Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

The first and only time I told my mother I aspired to a career as a creative person was when I was 8 or 9. I remember she was washing the dishes when I said, “When I grow up I want to write and draw comic books for a living.” After some silence my mother replied, in a sort of ‘let you down easy’ way: “It’s really difficult to make a living that way. It’s probably not a very good idea.”

I don’t remember how I responded—I probably slunk away, ashamed. I do remember that shortly thereafter my boyhood friend was over to the house and, as ever, we were working on our sketching—probably from the ‘how to draw like the pros’ books I obsessed over.  When we both showed my mother our sketches she looked them over and said, to my friend, “Why Charlie this is amazing. This is a great drawing. You have some talent Charlie. Wow.” She said nothing of mine.

The summer of my 10th year I moved my mother’s old typewriting to my room and there throughout the days I read and wrote–or tried to write on that typewriter, the keys too stiff to press all the way down. I knew by then if one were to become a successful author that hard work and rigor was mandatory. My parents tried to force me to take up outdoor activities. They signed me up for events with the Parks and Rec. I locked the door. At family get-togethers I snuck away with a novel to read and a notebook to write in. I outlined stories. I worried about my ability. I worried about how I was not working hard enough to become a writer.

My first brush with a professional writer—a true pro—was during a middle school career day (how remarkable to realize that “creative writing” was actually considered a career!) when a local YA author gave a half-hour long talk on how to best break into the ‘biz.’ It was a harrowing half hour for us young scribes. The message of the lecture? Success is improbable at best, most likely impossible. Most fiction writers and all of the poets generally died penniless, died working as insurance salesman, or died alone. “Beckett died alone,” he said. “Beckett died broke.” We were told that if did want to become writers that we could not be creative writers—text books, we were told, presented a fine concession. “You must let go of your dreams, your romantic ideas.” When questions were later invited from the audience, not one of us dared speak.

As I entered high school, I wrote with greater intensity—a story a night, generally. And when I didn’t write stories I wrote poems—sometimes four, five a day. I wrote poetry in my study halls (I did no homework). On summer afternoons I curled under a tree with a notebook and worked on my writing—and when I did not I became depressed, guilty. When I did not write I became fearful that I would never succeed. Always, this fear, looming.

Throughout high school I started projects—novels, mostly—and then stopped because I sensed I lacked talent—I had to get better before I could write a novel. I worked harder—although my methods were untrained, haphazard—My sophomore year creative writing teacher said, “You’re one of the most talented students I’ve ever had. Certainly the most prolific.” I thought of all of the high schools in the country and how all of those high schools no doubt had similar students with similar teachers. I thought about how I was “one” of the most talented but how none of the students from my high school had ever gone on to become a big named writer.

In college I often wrote through the night. I was obsessed with my creative writing classes. A friend of mine dropped out of our Intro to Creative Writing class. “I can see where I use cliches and where my writing is general. But I like my poems,” she said. “It makes me happy to write a poem–I write for myself.” I thought, ‘How could you not want to get better? What’s wrong with her?’

I again met that YA writer when I interviewed for a position at his wife’s assisted living home. I told him that I had attended his career day lecture and he laughed, “I always try to weed out the weak ones.”  I got the job, maybe because of something I said about Woolf and Faulkner. I lived on the premises and word reached him no doubt that I wrote through the nights and I wrote through the mornings. I was 21 by then and I had set the goal of publishing a novel by 23–same as Fitzgerald. During this time, I showed an older co-worker a new story–a work that I believed represented a major breakthrough for me. A week later she sat me down on the porch swing with my manuscript and a pen. Very gently but firmly she told me that I had no talent—at least, not the sort of talent I needed to be a writer. “If I weren’t your friend, Robert,” she said, “I would not have finished the first page of your story.” The story was 20 pages long. She went on to catalogue the various ways my writing failed to measure up and, in detail, why it would never muster up. “You have a poet’s soul,” she said, “but you don’t have the ability.” My life, she assured me, would be a difficult one.

A month later I found myself alone with that YA writer. He said, “If you have any questions about writing, feel free to ask them.” I said, “Does the doubt ever go away?” I had been staring at the blank screen lately. I had been dreading. He chuckled and said, “No. It does not.”

I have still not ‘made it’ as a writer. I have not yet let go of my dreams. My romantic ideas.

As a creative writing teacher (from time to time) now I do my best to encourage my students. I do my best to say things like, “This story has a lot of potential–let’s take it up a notch!” and “Wow, there’s really so much you can do here–there’s so much room to grow.” I tell them that fear and doubt are natural. That hard work is mandatory. That success comes only through experimentation and drive. I wonder if I should be harder on their work.

They look at me like I’m insane. “I don’t know,” they say. “I think my story’s pretty good like it is.”

I don’t know. What do you think? Does the doubt go away?

Should it?

How did you become a good writer?

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Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

Two of the most common questions fiction writers are asked at readings is what percentage of your work is fiction and where do your ideas come from? Many fiction writers develop very flip answers to both questions. To the first, I know a writer who answers 93%. To the second I’ve heard writers say things such, “my ideas come from the idea bank.”

When I was first asked these questions, these questions embarrassed me. I would try to deflect my embarrassment by being flip. At the same time I was aware these are questions that usually asked by people who honestly curious about how a person might go around and do something like write a story, and I think these two questions are related in a way. But, both have to do with the mystery of how a something like a novel comes to exist.


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I have been rereading Michael Lesy’s remarkable Wisconsin Death Trip. I admire this work, a collage of historical photos, news clippings, and excerpted fiction, as much as any literature I’ve ever read.

Lately I have been writing ‘fiction’ about my boyhood in Wisconsin. It has been nearly eight years since I left that state.  The distance has been good.

I open now to a random page in Death Trip, to the year 1891, and I read, “The boy of an unknown man was found hanging from a tree in Rochester” while in 1897, “A man registered at the La Crosse European Hotel as Edward Folsom, Grand Meadow, committed suicide by taking morphine. He was crippled, old, and out of work.”

There are times I miss my father. And I regret not returning to see him before he died. There are times I remember my father. It has been eight years since I last saw him, in the flesh anyhow, and over a year now since he passed.

Rather than type words, or think words, I gaze now at the Wisconsin Historical Society Flickr photostream clicking through the 144 of the photographs taken by Charles Van Shaick that Lesy collected and sometimes manipulated for his book. Images of men and women, of dead infants, of horses, of fields, of general stores.

When I was seven or eight my father found me washing dishes. He touched his hand to the water and shook his head. He turned the faucet until the water steamed, and my hands reddened until I could no longer dip them into the sink. My father held my hands beneath the surface. “Your detergent does not kill the microbes,” he explained. “Only the scalding water does.”

Set within Lesy’s collage, surrounded as they are by the news clippings of turn of the century diphtheria outbreaks, suicides, hauntings, murderous tramps, even the photograph of a young woman in a white dress and hat takes on the appearance of something disturbed. Out of context, as the stand alone images the Wisconsin Historical Society will charge you $15.50 for, they often seem the carefree images of long dead people at play.

More than once my father forced me to wash my hands with gasoline. He took great care in dipping rags into the substance so as not to waste any of the expensive fluid. He told me to rub deeply with this course soaked material. “Nothing else will kill what is growing there,” he would say. Very soon the raw redness while, a few feet away, my father stood smoking a cigarette.

The images of recently deceased children in their coffins are frequent in Wisconsin Death Trip as they were frequent at the turn of the century. Very often these are the images a new reader of Death Trip will fixate on. How bizarre, we think. We forget, then, the mortality rates and the bodies of children in coffins arranged in front rooms for viewing. We forget then how often our grandparents knew their siblings for a day or a month or a year before they became a name chiseled. We forget how often men and women and children lived openly in the midst of death and frequent, sweeping epidemic.

The fathers in my fiction often scrub their sons with scouring pads. They pinken the bathwater with the blood of their sons.

Michael Lesy seems like a very decent person. I recently wrote him a note reading “________________” and Dr. Lesy graciously responded by writing “_____________________” and “_________________.”

After my father started drinking again he slow burned the fields near our house. He burned wide stretches of our lawn, the lawn before the gravestone of a kitten he loved and named “Snoopy.” In the afternoons and through the evenings my father smoked cigarettes and shook canisters of fuel oil onto sheets of fire. He beat back the flames, stamped them down, and when I asked him about this my father said, “This grass was all dead.” Another time he told me, “This is very pagan.”

From 1892: “In an interview, Chief Foley of the fire department made the unqualified statement that all the recent fires in Milwaukee were of incendiary origin.”

The fathers in my stories are always burning fields, burning lawns. They are always setting fires to houses to devastate the contamination within. There are days when I attempt to write a story not about a father, not about a father burning a lawn or a house, and my vision almost blurs. Even typing out an idea of promise becomes arduous, debilitating, until I return to images of fathers and scorched lawns, to canisters of gasoline and ashes.

From 1898: “At Cameron a child was born in a family named Dunn. The father, in celebration of the event, is reported to have become intoxicated, seized the babe and dashed out its brains. He was on the point of strangling his wife when neighbors intervened.”

I do most of my reading during my commute. Lately, these mornings on the train, I would rather gaze at the sun collected glass, these evenings I would rather gaze unto the black waters, moon lit and star lit. When I open my book the words seem arranged like dead fishes. They seem like smears of dirt. I rub my eyes and slowly again they will read: “___________” or “__________.”

1897: “Tramps are supposed to have set fire tothe barns on the James S. Banfield farm, 3 miles east of Janesville.”

The last I saw my father was in a photograph taken at my brother’s funeral. My father was just over sixty in this photograph but he looked nearer to 80.  This was some months after the stroke and heart attack I for some while believed had killed him.

A few years back I saw a therapist who wanted to “discuss some of these issues with [my] father.” I said, “I’m not willing to do that.” What I meant was, “I don’t want to be cured of those things.”

At a Q & A session I was asked that most common of questions, “where do ideas come from?” I had read that evening from my novel-in-progress, pages about the sudden death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, pages about a father obsessed with infection, with burning lawns, with the tombstones of his beloved boy and of his wife. I said all I understand of this racket which is the old line, “Write what you know.” Everyone laughed. I don’t believe I was joking.

We have all been to places we would rather not have been. These are the best places to return to, even if we insist we cannot. I believe it is our duty to speak of these matters.

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