As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
After I graduated from Michigan State University and began my teaching career in 2006, I could not imagine a single circumstance that would induce me to go back to school, especially while working full-time, but in 2009, I found myself itching to be a student again. I had noticed that since entering “the real world,” I was significantly less prolific in terms of the writing I was churning out, which had dwindled to the occasional diary entry. Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again. So I did what any rational person would: Put together a comprehensive writing portfolio and apply for admission to a master’s program for creative writing. I knew that with my demanding schedule, just wanting to write more would not result in actually writing more. But if I were part of a master’s program, and my grade depended on my carving out time for writing, and my reimbursement (a perk at work) for the costly classes depended on my grade, I would write. No matter how little time I had, I would write.
Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again.
My participation in a master’s degree program did indeed increase my writing motivation, inspiration, and productivity. It also benefited me in many other ways. If you are considering earning your MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or MALS (Master of Liberal Studies) in creative writing, I highly recommend it for the reasons that follow.
1. Exposure to Literature
Through the assigned readings in various graduate classes, you will be exposed to writers and literature you might not be inclined to pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from exposure to and study of every single one of them. I was enthralled with and enlightened by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example, and to this day would likely not have read a single page of it had it not been for the capstone project I completed in my degree program, which centered on the emotional truth as evidenced by both O’Brien’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works. I can guarantee I would not have read nearly as much flash fiction or prose poetry, and I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to write any. I owe those experiences and more to my graduate degree program.
Assigned readings in various graduate classes will expose you to writers and literature you might not pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from this exposure.
2. Exploration of Craft
During my time in my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried. A graduate degree in creative writing will require you to write in various genres; utilize a myriad of techniques employed by some of the greats; apply literary devices you might not have thought to use; and study devices, writers, and perspectives. For example, you might have a tendency, however unconscious, to write predominantly in first-person. An assignment in a class might require you to explore writing in second- or third-person. Similarly, you might write mainly personal
narrative essays, but your degree program is inevitably going to expand your grasp of the craft as it demands you experiment with fictional short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. Working towards a master’s degree in creative writing will open you up to types of writing you may not have even considered before–or been aware of.
During my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried.
3. Community Building
One of the most beneficial aspects of a degree program in writing is the supportive network the experience can help create. I began my program in 2009 and completed it in 2013, and now, as many as seven years later, I still communicate with several of my former classmates, even having recently embarked upon the creation of a blogging network with one of them.
4. Teaching Opportunities
Most community colleges, colleges, and universities require their instructors to hold at least a master’s degree. In the world of writing instruction, a master’s degree and published works can sometimes be enough to at least get you noticed.
5. Increased Pay
If you don’t desire to teach at the college level, but do want to teach secondary school, for example, a master’s degree in a field related to your subject area equals a pay raise at most public schools. As an English teacher, I was granted a partial pay increase after I had completed a certain number of credits in my program, and was given the remainder of the increase after I earned the degree, which also qualified me to teach a college level dual enrollment composition class consisting of motivated and intelligent college-bound high school students.
I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
6. Resume Building
Although no agent or publishing house is going to require you to hold a master’s degree before they will consider working with you or reading your work, it does lend you credibility on your resume and in your query letter. One element of a query letter is accolades–published works, involvement in writing organizations, writing awards and recognition, etc. A master’s degree in writing is something else that bodes well for you here. It shows you take your craft seriously, are dedicated to your writing, and have a solid background in the field.
7. Craft Improvement
This one is probably a bit obvious: The more you write, the better you write. For this reason, enrolling in a master’s program in creative writing will no doubt help you improve your craft. You will have the benefit of feedback from published authors, fellow students, seasoned writing instructors, etc. Not only will you be writing on a regular basis, but you will be revising and polishing your writing on a regular basis, becoming more self-aware as a writer and as a reader.
The more you write, the better you write–and a master’s program that requires you to write can’t hurt your cause.
8. Mandatory Writing Time
I mentioned above that my initial motivation for applying for admission to a master’s program in creative writing was to make sure I would build time into my schedule to write. It worked. During my four years studying creative writing, I was prolific. How could I not be, with writing assignments due seemingly constantly and reading assignments inspiring me with each page? But the process wasn’t arduous. No, quite the opposite. I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
If you don’t have the desire to enroll in a degree program, but still need help finding time to write, check this out.
By day, Luke P. Narlee works for the government, doing transportation security in the intelligence field. By night, he writes and publishes his own novels. His first novel, Guest Bed, explores the complex issues couples face after years of marriage. His second novel, The Appointment, which he hopes to release within the next two months, imagines a future world devoid of all enjoyments and meaning, a world in which depression runs rampant due to a collective sense of hopelessness and purposelessness–until Jacob Johansen agrees to attend a mysterious appointment. Below, read Narlee’s take on the writing life, including indie publishing.
Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for your first novel, Guest Bed?
Luke P. Narlee: The inspiration for this story stemmed mostly just from being married myself. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs associated with marriage, and it’s no different with the couple in Guest Bed. Of course, being that it is fiction, my first priority was to entertain and keep readers guessing. But I also wanted to explore some of the deeper issues that tend to occur between couples when they’ve been married for several years. For example, when couples are struggling to make the relationship work, what is it that’s truly causing the arguments? What is it they’re yearning for when they decide to separate or commit adultery? I also wanted a lot of the focus to be on communication. In the story, the two central characters, Ron and Kate, have an abundance of communication issues, which is the cause of the majority of their arguments. I think that the characters in the book say what a lot of couples only think or keep internalized. My hope is that people will find their issues to be relatable.
An Excerpt from Narlee’s Novel, Guest Bed
She narrows her eyes. “You still don’t get it, do you?”
I sit up so that our eyes are level, trying to keep things as even as possible. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I need more from you, Ron. I want to know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. You don’t share yourself with me anymore. Yes, we had fun downstairs, catching up on our days and exchanging witty banter. I enjoyed it. But that’s not what I need from you.”
I stare at her, breathing heavily.
“It’s not enough!” she says.
MTD: How long did it take you to write Guest Bed? What was your process like?
LPN: It started out as a short story that I wrote just for fun at least a decade ago. It took me a month or so to write it and set it aside. Then, within the last five years, I found a way to incorporate it into my soon-to-be published novel, The Appointment. Within The Appointment, there are a few chapters that read like short stories, and I thought Guest Bedwould be a perfect fit for that, but eventually my editor at the time convinced me that the story was too good to stay merely a chapter in a novel, and that it should stand on its own, somehow. I had no idea at the time that it would eventually become my first published novel.
Overall, I’d say it took me six months to write Guest Bed, and be fully satisfied with it, and about ten months all together from start to publish.It was relatively quick, considering I’ve been working on the The Appointment for five years.
MTD: Why do you think your progress with The Appointment has been slower in comparison to Guest Bed?
LPN: It’s a much larger book, with a more expansive story. Many more characters and things going on. It has taken me a long time to make sure everything fits together and aligns correctly in order to make a cohesive story.
MTD: How did you find or select your editor? Describe your relationship with your editor.
LPN: I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories. I’ve worked with many different editors over the years, some better than others, but this year, in 2016, I’ve definitely found one or two new favorites that I hope I can continue to work with for many years to come.
MTD: What about a specific editor or group of editors appeals to you? What do you look for in an editor?
LPN: For me, it’s all about chemistry. You have to have good chemistry with your editor, meaning they understand your writing and the way you write and are able to help you improve it without ever changing your style. You have to find someone you click with and are comfortable with. It definitely becomes a relationship of sorts because there is so much back and forth communication. You have to have chemistry. It can’t just feel like a forced exchange between two people, where the editor is just doing a job and waiting to get paid. Also, a good editor is very thorough and will go the extra mile to make sure you are fully satisfied with the results.
I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
LPN: A couple reasons, actually. For one, I don’t generally have a lot of extra money or free time to spend searching for agents, and mailing out my manuscript, and begging publishing companies to accept my book as their own… The whole process felt overwhelming. I’d rather spend that time writing. Also, I don’t really like the idea of being forced to let the editors of the publishing companies have the final say in what is written in my books. I prefer to have full control over the content. Of course, this means more work on my part once it’s actually published, but so far it’s been worth it to me.
MTD: You mention that self-publishing means more work on your part once a book is actually published. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
LPN: When you self-publish a book, promoting it and marketing it are your responsibility. Some people just publish a book themselves and leave it at that, apart from telling close family and friends about it. But I’m definitely motivated to spread the word to as many people as possible because I love talking to people about it and hearing their thoughts on the story after they’ve finished reading it. I’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into marketing it on social media, particularly Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads. I hope to be able to do more in the near future, as well, such as schedule a book signing at a few local bookstores. The reviews have been wonderful so far. The story has already touched a few people in profound way, and to me, that is more important than anything else. That alone makes all the hard work worth it.
LPN: The Appointment is quite a bit different from Guest Bed, which is a much smaller, personal mystery involving only two or three characters. The story in The Appointment affects an entire country and is more dystopian in nature. It involves a government that has become overly controlling due to recent terrorist attacks, and they’ve been forced to put the whole country on lockdown for a year. Nobody in and nobody out. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, all the citizens of the country begin to lose both their memories, and their ability to feel emotions. The main character, Jacob, is one of the last remaining people who still feels something, and is able to conjure little bits from his memory here and there. Then one day he gets invited to a secret facility to act as a guinea pig for a few experiments that may or may not fix everyone. If he agrees, he will be given the ability to relive old memories, enter parallel universes, and also live the lives of other people for a day, all in hopes of fully regaining his emotions. But the real question is… is that truly what he wants? Or is life easier when you don’t have to feel anything? To say that I’m very excited to publish this book would be an understatement.
MTD: How do you make time in your day to write?
LPN: I basically write whenever I have a chance. I don’t have a good, consistent schedule for writing yet, so if I have time between work at my office, I will do some quick writing. And when I’m home, particularly on the weekends, I make a habit of trying to carve an hour or two out of my day to sit with my laptop and write. But I don’t have a specific location or room that I do all my writing. Someday, I hope…
MTD: What do you enjoy most about writing?
LPN: I love the process of creating an entirely new world in my head and putting it down on paper for others to read and enjoy. The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. The story and the dialogue will just flow out of my brain without any forethought. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them. That may sound weird, but most writers have experienced this at one point or another. It’s a beautiful thing.
The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them.
I’m also a big fan of writing stories that are not only entertaining, but also make you think about your own life as well. I want my books to linger in people’s heads for a while after they’re done. There’s almost always a bit of ambiguity to my writing because I don’t like to make things too easy for people. I believe in leaving certain things open for interpretation, so the reader can decide certain elements for themselves. I think that makes for a more interactive experience between the reader and the book.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
LPN: First, write for yourself. If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you. It can feel impossible at times because it’s so time consuming, but it isn’t. You just have to set realistic goals for yourself and stick with them, such as scheduling blocks of time to accomplish each step along the way and planning how long it will take you to accomplish each of these steps. For example, maybe you need a few months to write a first draft. Then another month to do your first round of self-edits. Then eventually you hire a professional editor to go through it for you. Then you have to do more rewrites. You can’t expect any of it to happen too fast. If you want to write something that looks professional, and will stand out amongst the millions of other authors in the world, it takes a lot of time and patience. But it’s worth it. Whenever I hear someone on social media comment that they are losing hope on finishing their first novel, I immediately try to motivate them to think differently. I believe anyone can do it if they set their mind to it and plan accordingly.
If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you.
It also helps to know the ins and outs of the process and when and how to make wise choices, particularly when it comes to publishing. I’m currently trying to get a list together of everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing in the last few years, so I can help others reach their dream of being a published author without breaking the bank or their minds. I haven’t had time to set up an official website or a blog yet, but I plant to, and in the meantime, I may self-publish a small self-help book about indie publishing as well. I’m all about helping people with this. In the world of writing, I feel that it’s absolutely essential that writers look out for one another, share their experiences with others, and act as mentors for those who are just starting out. It’s a team effort, for sure. Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:
“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”
It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.
Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.
1. Unlived Lives
Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?
2. Dear Future Self
For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?
3. To-Do List
Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.
4. Another’s View of You
Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.
Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?
The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.
Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!
After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.
“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye ForNow last year.”
Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.
“I’m listening,” I tell her.
“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.
“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.
But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.
“And there’s more,” she breathes.
What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?
It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.
(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)
Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.
And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.
Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.
My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.
“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.
The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.
“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.
“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.
A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.
“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.
“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”
“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”
“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”
“It was made into a movie and everything.”
“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”
My great grandnephew smiles.
“Okay,” he says.
As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.
They’re all true.
Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as
my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.
Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources. Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.
Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.
Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.
Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.
First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.
Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.
Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.
One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.
A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.
On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.
“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.
‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’
‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”
Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.
While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:
“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.
“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”
I just love Espinoza’s response.
A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:
“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).
Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.
In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.
I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”
Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).
Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).
Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.
Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.
After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.
I slowed to a stop.
“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”
A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.
“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.
Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.
When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.
As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.
“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.
Or at least what was left of it.
The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.
I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.
As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.
“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.
Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.
Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.
Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.
By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.
While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.
The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.
My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.
Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.