Writing Time

The busier my life becomes, the harder it becomes to make time for writing and, paradoxically, the easier it becomes to write. What I mean by this is that by the time I get to my weekly writing session, I come armed with half-sentences and quarter formed ideas and stories. I have a handful of scrap papers and inside-of-book-jacket scribbles that says things like “my brain doesn’t bend that way,” and “On our fifth date, he confessed he was my brother.” The two or three hours a week I get to write during the semester has me always starving for more time, and when I get it I glut.

One of the great anxieties of the writing field is the pressure to “produce,” “to be working.” This pressure can mount to a point that it takes the joy out of writing, cramps creativity, and produce the culturally-toted cliché of the writing professor with writer’s block. Recently I had the joy of reading back through some exercises and short pieces I wrote when I didn’t feel this pressure. There is a whimsy to this work that makes some of it what I would consider strong work, even if these snippets are frayed and at times less than coherent. I clearly felt more freedom to waste writing time, and this is one of the most important and underrated mechanisms of creative writing: time to waste. My teachers knew this, and many assigned writing exercises that were designed to evoke the weirdest whimsies from our depths, to have us breaking rules and finding that sense of freedom.

I hope that my writing assignments free my students in the same way, that either because of or in spite of me my students look back at their time writing in academia and think that it was also, and again paradoxically, a time they transcended boundaries.

When you are starting out, failure is at every step, at every corner. You become so used to it, that when you go to work you can’t help but think, what’s a little more failure? I don’t want to go back to the time when I had yet to have a piece accepted for publication, and my constant question was “Am I good enough? Will I ever be good enough?” But I wouldn’t mind a whole afternoon writing a half a story only to get bored with it, abandon it, and start again the next day.

Time, no matter how it’s used it,  is perhaps a writer’s most essential tool.  It is how books are made.  And it is why it is so important that we continue to support organizations that fund time for writers and artists, such the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. These organizations support serious artists and writers so that they can produce this work. And while wasting time might be good for the creative brain, this is not wasted time.

This is time glutted on by writers and artists starving for it, who are deeply committed to the magnificent thing they will make for us during this time, the thing that will remain. The book that future generations can use to look back and see that this what civilization as we knew it looked like, can know that for all our faults we were people who supported things beautiful and strange because we knew art was what made us human.

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Collaboration

All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.
Dan Graham (conceptual artist)

I cut this quote out of an art magazine years ago and have kept it taped to my office wall. I think of writers as artists, and I think Graham’s notion speaks to writers equally, perhaps even more so. In our lonely world of the page, there are few opportunities to share our work, or for that matter, our process synchronously. I think this is why so many of us seek out teaching, conferences, and the “workshop.” Periodically I have fantasies where my writing interacts with the world in a way that is “more social,” “more real.” I imagine that Apple builds me a bungalow with digital, interactive pages for walls so that I, and others, could create stories that readers could actually walk through and inhabit. Or I imagine that I find someone who wants to illustrate my novel-in-progress as a creative exercise for both of us. Or, because I have a weakness for crime drama television, that the FBI starts a creative writing unit, charged with coming up with every possible narrative surrounding a crime. Finally, writers are needed to save the day.

While these fantasies represent the largely improbable, the same social yearning has led me to more productive spaces, namely, of collaboration. I used to feel very private about and protective of my works-in-progress, but have come to love suggestions and interruptions from early, trusted readers. My husband, a very talented poet, and I have been working on a lyric epistolary text in response to the old folk song In the Pines (made famous by Lead Belly, adapted by Nirvana and Smog, among others). When I look back at what we’ve written, I find that our writing begins to blend together so that I am not always able to decipher immediately who wrote what section. Work I do recognize as my own accesses an aesthetic I normally don’t inhabit. My writing has become like a chameleon, adapting to the slow, dark waltz-like motions of the song and to my husband’s more abstract, Jungian prose. It’s thrilling to be influenced so, and pushed into new creative territories.

But perhaps the true power of collaboration is most obvious in the work my students produce together. With beginning writers, collaborative projects often yield writing that is more alive and dynamic than what they produce on their own. The group mentality produces confidence, a willingness to take risks, and yes, some silliness, but I’d say it is productive silliness. The kind that lets them not take themselves so seriously, to get their egos out of the way, and to see what it means to let the work take them where it wants to go. I’d like to share one of the collaborative projects that has been successful in the classroom, and that students have enjoyed.

Improv for fiction writers:
Have one student outline a story, briefly describing setting, 2-3 characters, and an action or conflict. Then have students switch papers with someone and write the story their partners have outlined.

This is great: students are forced to create worlds on the page they otherwise wouldn’t. Last time I did this with a class, we had an odd number so I paired up with a student. She had me writing a story that took place in an apple orchard with a grandfather, his daughter, and his grandson. There was an argument over who would get on the ladder to pick apples. I never would have set a piece in this kind of landscape on my own, and appreciated the task of grafting my often stranger aesthetic onto so homegrown a scene. My students reported similarly: they found rich results possible in fictional spaces they would not have ventured in without the prompting of a partner. They also enjoyed seeing what their partners did with their prompts, always wildly different than what they were imagining—and a reminder of the unending possibilities that lie around every corner in producing fiction.

Workshop Success vs. A Really, Truly Fabulous Story

One of my stronger fiction students approached me a few weeks ago and told me that he wasn’t sure how to actually make his writing better- and did I have any advice? He had just had a piece work-shopped, and the class had raved. His piece was clear, and easily followed. He used a nice level of detail, and wrote believable dialogue. So his piece was workshop-proof, it seemed, meaning that a lot of the basic suggestions of workshop: Slow this Down! Give us More Description! Make it Clear What is Actually Happening! were not relevant to his piece. I told him two things. The first was that he wrote good sentences, but that he was not yet writing sentences that were entirely his own either. He is a Raymond Carver fan, so we discussed how Carver’s sentences were different than any other writers. I also told him that not everybody always needs to die in stories,  something that happens in his piece, and that sometimes making them stay alive and deal with their problems yields more interesting fiction. He nodded, and wondered off, leaving me standing on the sidewalk unsure whether I’d answered his question.

And it’s something I’ve been pondering for a few weeks now. We’ve been having more discussions in class about what makes a story a good. We’ve been talking about how great writing has a surface, like paintings, that it is beyond clear and detailed prose. But I wonder if I’m not missing something. As a teacher and an editor, I know the difference between a piece that gets a gold star in workshop and one that actually gets published, but how to help my students transcend that gap? How to really make them push their own boundaries? I’ve often thought good writing can be taught, and people saying otherwise might be slightly overestimating their innate abilities, forgetting they weren’t raised in a box, but in terms of really great, heart-stopping writing, I admit I’m at a loss on how to teach it.