Sunday, May 31, 2009


I love to talk to other people about literature and about writing. The only thing I love more than talking about it is actually doing it: reading and writing. But the truth is, talking about it is a close second. One of the things I was really looking forward to in joining an MFA program was that I would become part of a community of readers and writers who, I assumed, would all be way into to talking about it, too.

But this is one of my MFA expectations that didn’t quite get fulfilled, at least, not as completely as I would have wanted. What I found when I got into the program was that a lot of people, when I would ask them questions about the books we were reading for classes or the comps exam, or what they were working on as writers, were so burnt out on the subject from school that they didn’t want to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making broad generalizations and this was not true of every single person in the program. Most of the people who I ended up liking the most were the ones who were as interested and excited about talking about literature and writing as I was, so maybe what it really comes down to is that some people just like talking about it and others don’t.

But I have another theory that might also be a little bit (or a lot?) true. I think when something that you love makes that shift (you know, the one that so many of us dream about?) from being your hobby to your occupation – either because it’s your job now or because it’s the focus of your academic studies – sometimes you start looking at it the way you look at, well, work.

Suddenly getting into elaborate discussions about a book you’ve read might not be that fun, since you were forced to spend three hours engaging in such a conversation in class and you associate the idea with school, which you do not want to think about right now. And the same with writing. A fellow student asks you what you’ve been working on lately and you feel like you’re being interrogated. “I don’t know. Just a story.” And that’s all you feel like saying because last night in workshop the other students spent an hour ripping your story apart and you’re sort of embarrassed and dejected and you just want to talk about anything but writing. Add to that the fact that if you become a career academic you’ll probably be writing intricate papers – or books – that go into a lot of detail as you argue your reading of a particular text or texts. Your way of having a discussion about literature becomes reading other people’s arguments about the text and then writing your own. A fun and valid way of doing it, sure, but can it really replace having an actual back and forth conversation about a book?

I don’t know why this didn’t happen to me. I always left class wishing it wasn’t over yet because there was more, still, to say about this or that book. And I wanted to know what other books my peers were reading, and what they thought of those books, and how much time they wrote every week, and whether or not they were submitting, and . . . and . . . and . . . Like I said, I eventually found some really awesome people who will sit and gab for hours about this stuff, but I can’t help but wonder if a better place to find people to talk to about these things might not actually be out in the real world.

I’ve been thinking about all the famous writers throughout history who were members of groups of people with whom they shared work, as well as talked about reading and writing. I could give some specific examples but I won’t bother – we’ve all read about writers who developed tightly knit and close friendships with other readers and writers, or who were part of literary or writers groups. It seems to me like one of the things that many – dare I say most? – successful writers have in common is that they had other people in their lives who not only gave feedback on their work but who connected with them in lengthy conversations about literature, philosophy, art, and the craft and business of writing.

Some of these groups, I’m sure, were formed with fellow academics, people the writers met as students or teachers, but many of them weren’t. If that’s the only reason you’re interested in grad school, consider that it’s quite possible that you’ll be able to form that sort of group on your own – and you may be better off doing so, since those people won’t have made the sometimes fatal mistake of turning reading and writing from their passion into their work. But however you do it, I hope that you do it. Maybe I’m biased because I enjoy it so much, but I feel that talking about reading and writing with others is an essential part of being a writer. It motivates you; it helps you look at things from other perspectives; it gets you thinking about new things that you hadn’t thought of on your own. We are each just one person, and we need other people to broaden our views. It’s as simple as that.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oh that’s SO Cliché!

One thing I noticed a fair amount of when I was teaching Creative Writing last semester was the tendency students had to refer to each others work as “cliché” or “stereotypical” or “unoriginal.” It’s something I remember experiencing for the first time when I took my first graduate level workshop – being cliché wasn’t something I had ever been accused of as an undergrad, for some reason, but my first semester in grad school I grew to loath the word cliché. Oh they tried to say it nicely, mind you. Things like, “This is funny in a totally clichéd way – I assume that’s what you’re going for, right?” or, “Your narrator seems like sort of an idiot because he speaks and behaves in a totally clichéd manner – is that intentional?”

I’m not going to bitch and moan about how much it hurts to be told that your writing is clichéd (a lot) or how it hurts even more to realize that (GASP!) the things your peers are telling you are true. I look back on my first graduate level workshop as one of the most painful but also most useful experiences I have ever had in my life, and while some of those comments still sting a little bit (they remind me, you know, how little actual talent I have because any ability that I do have has come from a whole lot of hard work) I feel I have improved drastically because of them.

But what I want to talk about here is my experience looking at it from the other side this past semester, as a teacher. I did have one incident during the semester where one student’s feedback was so over-the-top cruel (saying that the entire story was just one giant cliché and that it could not possibly be revised and should be thrown away altogether) but overall most of the students were trying to be constructive when they repeatedly accused each other of being cliché, and in fact, most of them were essentially right (of course, I still encouraged students to come up with more constructive feedback than “this is so cliché”).

Though a majority of the writing coming from that class showed promise (and some of it I believe will be publishable if the student keeps working on it), I would also say, if looking at it from an objective manner, most of the stories that were written for that class contained elements that were not particularly original. While some of the stories were certainly less original than others, it did seem to be true that most of the students were inadvertently falling back on ideas that most of us (who are perhaps more well read than a class full of undergraduate Intro to Creative Writing students) would say we’ve seen a thousand times before.

But here’s the trick. In general, the reason why things become cliché is because they’re effective. This is true on the sentence level (how many cliché metaphors and similes can you think of that would just shock you with their beauty and truth if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a cliché?) and it’s true on the larger scale, too. Characters often have this or that personality trait because it successfully tells you something important about them. We’ve seen this or that plot twist so many times because it works. See? Most clichés becomes cliché because, in truth, they’re excellent examples of writing.

What’s that you say? But a good writer comes up with his or her own good writing? Here’s the thing: I’ve come to realize that, at the early stage of writing, many excellent writers use clichés not because they’re not good enough to come up with something for themselves, but because they haven’t read widely enough yet to know that this is a cliché. It may well be (and I think often is) an idea that the writer came up with on his or her own, it just happens to also be an idea that tons of other people came up with too.

This is part of the reason why I think reading A LOT is essential to success as a writer. You have got to develop a broad knowledge base of what’s been done already and what hasn’t. Of course, there are a number of other good reasons why you should read a lot, but this is one that I think gets forgotten sometimes. And the other important thing I’ve taken away from this is the belief that writing really clichéd stuff early on – when you’re still learning how to write – does not necessarily preclude you from developing into a very good writer. It may well even be a sign of developing ability – you’ve figured out this thing that works, you just don’t have enough knowledge in your field yet to know that somebody else figured it out before you.

So write your clichés if you must. Eventually you’ll have to move past them if you want to be considered good by anyone but your mom, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all writers who write in clichés are inherently bad. Maybe all it really means is that they still have a lot left to learn, and really, don’t we all?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Overwhelmed by Workshop Suggestions

I got an interesting rejection this week. It was for a story I had submitted to workshop a few semesters ago. This story had been a totally different sort of writing from what I usually do and so, when I had it workshopped, I was really sort of insecure about what to do with it, not even sure what I wanted it to be. The truth is, I was probably a little overzealous in my revision to accept every bit of advice that was given to me whether it was really the right choice or not. But at any rate, I revised the story taking WAY more of the class’s suggestions than I normally would and started sending it out when I felt like it was ready.

The editor who rejected the story gave me some extremely useful specifics on why he was rejecting it. He said he thought it was a great idea, but X, Y, and Z were holding it back. Every single thing he pointed out were things I had changed about the story to follow workshop feedback. The interesting thing about it is that I realized, as I thought about his suggestions and compared them with the original workshop suggestions, that in many ways I feel that both sets of feedback were right. But how can that be?

I read somewhere recently that suggestions that are given in a workshop should rarely be taken – they should only be used as a sign for something that might be wrong with the piece at the moment. Once you figure out what’s fueling the suggestion, you should, most of the time, ignore the suggestion itself and come up with something on your own to fix whatever problem lies at the heart of the suggestion.

My problem was that, not feeling very confident about the story to begin with, and especially since it was a totally different sort of writing from what I normally do, most of the suggestions that were given to me during workshop sounded like great ideas. So I decided to take many of them. But once they had actually become part of the piece, they created a whole new set of problems that I hadn’t noticed until this editor pointed them out to me.

This is one of the dangers of workshop. I can’t even remember all the times I’ve been given feedback that sounded great while I sat in the classroom feverishly taking notes, and then when I went to actually make the changes I realized that they would never work – they didn’t fit with what I was trying to do or they created new, much larger problems or . . .

My problem this time was really a complete lack of self confidence in my own abilities to, well, write the story for myself. Workshop is great, don’t get me wrong, but getting feedback can become almost like a crutch sometimes and if you’re not feeling very sure of a particular piece it can do more harm than good to have a large group of people, many of whom are probably not picking up on your intentions as the writer, give you suggestions on how to make it more like something they would have written.

So it’s important to remember that your workshop did not write the piece, you did, and only you can make the final decisions of what to do next. It’s difficult, I think, but extremely important to find the right balance between having the confidence to veto suggestions that are wrong for this particular piece and yet the wisdom to recognize when there are problems with the piece and when feedback should be taken.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Finish Line

Well I’ve officially finished my MFA program. This past week was finals week and I turned my stuff in for the workshop I was taking and posted my grades for the class I was teaching and now I’m left with the peculiar feeling of having done everything I was supposed to do and yet knowing, still, that there’s so much more left to do.

I’ve heard people speak of the anticlimactic feeling of finishing but I would say that, although it doesn’t feel as monumental as I might have imagined three years ago, finishing does feel climactic to me. I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about how sheltered I’ve been in the program and how nice it is to be part of such a sheltered community of writers. Finishing, then, really does feel like the end of an era, the final chapter of a book.

It’s scary to think about going out into “the real world,” scary to think about (probably) getting a regular job, outside of academia, where my life will no longer revolve around sharing work and talking about writing with fellow writers. I’ve made some writer friends here, and hopefully I’ll make writer friends where we’re headed, too, so that I’ll always have people with whom to share work and talk about craft. But that stuff will be pushed off into the background, now, just like writing itself will have to be. Because first you have to worry about survival – feeding your family and paying your bills.

It sort of feels like moving out of your parents house that first time. All your life they’ve clothed you, fed you, put a roof over your head, fostered your development, (hopefully) encouraged you to become what you want to become, and now they’re stepping out of the picture. For better or worse, you’re on your own. And now you have to take over the responsibilities of taking care of yourself, something you didn’t realize was such a task when somebody else was doing it for you.

But even though it’s scary, even though it feels like I’ve reached the end of a book I very much enjoyed, the light shimmering around the clouds is that I get to pick right up with a new book, and who’s to say it won’t be just as good? Who’s to say it won’t be better? Just like moving out on your own the first time, leaving an MFA program is also exciting – it feels like the start of a new adventure. Now I can put all that stuff I learned and practiced in the program to use. Now I can put myself to the test, see if I really have what it takes.

And as scared as I am right now, I still say: BRING IT!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reading by Choice

Last week I had a sort of exciting revelation: not being in school is going to mean that I have time to read things that I choose to read! I know, I know – that’s obvious. But I hadn’t really thought about how much that really means until I got totally involved in – and inspired by – Stephen King’s newest short story collection.

That’s right. Stephen King. Can you think of a less MFA approved writer?

My required reading for workshop – the only class I’m taking this semester – was finished and with my thesis done, my comps exam behind me, and all of my lit credits already in the bag, I didn’t have any papers to write or any books that I needed to read. So I had time during a semester to read a book that I didn’t have to read for school – a very rare occasion indeed.

No, it’s not the best book in the world – it’s not even Stephen King’s best book – and if you’re looking at craft issues it’s nowhere near as well written as the stuff we’re required to read for school. But it was a freaking enjoyable book even so. I got totally sucked in, to use that old reading cliché, and one of the stories in particular (a story called “The Gingerbread Girl,” one which I highly recommend and which I would argue is well crafted and worthy of being studied in an MFA program) really inspired me as a writer.

I won’t say too much in the hopes that you might actually read the story yourself, but there’s a very high tension point where, based on the way a certain thing is described, an image flashed into my mind – a very disturbed image of something that one of the characters could have done to the other. But it didn’t happen; something else happened instead, which made perfect sense for the story, of course, but I couldn’t get my idea of what she might have done in that situation out of my head.

I was so engaged with the story that I wanted to remain in that world even after I finished it. I wanted to see what would happen if the character had done what I had, for that one brief moment, expected her to do. So I started writing my own story. No, it isn’t like fan fiction. It’s not the same world, not the same characters, not the same story in any way. Just a new story about a woman who finds herself in a similar situation and she does what I wanted her to do.

I just wrote and wrote and wrote. And I felt more inspired and more into what I was writing than I’ve felt in a long time. My story is so different from Stephen King’s that I can’t imagine anybody would even see what the two have in common, but the important thing is that I picked a book off my shelf, one which I felt in the mood to read (a luxury we absolutely do not have when we’re required to read X book on X week in school), and I ended up totally inspired to write something new.

It made me really excited about the fact that I won’t be a student next year. As much as I love school, and I love discussing the required reading with others, there’s a lot to be said for choosing what to read for yourself. Of course personal taste comes into play, and your receptiveness to a particular book at a particular time can be greatly altered by whether you happened to be in the mood for that sort of book, and ultimately I feel that reading something by choice can be a much more fruitful experience than reading something because you have to. And so I’m actually starting to feel that (as much as I praise and praise and praise some more the value of MFA programs) I’m likely to grow a lot as a writer in the near future by not being in school anymore. Hurray for the silver lining!