Sunday, October 19, 2008

Learning the Art and Craft

Do you know that when I started at UAF, I really wasn’t thinking of it as a chance for me to learn and grow and become a better writer? I knew, in a vague sort of way, that way where you don’t consciously think about it but if someone asked you directly you’d say “well, yeah, sure,” that the more practice you got at something the better you would become. But I honestly didn’t believe that writing was something you could learn. It was something you just either had in you or you didn’t.

This is a ridiculous opinion, but it’s one I shared with a lot of really successful writers. Thinking about it now, it’s irritating to look at famous writers who have made a lot of money based on hard work but who tell their fans that they were just born with “it.” Sure, they all admit that a lot of it comes down to the work, too, but many of them suggest that part of it is just natural talent and I think that’s a delusional crock.

At any rate, I came to UAF thinking not that I was going to learn a lot about writing, but that I would get three more years to focus on my writing and put off the inevitable moment of having to select a career a little longer. And I did get that benefit, as well as the benefit of developing an absolute passion for teaching, but I also learned A LOT about the craft of writing, how to write better, how to find the balance between what you want your art to be and what an audience will actually appreciate, too.

My first big breakthrough was with a story I wrote for my first graduate writer’s workshop, “Interpretations of Aurora.” I wrote this story in the style I had been practicing for a long time, with a dark, brooding, apathetic narrator who feels removed from the world around him. But just to do it, just because I thought it would be what the workshop would ask me to do, anyway, I included some really vivid descriptions of the setting. Sensory imagery. Movement, too. I had my narrator sitting down on the front steps of his porch folding autumn leaves and then piling them on top of the step below him as he has an argument with his wife.

This was a sort of snide addition on my part. I thought everybody would hate it, and I would think, “a-ha! But this is the very sort of thing you would have told me to include!” In fact, everybody loved it. The sensory imagery makes you feel like you’re really there; and this small, seemingly insignificant action tells so much about this narrator; and when the wife sits down on the step below him and she knocks the leaves onto the floor, it says so much about their relationship without the narrator having to say anything but what happened.

I went back and looked at the scene afterwards and realized that they were right. This was a great, telling moment. It got us out of the narrator’s head and let the reader be involved in the story, rather than just having the apathetic narrator, whose voice I still loved but who was standing in front of the reader’s line of sight, tell the story to the reader. And it had come about entirely by accident, by my trying to prove how pointless this sort of detail was.

I learned a lot during that first semester, and while it was, as I’ve said before, the hardest semester I’ve ever had to endure, it was also the most educational. Once I realized that I wasn’t brilliant and that I actually had to work at it and learn and grow and develop, I began to do just that. And now, as I’m entering the last stretch of the program here at UAF, I feel like I’m a much better writer than I was before I came, and I can only just keep getting better.

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