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Someone said that art reveals much more of the artist than it ever does of the subject. That is especially true when it comes down to writers. Being that literature is not a visual art, every sentence that we read or write, every place, every character is ultimately filtered through the author’s own unique perspective. We may look at a painting and find it ugly, boring, or see no meaning in it whatsoever. However, in literature, we find whatever the author describes as beautiful, beautiful. No matter how plain the thing may actually be, once it is put into words, we have never known or experienced it any other way. As words are laid out on the page, the writer has exposed a piece of their own heart, by showing us the things that they find are the most valuable.
For that reason, writing is the truest, most direct form of communication. Every single person who has read Lord of the Rings knows Frodo’s exhaustion as he climbs Mount Doom, and every Harry Potter fan knows the slippery, silky feel of an invisibility cloak. Even if you’ve never had Turkish Delight, you know after reading The Chronicles of Narnia that it’s pretty much the most delicious thing ever. Writing is the great equalizer in art; it creates an experience that everyone can share, something that we can all understand the same way. Most importantly, it connects our hearts to everyone who has ever held the same book in their hands. So while writing, as an art, does expose the heart and mind of the writer, it also provides an experience that connects all of its readers. The subject, the truth of the story itself, lies somewhere between the perception of the writer and the interpretation of the reader.
Creating the perfect character is as intricate as piecing together a puzzle.
Stories take place in all types of regions and eras, with characters of all types of races, ages and social classes. But when you boil each story down, they are really about the same thing: human nature. They all seek to capture an element of the struggle it is to be human and the conflicts (big or small) one faces in the course of a lifetime, year, day, hour or even minute. Therefore, for readers (humans) to sympathize with a piece of fiction and really be moved by it, they must see something of themselves in the characters that inhabit it.
Humans are complex. We become victims of our emotions and become sad or happy at the drop of a dime. We have vices and things we do that we are too afraid to tell others for fear we wouldn’t be loved. We have thoughts we would rather take with us to the grave than share. We have fragile egos prey to the words and actions of others. We have problems showing love and affection; we have problems receiving it. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We betray.
As a writer, it would be impossible to capture all these facets into one character. In fact, trying to do so is where a lot of writers go wrong –– especially young ones. We create characters that are too generalized because we want them stand for a sect of people: a typical NYC teen, a typical housewife, a typical dad. However, creating a “typical” anything only leads to a flat unoriginal 2-D character that will make your narrative stagnant. Original characters fuel great stories –– individuals with unique intricacies, problems, beliefs and behaviors, and those are the characters we must strive to create. Read more »
Everyone has their writing ritual. Maybe you need to make a huge pot of coffee before you start. Maybe you get out a particular kind of pen or paper. Maybe you turn on some moody music.
As I’m growing as a writer and working with themes and ideas beyond thinly veiled, somewhat autobiographical short stories, I’m finding that there are certain rituals I need to follow to get into my writing groove. And strangely, I’m finding that these little habits, these scenes I set for myself, help my writing. Perhaps they don’t enhance my actual writing, but they do let me settle in and be incredibly productive (rather than lead to two hours of web browsing for every three sentences I write).
There’s an old New Year’s superstition that whatever you do on January 1st will set the theme of what you do for the entire year. The truth of this has yet to be determined; however, on the first of every year I have faithfully avoided touching the laundry, doing the dishes, or paying any outstanding parking tickets.
This January 1st, I’ve decided that I’m going to spend as much time as I can writing, and recommitting to my goals as a writer and as a person. I’m absolutely committed to finishing the revision of my novel. I may still have to do laundry this year, but I do believe that by determining now, you can set a new tone for the approaching twelve months. That starts today, with you deciding to make a change, no matter how small it is.
Keep a nice little notebook in your back pocket, it'll do you wonders.
SIFI is the name of a little notebook I carry around in my back pocket at all times; it stands for “Shit I Find Interesting”. It’s full of scribbles and illegible statements in no real order. Snips of thoughts, ideas, musings, observations and well, anything I find interesting. It’s the type of book every writer should have.
Ideas strike writers at all times of the day. You can be on the train and over hear an interesting conversation, maybe see someone who looks eccentric maybe wearing something odd––and an idea for a story or a character might follow. You can be in class, zoning out in the back and in that moment of lapse, your mind jumps to a vivid thought, a memory of use in a story maybe even a scene. Or, you could just be lounging with your friends, talking shit around a table. One might say something, a statement that summarizes a complex belief of your age group, maybe a bit of slang that’s poignant, possibly useful for your narrative.
This weekend, I was fortunate to attend a lecture given by one of my personal heroes, Joyce Carol Oates. Queen of the contemporary American (specifically New York-based) gothic, Oates is as prolific as she is profound.
I finally found my way to The Hilton on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue after taking 3 subways, a cab and then sprinting on my sprained ankle through the Casimir Pulaski parade on Fifth. Unable to find a seat due to my late arrival, I perched on the table in the back with my journal and a bleeding pen. There she was: the small, pale woman with shiny eyes that haunts the back cover of her books. I was surprised by how, well, sweet she sounded when not discussing evil fetuses and murderous country wives. These are the types of things that get me excited! Call me sick or macabre, but when I’m having a bad day, I appreciate the sound of a chainsaw mercilessly tearing through teenage flesh (on-screen only, I swear).
Though the lecture seemed to be geared towards the casual reader (not the obsessive gothic-loving freak of an English major I am), I found some gems in her speech, or at least some confirmations of my methods and madness. Read more »
The Jersey Shore. It’s one of the most popular shows on TV right now, has single-handedly made MTV relevant again and is constantly in the news – so why won’t anyone admit they watch it?
Not only will no one over the age of 17 admit they watch it, but ragging on the guidos and guidettes that make this show so successful has become a national pastime. A recent article in Vanity Fair is a prime example:
“…which is more than can be said for MTV’s Jersey Shore, a cynical slumming exercise whose carefully chosen cast of lower primates with limited vocabularies would seem to get the last laugh by becoming famous for accomplishing nothing, the new American Dream…”
Okay, so James Wolcott hates The Jersey Shore. Or at least he thinks he does. The reason I’m not sure he actually hates Snooki and the gang is because his description of the show is hardly its reality. In fact, I’d like to wager that most people who turn their noses up at MTV’s newest sensation (Wolcott included) haven’t really watched it. Because if they had…they’d realize the “cast of lower primates with limited vocabularies” are actually just a bunch of people who aren’t afraid of being exactly who they are. Read more »
I don’t mean to rehash the whole “is-the-MFA-degree-in-creative-writing-useless” issue, but I do want to suggest some solutions to one of the commonly cited arguments against getting an MFA. [Full Disclosure: I'm getting my MFA at Columbia University.]
I’ve often heard that MFA programs produce cookie-cutter writers. Because students are all taught by the same professors, reading the same assigned readings (most often, from the mainstream canon of literature), and critiquing each others work within a closed loop, they end up all sounding like one another and like the influences that are hoisted upon them within the courses.
Like I said, I don’t intend to rehash this debate. Instead, I want to propose some solutions I’ve come up with.
If, in fact, people come out of MFA programs sounding like “MFA-ey writers,” with cautious language, similar influences, and a lack of risk and experimentation, here are some ideas of how to diversify your influences while in an MFA program and avoid robotic writing:
Read translated literature. Read works in English by authors from other cultures, countries, languages, and periods of time. Bring in some of that foreign-ness into your English. Push the boundaries of what English is expected to be able to do. Or hell, if you have the skills, just read non-English works in their original language! Certainly the majority of people around you aren’t doing this in most traditional MFA programs.
Translate literature yourself, if you have sufficient language skills. In the process, you’re forced to become super acquainted with another author (do one you admire) and you’ll end up soaking up some of their literary influences, ones that stand outside of the English stuff everyone else is reading.
Read things that might not be categorized, necessarily, as literary. What about the works of oral history by Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich? In reading those transcriptions of monologues by people who survived the Great Depression and the Chernobyl disaster, I learned a lot about dialogue, tone, being sparse, and forcing myself to cut out the unnecessary fat of my paragraphs.
Maintain ties with writers, editors, and friends who are good readers of your work outside of the MFA program. Have people outside your program read your work. Go to readings of people who aren’t your classmates. SheWrites is a great online community for women writers, for example.
Get a part-time job (or dreaded internship) that exposes you to worlds beyond the classroom. Try journalism. Try teaching. Be a grant writer. Work as the editor for a literary journal. Obviously easier said than done, especially in this (transitional) job market.
Take classes or workshops in other genres! Be friends with writers across genres! This is a big one, I think. Who says you can only write in one form? Challenge yourself to try out other forms, and even if that’s not your style, allow the tools and tricks you learn from one to inform the other. Sentences in literary nonfiction have to sing just like they do in poetry. Side note: I found that teaching multi-genre creative writing to high school students made me confident enough to try writing fiction for the first time in years. If I can teach it, hell, I should be able to do it.
Any other ideas?
Thanks to Idra Novey for some of the ideas about translation.
It was a Sunday night. I was exhausted and on my second glass of wine and that’s probably why I didn’t protest when someone suggested putting on a movie starring Gerald Butler, Jamie Fox and the worst plot ever imagined.
I knew this film would suck. I could just tell by looking at the DVD cover. Also, I remembered critics panning it months back. Two strikes. But like I said: wine and exhaustion. So someone slipped it into the TV and we all sat back to watch what turned out to be exactly the kind of lame, violent, stupidly plotted movie I thought it would.
What frustrated me about this film wasn’t the acting, or the surprise violence (I’d like to be warned before a bullet makes a person’s head explode, thank you very much), it was the fact that it even got made in the first place.
As freshly minted writers, every opportunity that comes our way is always packaged in a “this is your one chance so don’t screw it up” kind of way. We work our asses off writing, rewriting, swallowing mind-numbing critique and even giving up scenes we’d practically date if given the chance. We run mental triathlons because, well, our art has to be perfect – or no one’s going to give it a second thought.
So we beat ourselves up to create this expressive masterpiece, and then someone brings over a DVD that’s so full of every writing Don’t it makes our mouths hang open in disbelief. How the hell does something like this get made?! It’s awful. Don’t tell me this was someone’s magnum opus. It’s impossible. The only way this makes sense is if a bunch of big execs came up with it in the back of a party van on the way to a strip club. Read more »