Category Archives: writing theories

So I lost my job last week.

I have (had) two jobs. The first is the one I usually blog about, the one where I help build a democratic school that addresses the development of the whole child, including the development of his or her or ze’s social-emotional skills. It’s a real gas.

The second job, the one I lost last week, is the one where I provide high-level guidance to college students on the craft of creative writing. The college where I’ve taught for the past eight years faces a crisis-level enrollment challenge and, as an adjunct in the humanities, I’ve just felt, in my wallet, the force of that challenge.

It’s a great college. It not only does exactly what it says it does, but it does so with real passion and force. The professors generally walk the walk, and the staff members I’ve interacted with have all been genuinely kind and helpful. The entire philosophy of the college is that we are all members of various communities, and it’s imperative that we act in a knowledgeable and deliberate way to improve the lives of all the members of those communities and not just ourselves. The people I’ve met and worked with at the college strive to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, this will be the first semester in a very long time when I can’t count myself among them. And that disappoints me.

Luckily, the people I just described are not just my colleagues; they’re also my neighbors and my friends, so I can continue to count myself as a person in their wider communities.

There’s another reason I am disappointed though. Two more reasons, actually. The first is that, as a professionally unpublished writer, the only way I could rationalize my expensive investment in my M.F.A. was by pointing to the fact that an M.F.A. is the minimum requirement to become a writing professor, so if I wasn’t able to pay back the investment through publishing, I’d be able to do so through teaching. But now I don’t even have that. So yeah, that’s a disappointment.

The third reason is that, for the first time in eight years, I was going to do a wholesale strip-down of my bread-and-butter course: an introduction to creative writing aimed at non-major students to get them interested in the major.

Teaching at the college level is different than teaching at the high school level (and incredibly different from the middle school level). The teaching part of it is the same — be engaging, be knowledgeable enough in the topic to inspire a sense of curiosity, and be authentic in your desire for the students to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to — but the behind-the-scene goals are different.

In high school (and even more so in middle school), students don’t have the right to ignore you. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t ignore you; it means that, at the end of the day, society requires them to be there, and its willing to back that requirement up with force. Put simply, in high school (and even more so in middle school) students have a lot less choice.

At the college level — primarily in the first two years, when most students still haven’t invested enough time or money to feel compelled by responsibility — every student you meet must be coaxed to move on to the next level.

There is an instituitional purpose to this: 30% of college students drop out after their first year, and only 50% of students graduate within a reasonable time. With those as statistical truths, all members of the college — including the faculty — must do their best to help students want to stay in school.

But there is also a departmental-level impetus. As a teacher not only in the humanities, but also in one of the softest of soft subjects, I have to include within my responsibilities the need to attract students to my subject matter. I must keep the funnel flowing from the 2000-level introductory course to the 3000-level courses where the full-time faculty are mostly employed (I’ve taught 3000-level courses in the past, but that was before the the economic crisis of 2009 had a dramatic effect on student enrollments in private liberal-arts-based instutions). While education is always the primary responsibility, this need to sell the major is also always there.

This is not a critique. I live in the real world and would have it no other way: at every level, at every point, an artist must sing for her supper. I get it, and I love it. That is not the point here (but for more on that point, read this essay by an anonymous adjunct instructor).

The point is that, for the first time in eight years, I was about to launch a brand new product, and now I’m being told that I won’t even be given the chance.

I’m not taking it personally because no one has yet told me that I should. I know the college’s financial situation, and I understand that, as an adjunct, I am the definition of low-hanging fruit, so I have no hard feelings at all.

But I really wanted to give this new course a try.

It is still an introduction to creative writing, but instead of breaking the semester down by genre — six weeks of fiction, five weeks of poetry, and three to four weeks of screenwriting or creative nonfiction (depending on the semester) — I was going to blend them all together and teach not a genre of creative writing but creative writing itself.

From a business perspective, the goal of the course is to convince non-majors to continue doing work in the major — i.e, to convince new customers to become repeat customers. For the past years, my sales pitch has been akin to an analysis. I wanted to expose the students to ideas and notions about creative writing that they hadn’t yet heard before, to show them, in some way, what it means to take the craft of writing seriously.

My competitors were the high schools. I had to be able to take them deeper into the concept of creative writing than anything they’d done in high school, to make them feel as if they were, in some way, being led behind the curtain.

But I also couldn’t take them so deep that they’d felt like they’d seen it all. The end of the semester had to leave them wanting more.

This upcoming semester though, I wanted to change it up. Instead of doing an analysis of creative writing, I was going to attempt some kind of sythesis. Instead of digging deep into the concept, I was going to dance them atop it, spin them from one place to another with enough joy and verve to trip the light fantastic, leaving them, at the end of the semester, with an artist’s sense of the possibilities, not of what goes on behind the curtain, but of what can be accomplished on stage.

I’m still not 100% sure how I was going to do it. The semester starts in about four or five weeks and my plan was to work on it during the first full week of August when I take a writer’s retreat in my own home (my wife and daughter are visiting my in-laws while I stay home with no obligation but to write, and to write in a serious and purposive way…and, I suppose, to feed and bathe myself as well).

The college course wasn’t the only thing I was planning to work on next week, but it was one of them, and I was very much looking forward to it.

I had a fantasy where, instead of writing a syllabus for the course, I would write a kind of pamphlet, a short and to-the-point kind of textbook whose style would blend Strunk & White’s with Wittgenstein’s to create a style all my own.

In the eight years I’ve been teaching the course, I’ve yet to use a textbook. I figured maybe it was time to write my own.

While I still might attempt it next week, I don’t have the pressure of a deadline now. And that disappoints me too.

Oh well. Here’s hoping the course comes back to life in the Spring.

What does it mean to be a self-published writer?

I’ve always interpreted self-publishing in terms of a bookstore: A self-published writer is someone who, from start to finish, is responsible for getting that book on that shelf.

But if I’m a bookstore owner, why am I going to allow you to come into my shop and just put your book on my shelves? If I start doing that, I’m going to have hundreds of wanna-be writers showing up on my doorstep, trying to get their stupid-ass books on my shelves. If I say yes to you, the rest will think I’ll say yes to them, and next thing you know, to make sure the books I sell remain high-quality enough for my customers, I’m screening which books make it on my shelves and which ones don’t, which basically means I’m doing the job of a publishing house now, and damn it, I’m trying to run a bookstore, not a publishing house, so no…you can’t put your self-published book on my shelf.

Can you imagine trying to talk your way past that guy? That’s a hell of a struggle, and even if you’re persuasive, it just means you got your book on that one shelf in that one bookstore, and everyone knows that no one goes to bookstores anymore.

So now, when you’re talking about self-publishing, what you’re really talking about is putting your book on Amazon. And that’s simple. Anybody can do that.

And millions of them do.

So now what’s your next struggle? It’s rising to the top in the cage-match rumble for a reader’s attention. If you want people to find your book in the jungles of, you have to work your network, which means turning friends and family members into customers and hopefully having a few of them who turn a few friends of their own onto your book.

But that seems kind of slimy to me. It’s putting your network to work, and that feels like an exploitation. I don’t want my friends and family to work for me. If they dig what I’m doing and they recommend it to someone else in the natural flow of their lives, that’s great, that’s honest and genuine; and that’s how I want my relationship with my readers to be: honest and genuine.

So there has to be another form to self-publishing, one that doesn’t require me to haggle with a bookstore owner or exploit the strength of my network.

And that’s when I realized there’s this. My blog. There doesn’t have to be anything other than this. It’s a place where I publish my writings and make them available for free.

I’m not a professional writer, and now that I’ve reached the age of 40 and am involved in a career that satisfies me personally and professionally in so many different ways, I’ve given up the desire to become a professional writer. I pay my bills in other ways, so why not write for free?

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to self-publish a book someday. But if I do, I’m going to link to it here on my website and make it available for free.

Because that’s what I think self-publishing should mean. If I didn’t get paid to write it, why should you pay me to read it?

There’s no resource being consumed here, nothing but time. And if your time is just as valuable as mine, why should you have to cover the cost of mine?

Except, wait a minute, because if we’re really talking about an exchange of time, truth must be spoken: it takes me a lot longer to write these things than it does for you to read them. Doesn’t that mean you owe me something? If our exchange value is time, doesn’t that mean you owe me some of your time (provided I have’t wasted whatever time you’ve already given me)?

That would be true if our time was equally as valuable, but it’s not. By virtue of your presence here, we can assume that your time — i.e., your attention — is precious. There are literally countless other things you could be doing with your time right now, but instead of doing any of those things, you’re doing this: reading the words I wrote. That’s a gift I must truly appreciate.

Because obviously, as someone who actually keeps a blog, I must have a lot of time on my hands, a portion of which I choose to give to this.

As a self-published writer, I’m not being paid for this. But as a self-selected reader, you’re actually paying for the time that you give me: in an attention-based economy, giving someone your eyeballs is to give them a major form of currency. I can use your eyeballs as leverage in a negotiated contract where the other party would be agreeing to exchange their services (editing, publishing, and marketing) for your eyeballs. If I give them you (i.e., my network), they’ll give me money. They won’t even have to read my work first because decision makers don’t care about what’s between the pages they publish; they care about the number of eyeballs that will, at the very least, scan those pages.

But, as I said before, I will not trade on the strength of my network. I refuse to think of my readers — of you — as a revenue stream. That would fuck up our whole relationship, and I’m not willing to do that.

Your attention is expensive, and it’s the only resource being consumed here. Everything else I’m just giving away.

I hope you find as much joy in it as I do.

The Arts of Telling the Truth

During the first ten years of my writing life, I learned that readers don’t want any bullshit but they do want to be entertained. The art, then, was the art of telling the truth. Some people call it advertising.

Ten years ago, I gave up the art of advertising and dedicated myself to the art of fiction. To my delight, many of the techniques I used in the art of advertising applied equally to the art of fiction. Regardless of how fictional a story might get, it has to be grounded in a shared reality between reader and narrator; it has to be grounded in something that both the reader and the narrator consider to be the truth.

The source of the truth doesn’t always have to be acknowledged by the narrator, but as the writer, its your duty to know exactly what that truth is and to not be shy about letting it be so.

Partly in thanks to this shared imperative to artfully tell the truth, my decade of experience in advertising and my six year study in fiction allowed me to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from a college of artists worthy of the name.

Eight years later, I’ve learned that the same imperative that grounds advertising and fiction also grounds the art of education. Like readers, students require truths to come to them in a language they can understand. They may not want to face the truth directly (because the experience of doing so might be boring), but they also don’t want to put up with any of your bullshit. Like advertising and fiction, then, the art of teaching is just another genre in the art of telling the truth.

But for the first time in a long time, I need to revert to the art of advertising, which, while sharing the imperative to tell the truth, also has a set of rules and practices that differ greatly from the arts of fiction and teaching. Where fiction tells the truth in the service of a story, and teaching tells the truth in the service of the future, advertising tells the truth in the service of a transaction. It’s been over a decade since I put my words in the service of something that feels so base.

If I’d done my job correctly over the past year, this project would already be done. The goal: to create a brand-new website for my school, one that in no ways relates to the current content or design. The students were supposed to be in charge. I was there to drive the project and to lend support, and another adult was there to spark their ideas and educate them on the process of thinking like a marketer, but the students would be the people with their ideas on the table and their hands on the keyboards.

During the first three quarters of the school year, they met once or twice a week, during which time they developed concepts and ideas for the website. By March, they had approved the website’s structure, tone, and design. During the fourth quarter, they were supposed to get to work.

Unfortunately, the quarter moved too fast and their workloads grew too high, and so as a group, they could not finish the task of actually writing, testing, and launching a website. This was understandable — disappointing, but understandable — but it also meant that the project’s final deliverables fell on me.

That’s why my schedule for the next four to six weeks includes not only four days of teaching and/or administrative work, but also one complete day per week that is dedicated to the production and launch of the newest version of the school’s website.

The difficulty will come not from any of the technical details of the project (while I might not be able to achieve the website of our dreams, I’m confident I can produce, at minimum, a clean and professional looking website). No, the difficulty will come, ironically enough, from the task I’m most qualified to accomplish, that of writing the words themselves.

As you are aware, my writing borders on the verbose. Verbosity does not perform well on the web, where content is meant to be skimmed, not indulged in. Visitors to a website arrive to accomplish a task or to find some specific information; they don’t come to languish in the art of written creation.

I am able to be verbose on my blog because it’s my fucking blog, and if you don’t like my verbosity, that’s your deal and no harm to me.

But on my school’s website, if you don’t accomplish the task you came to accomplish or find the information you so desperately need, your child might not find the school that best fits their unique needs, or the school might not grow fast enough for me to grow in my job, or the parent of a diagnosed child might not find the water in the desert that our program can be for some families. If a visitor doesn’t like my blog, big whoop; if a visitor doesn’t like what I write on the school’s website, the harm could be great and the foul could almost be a sin.

At the same time, I know I can get it right.

Writing a contemporary website won’t be easy for me, and it will take humility to remember that my tone is not the school’s tone, but by the time the project is complete, I suspect I will, once again, discover that the art of writing a website is just another genre in the art of telling the truth (tasks and information not included).

Responsibility and the Creative Writer

In the classic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, transcribed in the book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “A lot of people who write stories do not have a sense of their responsibility. These stories are making and breaking lives, but…the kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood [the responsibility of guiding people through the stages of their lives] is not there.”

Later on in the conversation, Campbell adds, “Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind of another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Taken alone, Campbell’s second statement might inspire creative writers to mine the ancient myths for new ideas, but when the writer combines it with the first statement, it becomes clear that what Campbell desires is a creative writer who can look at the world as it is — as opposed to as it was — and create new myths that speak to the people of today.

At one point in the conversation, Bill Moyers suggests that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance,” but Campbell corrects him, saying, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

According to Campbell, then, creative writers (and other artists) are responsible for helping the people of today connect with “the rapture of being alive,” while at the same time, devising ways to help the people of today understand how to pass from one stage of life to another, from becoming an adult, to finding a mate, to becoming a parent, to contributing to the wider community, to dying with grace.

Many people (myself included sometimes) would argue that an artist’s only responsibility is to the work of art, but Campbell seems to think that such an argument stems from a place of selfishness. “Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious,” he says, “and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The artist’s gift — and yes, for Campbell, artistic ability begins as a gift — is that he or she can become “the interpreter for others of things not seen.” If the artist eschews this responsibility, then the artwork becomes entertainment; it will never rise to the level of the myth.

But again, the mythologization that Campbell is talking about cannot be found in the past; the artist must  create the myth using the experiences that come from living in the world today. And unfortunately, as Campbell says, “what we have today is a demythologized world.”

Which means that we artists haven’t been doing our job. It’s time to fix that.

Two types of stories

In a Facebook message this week, a friend asked, “Do you buy that there are only two types of fiction stories: a stranger comes to town and a hero goes on a journey?” I wrote back, “Yes and no. But it will take me longer to explain.”

This is my explanation.

First of all, any time you attempt to categorize art forms, you’re only looking for trouble, especially since many artists live or die on their ability to push beyond their audience’s pre-conceived notions of art. Tell an artist that there are only two types of anything and you’ll only inspire their next work of art, the one that says, “Oh yeah, well what about this?”

At the same time, the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing communicates a key element of (virtually) any story — namely, that the story-world begins one way, and then something happens (in my creative-writing classes, we call this the inciting incident). In a stranger-comes-to-town story, the “something” is an external element that agitates the placidity of the story-world. In a hero-goes-on-a-journey story, the “something” usually forces the main character to depart from the placid world into the chaos beyond.

Here’s an interesting question: What kind of story is JAWS? It starts off as a stranger-comes story, with the shark playing the role of the stranger; but then Brody, Hooper, and Quint get on the boat, and it becomes a hero-goes story, with Brody playing the role of the hero. Should there be a third kind of story then? One that combines the other two?

Returning to my “first of all,” comment above, I don’t believe that the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing defines the only two types of stories (though with enough effort, a critic could probably squeeze most stories into either of those categories). I’d rather simplify that pairing and say instead:

There are only two types of stories:

  1. Stories in which something significant happens
  2. Stories in which something significant does not happen

The former is self-explanatory, but the latter needs a little help. Allow me to enlist the words of Mark O’Connell, who just wrote an article titled, “On Not Going Out of the House: Thoughts About Plotlessness.”

The form [of the novel] tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people…go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them….but there is a small but fascinating niche…, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere.

O’Connell explores the books that make up this quiet backstreet, novels by John Banville, Samuel Beckett, Ivan Goncharov, and Nicholson Baker. He then concludes:

The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off.

For my own part, I am inspired by the idea of the plotless novel, but less as a fan of the genre and more as a philosopher of force and form. In fact, one of my works in progress is an attempt to write a story where “something significant” both happens and doesn’t happen, where the “plot points” are present yet invisible, happening and not happening, except in the reader’s head.

Which is to say, as an artist, I’m inspired and challenged by my own theory of the two types of story.

So, to my friend who asked the original question, I both believe and disbelieve in the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” theory. I think it gets close to the heart of our understanding of story, but in its attempt to reduce the art of fiction, it only inspires us to create, as the great Jack Donaghy said, that “third heat.”

Fluid Imaginalphabet: H is for Hypertext Fiction

I am not an electronic artist. I can’t construct a poem that both comments on and is presented through the tyranny of the computer screen, as Justin Katko does with “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” nor can I build a Google Map to tell the story of gentrifaction, as J.R. Carpenter does with “In Absentia,” nor construct an immersive document that investigates the risks of reading, as Stuart Moulthrop does in “Deep Surface.”

What I can do is say that I have yet to be moved by any of my experiences with hypertext literature (or more generally, electronic literature).

But I want to be. I desperately want to be.

We live in amazing times. As a man in his mid-thirties, I’ve lived through the birth and development of the digital revolution. And as a creative writer, I’ve yearned to explore the openings created by that revolution.

But my art form, my skill set, is the manipulation of the English language — not Flash, not JavaScript, but English.

A vast, but limited, tool chest indeed.

My experience with creating electronic fiction does not go beyond the shallow waters of the hyperlink, and I struggle with the desire to create something more engaging than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure story.

The difficulty of hypertext fiction is similar to the difficulty of narrative storytelling in video games (and to be sure, hypertext fiction can be considered a form of the video game). In his recent book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissel explains the root of that difficulty:

Games with any kind of narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and traditionally doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as the “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined — the “fun” portions of the “played” game — and usually amounts to some frenetic conception of getting from point A to point B. The differences between the framed narrative and ludonarrative are what make story in games so unmanageable: One is fixed, the other is fluid, and yet they are intended, however notionally, to work together.

To some extent, what Bissel is talking about here is authorial control. The game designers maintain authorial control over the framed narrative, but they give up much of that control during the ludonarrative. Quoting Clint Hocking, a famous game designer, Bissel writes:

The very nature of drama, as we understand it, is authored. Period. The problem is, once you give up control of that to a player, authorial control gets broken. Things like pacing and flow and rhythm — all these things that are important to maintaining the emotional impact of narrative — go all will-nilly.

As in video games, hypertext fiction gives the readers control over what words they’ll read next, what information they’ll find next, what scenes they’ll enjoy next (of course, writers can always reduce their use of the hyperlink to glorified footnotes or page turns, but that’s not exactly hypertext fiction; that’s just fiction being printed in hypertext).

The trick to maintaining the necessary narrative momentum, as in video games, is constraining the possibilities of reader control without the reader feeling as if she’s being constrained.

That’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet. But if you’re going to be a creative writer in the twenty-first century, it’s a trick worth learning.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: G is for Genre

Genre is, to my mind, the delineation of a boundary between and around literary works determined by the intellect’s instinct for perceiving integritas and consonantia, which I would do well to let James Joyce explain:

— In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is the bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended…selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

— Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure… You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the results of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

A genre is bounded, contained, and separated from the genres that are, indeed, not it; at the same time, a genre contains within it a harmony of multivariate works. The concept of genre is spatial, measured in terms of within or without, and it defines an existing dimension of any literary work.

The problem with the spatial definition of genre is that it is static; it neglects the genre’s dynamism. If the consonantia is harmony of multivariate works, dynamism is the way in which a new work figures into that song. With dynamism, the boundaries of a genre become expressions of the conceptual forces that emanate from individual works, and they are always subject to flux.

But how does one reshape the boundary lines? How does one write the work that moves the border of an existing genre? In short, how does a writer work within a genre at the same time as one goes beyond it?

Because it is only through the answer to this question that a writer will make her mark.