Hell and High Water

It’s been a while again. Another broken promise; seems like I’ve made way too many of those lately.

We had a massive flood here in South Dakota in the middle of May; I had about a foot of water in my basement, lost a ton of clothes and a truckload of old papers. Journals. The scrapbook my mom kept for me when I was little. I cried a lot.

We were lucky, though; a number of houses in the area were condemned, and I know a couple of families that are still living in hotels.

A couple of pictures:

bilde51.jpg:bilde9.jpg

Like I said, we were luckier than many. Chaos reigned, though, and the blog took a backseat.

Hope to catch up soon.

Stress Relief

Welcome to hell.

Finals are week after next. Graduation is on the 12th. I have six papers due; I have five necklace/bracelet/earring sets to make for somebody’s wedding. I have three international students who have asked if I can tutor them through finals. I have a kid with an eye infection and an allergic cough, and we can’t figure out what he’s allergic to. My parents are coming for a visit. My sister has asked me to help her move. I’m substitute teaching this week.

Okay. I don’t generally whine, but I’m pretty f****ing stressed out.

So this afternoon, I took my son to the park. It was a beautiful, warm day, and we slid down slides, whirled the merry-go-round, teetered the totter and threw sand at each other.

What do you do?

Talent vs. Craft

Talent is a dirty word.

It makes people who might be quite good at writing shy away from it, because they feel they don’t have enough.  It makes others, whose writing needs help, become complacent and lazy, because they feel they have plenty, and that’s all they need.

Really, what is talent?  It’s the innate affinity one might have for a certain activity.  In writers, it’s an innate affinity for words or for story.  It can’t be taught; if you don’t have it, you never will. 

But it’s such a nebulous thing.  It can’t be measured.  How do you know if you have it?

You don’t.  Stephen King defines talent as “eventual success.”  That’s BS.  Plenty of talented writers never become successful, and I can name a dozen writers, who have no more talent at writing than the eggplant sitting on my kitchen counter, who’ve become wildly successful, largely because of good marketing and enough knowledge of the craft of writing to get by. 

But writers who cling to the idea of talent often neglect the idea that craft is important, too.  You know, craft.  The rules.  The work of writing.

Writing well is not easy.  It might come more easily for some than for others, but that’s not really a good measure of talent, either; some extremely talented writers struggle with things like spelling and grammar, and so producing polished work is difficult.  Writing well, writing successfully, no matter how talented you are, takes work, practice and dedication.  I have very little patience for anyone who says they have a passion for writing, but who say they can’t find time to work at it.

If you want to be successful, you have to take the time to work at your craft.  You have to work at improving your grasp of the basics of storytelling: plot, character, dialogue, setting, voice, etc.  It takes discipline; it takes practice.  It takes work.  Plain and simple.  There’s no getting around it.  A talented woodworker cannot expect to make beautiful furniture, for instance, without learning how to use his tools, and use them well.  Neither can a writer make beautiful stories without learning how to use the tools of the craft.

If you have the passion for writing, you can make time for this in your life.  It might take some sacrifice; you might have to forgo watching your favorite TV show, or playing softball on the weekends.  You might have to give up the Friday night out at the movies, and sit at home instead with pen in hand or fingers on keyboard, working at improving your writing skills.  But if you want to be successful, you can do this, because it’s extremely unlikely that you can be successful on talent alone.

A writer may not know if he/she has talent, but craft is something that can be learned.  Learn your craft, then, and don’t worry about the talent.

Reading like a Writer

I have a friend, who reads a lot but doesn’t write very much, who gets really irritated with me whenever we discuss books.  She claims I’m a snob; she doesn’t understand why I can’t just “relax and and enjoy the book.”

I do enjoy books.  Reading is my absolute favorite thing to do when I’m not studying or writing.  The difference between my friend and me, though, is that as a writer, every book that I read helps me to hone my craft and my art.  It’s not that she doesn’t read well, it’s just that she doesn’t write, and so doesn’t read like a writer.

A writer should not read passively.  When a book is really, really good, I might lose myself in it, but later, when the book is done, I always go back to try to identify just what it was the author did that made his/her book so absorbing.  And when a book is really, really bad, I’m always tempted to put it down and stop torturing myself, but instead, I try to identify just what it is that makes that particular book so unreadable.

So I’ve begun keeping a notebook, a reading journal, in which I jot down my thoughts about what I’m reading at any given moment.  There are a few key elements that I pay special attention to when I read:

  • Plot.  I have a hard time with plotting, sometimes, and I think that the best way to learn how to do it effectively is by seeing what works (and what doesn’t) in someone else’s writing.  How does the author move his/her story from point A to point B?  Do the characters actively move the story along?  Does something external (outside the characters’ control) happen that the characters have to react to?
  • Characterization.  When I read a book in which I feel that I really get to know a character, I try to identify the cues that the author gives me about the character’s personality, motivation, background, etc.  How much of the character’s personality controls the progress of the novel?
  • Dialogue.  Does the dialogue feel authentic?  What kind of tags does the author use in dialogue?  How much slang/idiom do the characters use, and how much formal speech?  How does the author differentiate characters through dialogue?
  • Language.  This is especially important to me; the books that I like the best all employ language in such a way that it emphasizes the meaning of a story, the differences between characters, the mood or the setting.  It doesn’t have to be lyrical or poetic; it just has to achieve an effect.
  • Setting.  How does the author evoke a sense of place?  What details does he/she use to make the setting come alive?  How, when and where does the author insert these details?  In a good novel, the setting can be a character in and of itself; how does an author achieve this?

Most importantly, though, a writer must read, and read a bit of everything.  It’s how we know what’s being published currently, what’s been done to death, what’s fresh and new, what works and what doesn’t.  Just as a doctor or lawyer does research to stay current in his field, so must a writer.

And, too, read because you enjoy it.  Writing makes a great excuse for reading.  🙂

Prompt: A picture is worth…

… a thousand words?  Visual images can make great spurs to generate material for poetry or fiction.  I’ve put some links here to pictures I find interesting and inspiring; I hope you do, too. 

Get writing!

Creative Writing, Violence and Teachers

As pretty much everybody knows by now, the shooter responsible for the deaths at Virginia Tech this week was an English major, and wrote some pretty disturbing material; in fact, because of the violent content of his creative material, he was referred to counseling.

There was a discussion today, at the university where I work, about whether or not the school and instructors handled the problem of a student’s disturbing work appropriately. According to an AP article, the chairwoman of Virginia Tech’s English department said “Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was.”

A friend and co-worker of mine latched onto this; she said that it was certainly the chairwoman’s responsibility to know exactly what the outcome of the counseling was, whether Cho attended counseling sessions or didn’t show up, and whether the counselor believed him to be a danger to the people around him. My friend feels that this is one of many areas in which the school fell down on the job.

I have a really, really hard time with this opinion. When I was in high school, I was playing with words in a poem one day, and tried inserting lines of my own in between the lines of the child’s prayer that begins with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It came out looking like a suicide poem, and, absentminded as I was, I left the notebook in which I’d written it in my psychology classroom. My teacher found it, sent it to the counselor, who called me into his office, called my mother at work, and made my life generally miserable for a couple of weeks. He didn’t believe that I wasn’t suicidal, that I was only playing with words and what I could make of them. I was angry then, but I understand now. He couldn’t take chances. Of course he couldn’t take chances.

But if I had been genuinely suicidal, and resisted his efforts to help, what could he have done? I was a minor, so he might have had a few options. But Cho wasn’t a minor. And with all of the disturbing violence in movies, books and music today, how is anybody supposed to know how serious somebody is? The last time I took a creative writing class, there was quite a bit of disturbing material, but mostly, the students were just blowing off steam through there words, and, in some cases, going for shock value. I don’t know if the instructor referred anybody to a counselor. Maybe she should have. How is one supposed to know?

I think that it’s easier, that it feels safer, to lay blame somewhere. If someone were to blame, then maybe, if we were super-vigilant, we could prevent violence like this from happening on our own doorsteps.

But we can’t, and laying blame is useless. Maybe we can learn from the tragedy, lessen the possibility that it might happen elsewhere, but finger-pointing gets us nowhere.

Where do you get your ideas?

There’s a great essay at Neil Gaiman’s blog about creativity, and where his ideas come from.  Read it.  It’s terrific.  Then again, I think that almost everything he does is.

It’s reassuring; it’s good to hear a well-established writer talk about the ideas that don’t work, about the ideas that do, about wrestling them into a shape that’s palatable for public consumption.  It’s good to know that having to struggle, sometimes, doesn’t mean that I’m completely unfit to be a writer.

It’s an interesting exercise, too, to try to figure out where and when you get your best ideas.  Mine tend to come when I’m between activities, or trying to work out a problem, or at the edge of sleep.  And, of course, when I’m in the least convenient place to write them down, like driving in heavy traffic, or giving my son a bath, or stir-frying snow peas.  And often, I lose them as quickly as they come.  I’ve taken to repeating a word or two to myself, over and over, as a mnemonic to try to hold onto them just a little longer.

Sometimes I suffer from a dearth of ideas, nothing to say, and no way to say it if I had something. It happens when I’m too stressed out by life, too busy with the mundane details of motherhood, marriage and mortgage, to generally fried to write.  My favorite quote from Gaiman’s essay:

My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before.

It is.  Hell, that is.  But if I force myself to write, to put words on paper, even if they don’t really mean anything, eventually my creative side will become frustrated at being so sullen and puke something out.  And if I keep the creative side happy and busy, it doesn’t stop spewing them out.  Not all of them are good, mind you, but they’re ideas nonetheless.

So.  Where do you get yours?