You may have heard me quote my friend, novelist and memoirist Judy Goldman, when she talks about the most important question a writer can ask him or herself. It’s simple. “Did I write today?” Not how many pages, or how many words, Judy goes on to say, but just ask if you did it.
Well, I’m asking that questions every day. And just like eating whole foods and reading what’s going to make my writing better, I have to wake up with that goal firmly planted in my psyche, and I have to do my best to achieve it each day, even if some days I fail. Otherwise my muse will go find somebody else who doesn’t mind sitting at her keyboard typing or scribbling on her legal pad toward inspiration and eloquence. Continue Reading »
Reading. My friend Joyce McDonald, a fine writer, said something that inspired this year’s thread of activity on Dancing with the Gorilla. She said, “I read 200 books last year.” I about fell out of my seat.
I’ve let reading good literature (and bad literature with a good cover on it) fall to the wayside. Teaching writing classes means you read manuscripts. Lots of them. Often too many of them for your own good as a writer. Now, some of them are very fine, but many of them need a lot of editing. And you’re reading with editing in mind, even when they are good, and that’s not the same mindset that absorbs good storytelling in the most luscious way.
My ex once said he wouldn’t play tennis with me anymore because I was ruining his game. Don’t boo him. He was right. Have you seen my hand-eye coordination? Continue Reading »
This week I’m teaching at the Tennessee Young Writers Workshop at Austin Peay State University. TYWW is a program of Humanities Tennessee, the same organization that offers us the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville on the second weekend of October and Chapter 16–Tennessee’s excellent virtual center for the book. For more information on these programs, visit Humanities Tennessee’s website: www.humantiestennessee.org
This is a terrific workshop because all the young people who attend want to write. We don’t have the make them write. They are writing on their own volition, and not just in class. They write in the their free time. They write in groups with someone offering a prompt. They gather in clusters of like-mindedness and share their work for critique. They are thick-skinned (sometimes after a rite of passage for first-year participants) and they understand that their goal is to become a better writer every day, every time they pick up the pen, and that becoming a better write may require them to lower their standards and write badly before the good stuff can come. These young writers understand what it means to write toward their stories, to feel around in the dark for the things they need, the objects and gestures and lines of dialogue and the surprises their characters give them. The elements they find in the dark illuminate the story they are searching for or illuminate how a story they already know can be best told.
What struck me early this week is that these young writers wrestle with the same issues all writers wrestle with. Growing up or growing older doesn’t cure you of insecurity, a vocabulary curve, an unhealthy obsession with adverbs. Writing well is always work on some level, and it is work writers should embrace will all the enthusiasm of this crowd of young writers. They can learn a lot from writers who have achieved some success. But we can also learn a lot from them.
Go be enthusiastic about writing. Don’t fall victim to that stereotype of the tortured writer. Accept the joy of your obsession and go take joy in it, even if it sometimes brings you to tears.
One of my favorite exercises is to ask students to list as many one syllable words beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet as they can. Each of us has an active vocabulary (words that come easily to us in speech and in writing) and a passive vocabulary (words we know the meaning of but don’t use readily). As a writer you need as many words at your disposal as you can muster. This exercise helps remind the writer of words he or she knows but might not think of when writing a first draft. And many one-syllable words are good solid specific nouns and verbs. They work like bricks to build a strong image or sentence.
The next part of the exercise is to write a story with only one syllable words. Only proper nouns can be multi-syllabic. Try it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish with only one-syllable words.
This week’s Scene Storm Word List comes from the letter C and all are one-syllable words:
Born and raised in Kentucky, Maurice Manning won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book Laurence Booth’s Book of Visions (Yale University Press, 2001). His other collections include A Compainion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone. Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c. (2004), Bucolics (2007), and The Common Man (2010) all from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Manning teaches creative writing at Indiana University and in the Warren Wilson College Low Residency MFA Program. Manning is one of the most interesting poets and essayist writing today. If you have read his work, go get some of it and read it.
Here’s Maurice’s list. He sneaks in a couple of novel recommendations, then his list of five collections of poetry, including another recommendation for The Late Wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection from Claudia Emerson. Continue Reading »
In his new book from LSU Press, Six Poets of the Mountain South, poet John Lang writes about Fred Chappell, Jim Wayne Miller, Robert Morgan, Jeff Daniel Marion, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Charles Wright. For more info, visit: http://www.lsu.edu/lsupress/bookPages/9780807135600.html
DVD you don’t want to miss: The Poet’s View: Intimate Film Pofiles of Five Major Amercian Poets: John Ashbery, Louise Gluck, Anthony Hecht, Kay Ryan, WS Merwin.From the cover: “Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Mel Stuart, this collection is an insightful look at the personality, life, and work of five influential American poets.” I use this DVD in my teaching and sometimes I sit and watch a poet’s segment while I eat my lunch! Continue Reading »
“What are you prepared to do?” Officer Malone (Sean Connery), in that beautiful brogue, asks Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables. “Anything within the law,” responds Ness. “And then what are you prepared to do?” replies Malone.
This is the kind of conversation I imagine author Larry Brown having with an aspiring or struggling writer. Continue Reading »