to do is throw the damn story away and go take a shower. Because, you see, I stink.

There is a debate as to whether writing can be taught. I’ve always found the discussion a bit odd. Sure, a tiny proportion of people in the world can write masterpieces without ever studying narrative structure or learning the principle of show-don’t-tell (and all its caveats). But most of us awaken to this world in, at best, a state of mediocrity. We need to be taught. To be shown. What talent we have needs to be found and shaped. There may be no rules to writing, but there is definitely good advice.

And yet…

The greatest lesson for any writer has little to do with the words on the page. The greatest lesson is to ignore those interior voices. The writing professor. The bully. The tanked-up partygirl who thinks it’d be fun to just go drinking. The bowtied loudmouth who reminds you that there is an argument happening on the Internet and your opinion is needed.

All of these fine folk are fools. Their opinions are worthless. The only way to ever create a decent story/novel/article/etc. is to stay in the chair until it is done and then remain in the chair until it is revised and revised and revised.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my mentors, the most consistently valuable is to stay in the chair. And to stay true to myself and not the voices. Failure will still happen. But it won’t be guaranteed. And in this business, that’s actually a pretty big step.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Uncomfortable Weather

It is too cold for late April in South Texas. Gray. The birds are huddled in confusion and my ancient dog is curled into the kind of funk peculiar to dogs who could once sprint after the furthest tennis ball but now struggle to ascend a few stairs. The cold puts an ache in his joints.

I am more like the birds.

Today I will write. Yesterday I wrote. Tomorrow I will write. This is more than mere conjugation. This is philosophy. Or at least credo. I write, therefor—

But there are seasons, of course. Days, indeed. Something unsettled occasionally moving into the air. To which I tilt my head and wonder what machinations of high pressures and winds and deep currents and so forth led to this. There are always forces behind it. Those in the know see it gathering. Although, I never know. And so I am surprised. And I am late to grab a sweater.

I used to run more, too. Not that I am ancient or anything near. But years ago I could run the entirety of Prospect Park. I am winded easily now. I walk instead. And that I can do well. Unless the weather is bad. Then I do this instead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


What I love about AWP:
That I get to see so many friends. Particularly those I’ve come to know through days of workshops and nights of revelry.
That I hear amazing writers, particularly those who know how to read their work with passion.
That books surround. So many, beautiful books. That this can exist in the world is uplifting.
That I stay up past my bedtime because the conversations are worth the exhaustion.
That running into brilliant writers is an hourly occurrence.
That not knowing my plans in the morning no way precludes me from having a wonderful day.
That it’s just assumed we’ll all come home with more books than we can read in a year.
That my friends are my tribe. We beat drums and we dance. And there’s always plenty of beer.
What I dislike about AWP:
That it’s in cold cities, in cold parts of the year.
That the hotel bar is forever understaffed.
That the information guide is unwieldy and unindexed.
That by Saturday, too many people just glance at your nametag and then treat you according to your perceived status.
That status is even perceived. We’re writers, y’all. The best of us toil anonymously for years. How could we know if we’re in the presence of greatness if that greatness is still unpublished?
That the airline always charges me extra for the weight of the books I buy.
That I can’t see more of you, more often.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defense of Adverbs (etc.)

I see the admonition frequently. No adverbs. They weaken the bones. This is sometimes expanded into the advice that all extra words should be summarily exorcised. Except, of course, they wouldn’t use the word ‘summarily.’ Or, probably, ‘of course.’ Or ‘probably.’ Probably.
And here's where I get to my point. Yes, words weaken our work when those words are unnecessary. But what was unnecessary to, say, Raymond Carver may be vital to Jennifer Egan. Which is to say: all words can serve a purpose. Adverbs are not, I believe, inherently bad. They are easily abused, that’s for sure. They are the gateway drug to purple prose. To prose whose ornamentations blunt its power. But there are times when what might at first glance appear to be ornamentation—those flourishes and the those uses of the linguistically baroque—are, on further review, a powerful part of the prose. Indeed, they can often be an important aspect of what we call voice.
When voice was first mentioned to me, I wasn’t sure what the hell it was. I sensed it had something to do with syntactical choices, as if voice was a formula for producing sentences. I was wrong, obviously. But I wasn’t wrong wrong. Because there is an element of voice that enters the syntactical. And that often has something to do with the preponderance of flourishes. Of adverbs. Of asides. Of conversationality (but, of course, you see…). These ‘unnecessary’ words can give a story a certain pop, a unique rhythm that enhances rather than detracts from the artistic/emotional/enjoyment impact.
They also give us a sense of the writer’s consciousness. Meaning, it is through the way a writer uses language that we enter their interior world. We see things the way they see things. Even when we’re being led through a story by a character or characters, we are still within the writer’s consciousness. The greatest writers expand our view of the world by forcing us to tilt our heads and see things from a different vantage. And that vantage is, by the nature of the craft, their vantage.
I believe the admonition to delete so-called unnecessary words can flatten prose to the point that we no longer have access to a writer’s consciousness. That helps create what is often (erroneously) called MFA-style writing. Those sentences that haven’t been carefully constructed so much as they have been industriously pruned. Those voices that don’t invite us into a consciousness but rather try to impress (or at least avoid offense) with their technical precision. That is the kind of writing I often see and almost never enjoy.
I am making a broad claim, I realize. Just as I realize that a wonton use of language can be equally alienating. There is room for a thousand opinions when it comes to craft. But the more I write and (more importantly) the more I read, the more I fall in love with those so-called extra words. Those embellishments. Those much-maligned adverbs.
Our language is a vast and roiling pool. I like the idea of diving deep and barely making it up for air.