Here’s the part where I am to demonstrate that I “understand the theories and methods of creative writing” (Objective 1). Does that bore you as much as it does me?
I could have done this, I suppose, by analyzing the teaching methods of creative writing and the theories behind them, and seeing how close I come when I work with my own students, who are mostly older adults writing their life stories, or middle-schoolers who are a bit too rambunctious for their classrooms. But it seemed best to address the topic as a student – a student who’s studied and practiced creative writing for nigh on 50 years. My favorite bookshelf holds the reference books I use most, and about five dozen books by writers on writing. I’ve read them all at least twice.
Want the spoiler? Not a spoiler, really, because I spelled it out in my Major Project Proposal: “Since I will write for the rest of my life, and make some or all of my living from doing so, I have designed this Major Project to be attentive to the process of writing — the process of Becoming A Writer, to remind myself that the journey is never over.” Edited to the essential point, I mean that being a student of creative writing is every bit as important as being a teacher of it. And that each informs the other.
I’ve read the syllabi and promotional material for a number of the country’s top writing programs. And I’ve read the criticisms of these programs. I’ve seen firsthand what a “workshopped” piece of fiction or creative non-fiction looks like. (Billy Collins has the all-time best poem about this. Have you read it?)
My single most distressing classroom experience of 49 years was in a Fiction class in the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. I had to submit writing samples, and ask professors to recommend me, and talk with the director about why I, a CCE student, wanted to take the class. Who knows why I got in? Maybe my writing stands up with MFA students, or maybe they had a spot to fill and wanted my tuition. The class was taught by adjunct faculty, Mary Logue, a poet and Minnesota Book Award winner, among many other awards, but best known for her mystery series. Not Henry James or Virginia Woolf, but her stories are well-crafted and engaging. And at its heart, any writing endeavor is about storytelling, something Logue does very, very well. Last I heard, Henry and Virginia aren’t available to teach.
I don’t know – maybe the MFA students were miffed that a bigger name wasn’t in charge. Maybe they were at a point in their three-year program where they would have been at each other’s throats anyway. Okay, not all of them. Half the class. Literary bullies, they were. The wicked half ruined it for the six of us who were there for thorough and thoughtful critique of the merits and deficiencies of the writing we brought to class.
We were all familiar with the usual writers and writings from English literature and from world literature. We could quote from the current Pulitzer and Booker winners, the National Book award, even smaller, regional award winners. The “important stuff.” But only a few of us wanted, or were willing, to talk about the writing we loved. The stories or books that stayed with us, or that we re-read simply for the pleasure of the immersion. For me, that always starts with the students I find in front of me, whether I am “teaching” them, or a student myself. It includes Nathaniel Hawthorne and Carol Shields and Henry James and O. Henry and Annie Proulx and Lee Smith and Faith Sullivan and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty and Mark Twain and Shakespeare and Poe and about a dozen newish short story writers whose names never stay with me, but whose writing does.
One guy said, “If I don’t make it before I’m 30, I’ll never be a Writer.” Geez, really? I thought to myself. Aloud I said, rather timidly, I’m afraid, “I’m 50, and I’m here because I’ve had a character in my head for ten years, and I’ve written down bits and pieces of her story, and I’m pretty sure there’s a book there and I’m hoping to make some progress. I’ll keep my day job until I’m certain.” And in my head I was thinking, I’m a writer, not a Writer. They were ruthless with each other. One particularly tiresome young woman shared far too much about her year working in a New York publishing house, which might have been somewhat useful had any of us been working on a manuscript we were thinking of submitting there. But alas, she assured us that nothing we’d presented in class would have been considered.
I thought, People, people. These folks sitting here every week, this instructor – this is not your competition. There’s a whole wide world out there – that’s your competition, your audience, your material. It pleases me no end, several years later, that I see in print the names of the talented writers who were also kind and helpful people. Those writers, and the instructor, gave me advice and feedback that I still use. The jerks seem to have faded. But it was valuable classroom time, if only to convince me that I do not want to spend even one semester with people who view writing from an angle a cosmos away from my own.
The truth is, though, I’ve learned something about how to write, and what to write, from everyone who’s ever stood in front of me. From teachers, certainly. You, Robin, pacing in front of the Science and Humanity class, and encouraging us to spend most of the semester thinking before writing — about Descartes, and Latour, and advertising, and media, and culture, prevailing or otherwise. (I’ve just re-read my Anchoring Descartes and my Science in Everyday Life essays, and your comments. What fun.) Mrs. Tish, my sixth grade teacher, let me take the summer to finish my story about a girl and a lost dog, and turn it in to her that August; she gave me an A for it in May, because she said she knew it would be good. Mark Garrison, who taught fifth grade at my kids’ school, invited me one spring to visit with creative writing exercises, and I went back several times each year for several years. With him, I saw that teaching can be as much fun as writing.
I chose four books on writing to look at again (you’ll see those reviews linked from my Project page) because I think they cover a good understanding of the theories and methods of creative writing. In a nutshell, their advice boils down to the same thing I hear whenever I ask a writer, or a teacher for advice: Read good writing. Pay attention to the world. Write every day, revise, write some more.
And I haven’t found a theory or method I love as much as Roger Rosenblatt’s explanation: “All good stories, fact or fiction, end badly. We write to find out how to live before the bad ending happens.”
Objective 5 — write a draft manuscript of up to 40 poems. Nope, didn’t make it. I should have said 30 to begin with, and then I wouldn’t have to feel bad about the 28 I posted. But I’m willing to put my name on these 28, a few of them are pretty good, and I’ll enjoy working with the rest. As you pointed out, “All Shall Be Well” is a poem of sorts, or 42 poem/paragraphs strung together. I’ve meant to do more with it, but am still not sure what – and am beginning to think that leaving it as is allows it to say what I want to say about my children’s journey with mental illness/health, even if starkly. It was a stark journey.
The third part of this project was to look at publishing, the current state of publishing creative writing. (Objective 3) At this point in the project, it seemed like a good idea to compile something that might be useful later on (other than the raw material of 20 or so poems to revise) so I decided to make a list of various outlets, marking what’s notable about each.
It would be easy to drop into despair over the odds of getting one’s creative writing published. By published, I mean in an actual book, with cover art, and jacket blurbs — a book that would sit on bookshelves — in stores, libraries, homes (the bookshelves are oak and smell of furniture wax and there’s a comfortable chair with a good reading lamp close by). In addition to the book suitable for oak shelves, there would be an e-reader version. Later, a movie deal, adaptation or screenplay. Ah, the writing life. Luckily, I didn’t start out wanting to be a well-known and beloved and richly rewarded novelist. The current state of publishing is not all that different from 10 or 50 years ago, as far as I can tell — there are just so many more people writing now. More writers = more writing, which presumably means it’s about evenly distributed between good and bad writing, much as always. Good writing isn’t a guarantee of publication all that much more than bad writing is a prohibition of it. Editors at major publishing houses serve as much as marketing managers as mid-wives of manuscripts, which means large houses can take on more books in less time — if the books require marketing, and not much editing. It’s safe to publish books of the same kind that are already selling. (Where did Oprah get her supply of struggling-Southern-woman-finds-her-strength books? The list to choose from became self-perpetuating, that’s where.) Self-publishing gets easier and less expensive every year, which simply means that more books, good and bad, are lost in the crowd. It seems universal that every author is expected to participate, or initiate, the marketing effort for a book. Social media and web sites are de riguer.
I loved talking with Chris Fischbach at Coffee House Press about one of their newest acquisitions. It’s a novel written by a musician with a large and loyal following, who then went on to record an album in the voice of one of his characters. Fischbach admits they were a little slow to see the social media possibilities for this… I’ve posted a couple of entries about my conversation with Chris, with a Coffee House board member, and with writer friends, one an essayist, the other a YA author.
Coffee House publishes about 15 titles per year. Lots of interesting small presses do the same. But there are about a million other options for publication — particularly for short fiction, poetry, essays — and surely more outlets on the way in coming years. The well-established literary journals receive increasing numbers of submissions, but there are newer journals, too. “Alternative” weeklies, or quarterlies, online journals. I’m fascinated with Kindling – “pocket lit” that comes in an envelope, short stories and poems that fit on 4×6 cards. Cool.
My conclusion: Writers have to work hard to get their work published, so the writing itself had better be its own reward.
Pursuing publication has not been my strong suit. I’ve used my writing time to write, and I’ve never been regular about submitting my work to journals or contests or publishers and keeping track of what is where. Maybe now that I have a working list, I’ll do a bit more. I have the tools to pursue publication. But if I never get published in the book-on-the-oak-bookshelf kind of way, I will still write. My facility with language, and with storytelling, have kept me happy for more than five decades, and — not insignificant — employable for much of that time.
When I left MPR last July, I gave myself the gift of a year to focus on my writing. Not exclusively – I still had a family to deal with, and a part-time job at IKEA for health insurance (thank you, Swedish socialism) and I didn’t hole up in a peaceful cabin with a mountain view to finish a manuscript. But for seven months now, I’ve been able to focus primarily on the writing I needed to do to finish my degree. And I used the opportunity to look more closely at the kind of writing I’d like to do for pay, and how I might exchange my time to do that. So while it will be great to have an actual degree to hang on the wall (above the oak bookcase) in the end, the learning along the way was the main point.
It always is.
My very grateful thanks to you for helping me learn about writing – in 1982, and since,