first talk: the BEING of writing


This course will concern the BEING of writing rather than the DOING of writing. It’s been my experience as a teacher that the tools of great fiction are fairly simple and easy-to-diagram. Have you ever noticed how many of the great writing textbooks are written by people who haven’t published fiction? That’s not because “those who can’t do, teach” or anything dumb like that: it’s because an understanding of the machinery of writing is a very different thing from the capacity to create. Studying poetry won’t make you a poet, although it’s a fine way to spend time. Just like a degree in automotive engineering is a wonderful thing, although it won’t teach you how to use a clutch. An understanding of the birds and the bees doesn’t make you a mother: you have to BE a mother.

Along the way toward learning how to BE a fiction writer, this course will cover all the traditional topics: plot, point-of-view, setting, description, dialogue, tension, rewriting, and submission strategies. However, we will speak of these topics as someone who wants to have babies, rather than someone who wants to be an obstetrician. The most important aspects of the course will be in the practice of the course. I’m not interested in being a teacher if the product of my teaching is a group of students who are now better able to explain their lack of skill. What I’m interested in – what I’m ABOUT – is transforming your relationship to your work. My commitment as a teacher is that you end up in a totally different place by the end of this course, a place which you couldn’t have imagined when you started the journey. As a teacher, that is my joy.

As a daily practicing writer, I depend on my students to have regular epiphanies about their work that will end up fueling my own regular epiphanies about my own work. Your tuition for this course will buy a lot of tickets to a lot of wonderful movies. It can take you and your significant other on a pretty cool vacation. It can buy you a fancy silver belt buckle to make your jeans look really amazing. If taking this course is not going to be at least as cool as any of those things (to offer examples from the top of my head) why waste your time and money? What I’m saying is that this course will be the best course you’ve ever taken.

How can I say that?

I can say that because I’ve been there myself. I’ve seen the whole add up to become more than the sum of its parts. I’ve watched myself write consistently better than I know I can write. I’ve watched my students, many whom I wouldn’t have judged to have much “talent,” write stories that were robust and thrilling and rocked my world.

We’ll talk about that word “talent” later. The point is this: what you have to say about yourself might be accurate from where you’re standing right now. Might be. It is certainly not accurate from where you will be standing a semester from now unless you keep standing in the same place. Right now, sitting at my desk writing this lecture, the possibility of lunch an hour from now seems remote and unpredictable. Will there be a roast beef sandwich waiting for me when I go downstairs? Will there be any Diet Coke left? What if I break my legs and can’t make it down the steps?

Use your imagination for what it’s good for – writing stories – and allow me to figure out how we’ll all get roast beef sandwiches. The writer that you are today is not the writer you will be if you play by the rules of this course.

The rules?

Yes, the rules. There are rules to every game, and the rules of this game are pretty simple. Do all the assignments. Particularly the ones that you don’t think you need to do. As a published and practicing writer who takes a lot of joy in his work (particularly when it’s most brutal) I know something that you don’t know. Now, this may or may not be true, but this is the game. I think it’s a very good game. The rules of basketball say that it makes a difference whether the ball enters the basket or bounces back out of it. The rules of this game say that I know something that you don’t know and it’s probably something that I can get you to faster if you trust me.

For example, when I say it’s a requirement of this course that you write for a certain amount of time every day during the course, that is not something that you need to understand or evaluate or agree with: it’s something you need to DO. It will ALWAYS be okay if you have difficulty doing these things. So don’t get stressed. My patience for your attempts to use the tools of this course is infinite; my patience for rebellion against this fundamental tool is limited. Remember all those movies and that belt buckle? If you can’t keep up with the assignments, just be honest with me and I’ll help you get back on track. It happens to the best of us. There’s a huge difference between not doing the assignments but hiding that fact and not doing the assignments but sharing with the class (and me) that you need some support in doing the assignments. The first way is a dead end. The second way will result in everyone (including me) gaining a better understanding of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of writing. Having difficulty with this material is not a problem in this class: having difficulty with the material IS this class.

So, consider me your coach and this course is the training field. Next we will discuss the tools of the course:

1.A lovely notebook which you can write in if the electricity fails or the computer virus comes to eat your work or you are sentenced to house arrest for sedition and they’re so afraid of you that they won’t let you have a computer. The operative word here is “love.” I’d like you to get a NEW notebook and tell us about it during seminar. Find something that calls to you. I myself often buy these French notebooks called Clarefontaine. The paper is beautiful, the covers are pretty (but not TOO pretty), and the binding is virtually indestructible. With mine, I can write anywhere. I will not insist that you do your daily writing by hand, but you should have that available. I myself have written by hand for years and still do when my computer is not convenient. Then, I use highlighters to mark the work from my notebook that I have input in my computer. Daily writing has made me so productive that fifty percent of my issues as a writer are issues of filing and organization. It’s a rare week when I’m not looking in my computer or in my pretty (but not too pretty) French notebook and saying, “Damn, that’s a good story/essay/play idea. I don’t even remember writing that.”

2.A beeper watch. When developing a discipline of writing, I find that it’s best to be as precise as possible. When I say that I want you to write for thirty minutes a day, I mean exactly thirty minutes a day. Not more if you feel good or less if you’re stumped. (Please don’t make this mean that you can ONLY write thirty minutes a day – you will not get the work done for the course if you do. What I mean is that you are ALWAYS writing thirty minutes a day, no matter what.) The watch – I’m looking at my Timex right now – becomes the way I define that space. I set it and I forget about it. When the time is up, I stop, walk away (mentally or physically), and if I want to write some more, I start again.

3.Daily writing. I’m calling the daily writing itself a tool because that’s the way I see it. I can’t mention this enough: daily writing, daily writing, daily writing. Certainly, there are successful writers who don’t write every day, and I’ve met them, but to paraphrase Anne Lamott, I suspect that God doesn’t like them as much as the rest of us. There are a few things I want to say about daily writing. First of all, writing, for the purposes of the daily discipline, is defined as “not doing anything besides writing.” That is, if you’re sitting with you hands on the keyboard or your fingers wrapped around the pen, you are writing. Particularly at first, I am not interested in what you produce and you shouldn’t be either. A day spent staring at the screen can be your most productive day, and a day in which you wrote ten thousand words in fifteen minutes may be a total waste of time. It’s not for you to decide right now. Just open up the space for writing to occur. It’s not about accomplishment, it’s about practice. For some of you, this may be uncomfortable – let it be uncomfortable. For some of you, this may be unbelievably boring – let it be boring. In my work life, boredom is an important tool. If I sit in front of my computer long enough without watching TV or surfing the internet or talking on the phone or sending email, eventually my creative mind will get tired of it and start to play. And after that part of your spirit starts to recognize that you will be giving it time to play EVERY DAY, you’re not going to believe what happens.

Now go write!


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