Seventeen minutes

Seventeen minutes. That’s what it takes to write something good. The something can always be made better, and it’ll take as much time as a writer is willing to give it, but it takes seventeen minutes at least.

This is not a lot of time. It’s less than the length of one episode of comedic television.

Seventeen minutes is keyboard time though. It’s sitting at the keyboard and typing rather furiously for seventeen minutes. But it’s not seventeen minutes of blathering onto the screen; it’s seventeen minutes of hyperintensity, where your body is almost completely still except for its unconscious twitches and shakes and your mind’s eye is so far inward it’s almost up your asshole, and then, almost like when a fish tries to dart back into the dark waters and you reach out to snatch it by its tail, you discover the phrase, and depending on how fast you are, its yours to catch or release.

It’s the buildup to the keyboard time that can get you. It takes a lot of energy to sit down and write. It’s a lazy man’s game, I know, but there isn’t any laziness to it. Not when it’s done right.

It’s like exercise. You just have to do it. Maybe someday you’ll feel like you’re a real part of “the game,” but for now, it’s just exercise.

I have friends that run in marathons; some are even Ironmen and women. I don’t think one of them has entered a race expecting they would win it. They expect zero accolades for their performance. They wouldn’t mind if they received some, but accolades aren’t for a moment a reason for them to run, or to swim, or to bike.

Before race day, they prepare — some more than others, but all of them prepare.

In writing, though, there is no race day. There is no single day that it’s all leading up to. It’s never “the day.”

When I see my friends at the starting line of their races (which isn’t very often), they often seem serious. Those who can laugh, laugh, but not all of them; some take the time to focus. Sometimes they bounce on their legs to get the energy flowing, or they sway back and forth, trying to stay loose.

There is that in writing too. Some writers are able to roll right out of bed and get going, but I think most of us have to psyche ourselves up a little bit. Some even pop performance enhancing drugs like marijuana or alcohol (Hunter S. Thompson popped a pharmacy). But then, clean or not, feeling the moment, we sit down, place our fingers on the keys, put them in their rested but ready position, and wait, wait…wait…and bang, the phrase hits, and we’re off.

Most people don’t run marathons though. You know what they do? They run 5Ks. A lot of them, sometimes more than once a day.

How long do you think that takes, a 5K?

I don’t know. I’m not a runner. But I think to run a pretty good 5K, seventeen minutes sounds about right to me.

I shit you not. I started this post a little more than twenty minutes ago. I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I’m still a little off my game.

And for the record (just because I finished watching it about twenty minutes ago) tonight’s “Spoils of War” episode has to be in the running not just as the best episode of Game of Thrones, but as possibly the best episode of television ever. It demonstrated the narrative moment that comes just before the apotheosis as well as I’ve ever seen it done. I can’t wait to read George R.R. Martin’s version of it.

And also for the record, it’s taking Mr. Martin longer than seventeen minutes to write A Song of Ice & Fire; in fact, it’s taking him longer than seventeen years.

Name one project you’ve worked on for longer than seventeen years (children don’t count).

Give Mr. Martin a break. He’s creating a true masterpiece.

And for those of you going after David Benioff and D.B. White for their desire to wrangle whatever stories they can out of the notion that the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists the way capitalism still exists, as a bona-fide economic theory — how dare you try to censor an artist before he or she can begin her work?

Game of Thrones has to be ranked as one of the best series of television ever. You can argue the point all you like, but no one would denounce you as crazy for suggesting it at least deserves some kind of honorable mention in the discussion.

The world makes a lot of television. To do it as well as Beniof and White have done it for as long as they’ve done it, and to do it at such a massive scale, with millions of person hours dedicated to its creation, production, and distribution, and done in what seems to be a genuine manner, allowing the dirtiness of Martin’s novels to titillate and shock the viewer while also striving to touch their hearts… Beniof and White have been as successful on screen as Martin has been on the page — differently successful, but successful nonetheless.

Haven’t they shown themselves to be twenty-first century artists of the first stripe, capable of manipulating the capitalist system in such a way as to dedicate millions upon millions of dollars to the creation of quality works of art? You think the Vatican doesn’t benefit from housing such high quality artwork behind its doors?

Yes, there’s money to be made in art. Ask Shakespeare and Michelangelo.

I’m not trying to go out on a limb here. In their official announcement about the series, Benioff and White used the language of art to frame what they’re trying to do, saying, “Our experience on Thrones has convinced us that no one provides a bigger, better storytelling canvas than HBO.” Given any urge to create art, what artist worth her salt would turn down the biggest canvas she could find?

The announced concept behind “Confederacy” is problematic, true, and I applaud those who want to ensure that the artists understand the problems before they try to tackle them, but how dare anyone forbid their attempt of it?

With tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, which, by the way, they wrote before George R.R. Martin was able to write it, they proved themselves due for so much respect as artists that I’m willing to support whatever endeavor they choose next.

Yes, critique their idea. Yes, call into question the real political and cultural issues that arise from their idea, but for the love of all that is sacred in art, don’t denounce their right to attempt it.

Okay. That was about twenty more minutes. Sorry, but that was a great episode of television and I just needed to say all that.

Forty-five minutes of writing. Thirteen minutes of editing. That’s almost an hour-long drama. That’s not much at all.

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.

Fast Drafting

From Angela Quarles:

I realized that I should sign up precisely because it scared the heck out of me. I’d found out by doing NaNoWriMo that writing 50,000 words in 30 days was totally doable. What if it was totally doable to do it in half the time and I was just too chicken to find out? I’d also realized that I had begun to find excuses not to start my new novel idea STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY a steampunk romance set in 1890 Mobile, Alabama. So I signed up. And I did it! Last night at 9:22 I typed THE END and had written 56,267 words in 14 days!

That’s a crazy amount of writing in two weeks.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: F is for First-person, Present-tense

A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.

The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.

The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.

It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.

Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.

And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.

Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.

Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.

My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: A is for Ambiguity

Ambiguity is one of the many antagonists you’ll have to face in your development as a creative writer. You can think of it as an evil fairy that sits on your shoulder, reads your sentence-in-progress, and tells you, “Yes, don’t worry, you’ve said it the best you could. There’s no better phrase to describe that feeling and no better image to convey that idea. Maybe you didn’t get it exactly right, but don’t worry, you came as close as you could, and you should be happy. Time to move on to the next sentence.”

If you want to improve your writing, you have to do everything you can to shut that evil fucker up. Because ambiguity doesn’t want you to succeed as a writer; it only wants you to get to the end, get to the end!

Unfortunately, if you’re striving to get to the end rather than striving to use the right word at the right time, then you’re not really much of a writer.

This is not to say that ambiguity doesn’t have its place in literature. It absolutely does. But its place comes at a higher level than the sentence. You can be ambiguous when it comes to plot and character. You can be ambiguous when it comes to theme.

But when it comes to the words you use, to the metaphors you create, to the sentence-by-sentence experience of your text, ambiguity has no place at all. You can use words and sentences to create ambiguity, but within the words, within the sentences, you must be as exact as possible.

Instead of writing that the door is red, you need to describe what kind of red it is. Instead of writing that your character looks angry, you need to show us how she looks angry. Words like “red” and “angry” don’t actually do anything. At most, they give us a range of meanings, but they don’t actually mean anything in and of themselves. They are, in a word, ambiguous.

“Red” and “angry” are the kind of words about which the evil fairy says, “Don’t worry. Everyone knows what red is, what angry looks like. You can move on to the next sentence now.”

The trick to avoiding ambiguity’s false prompts of self-satisfaction is to recognize its soothing words for what they are: cowardice.

Ambiguity comes from writers not being brave enough to push through the crowd of words that gather around the center of what they’re actually trying to say. And when that evil fairy sees all of those false words clawing out at you, crying “Pick me! Pick me!”, it tells you that you’ve gone far enough, and says, “What’s the point in soldiering on when any of these words will do?”

But it’s all just a lie.

You haven’t reached your goal yet. You can still see, just beyond all those crowding and crying words, the lightning strike at the true center of your idea. You haven’t reached it yet, and you know it because you haven’t felt the wonder of its power surging through your mind, the glorious sensation that we all, as writers, strive for, the sensation that tells you, “Yes, I’ve got it!”

Instead, all you have is a voice — not a sensation, but a voice — telling you that this word or that word is good enough.

Be brave in the face of that voice. Tell it to shut the fuck up. And then turn your back on it and soldier on, not letting up until you capture the lightning.

The Mess in the Middle

“This always happens…in the middle of the book. ‘What was it you wanted me to do?’ seems to be the question my characters ask, and when I tell them, they become skeptical. Since I trust characters over plot every time, I tend to listen when a character tells me ‘I wouldn’t do that kind of thing.’ And the middle of the book is always where they seem to doubt their motivation. There’s a name for this. It’s called the mess in the middle.” —
Brunonia Barry, putting a name to the thing we’ve all experienced.

Grand-Theft Author

T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” But the question is, what’s the difference?

When you borrow in writing, you allow the originator to maintain ownership of the idea by providing an allusion to the original text or giving the source as a direct quotation. You let it be known that this idea you’re using, it’s not yours; you’re just borrowing it.

But when you steal in writing, you take the original idea and make it your own. I’m not talking about plagiarism or copyright theft, both of which are unforgivable; instead, I’m talking about letting the original idea marinate inside your soul until it takes on the unique flavor of you.

Let’s put this in musical terms by looking at two different covers of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The first cover, by Richie Havens, increases the rhythm a little bit, but the song remains essentially the same. Havens borrows the tune from Dylan, rather than stealing it.

Jimi Hendrix, however, steals the song outright.

Comparing Dylan’s version to Hendrix’s for the American Musicological Society, Albin Zak III writes:

There is little in Dylan’s recording of the song—a spare, folklike acoustic rendition—that would seem to have invited either Hendrix’s flamboyant electrified version or its eclectic attitude. Although Hendrix’s “All along the Watchtower” contains all of the song’s basic elements and retains its theme of alienation and apprehension, its affective sense is altogether different. While Dylan’s is a stark glimpse of an overheard fragment reported in the third person, Hendrix’s is wrought in large dramatic gestures in which he, though ostensibly the song’s narrator, appears to have an overtly protagonistic role. In both versions, the song’s characters, a joker and a thief, may be seen as facets of the artist’s persona, two sides of an internal dialogue. But…Dylan’s arrangement imparts an air of detachment, while Hendrix, in deepening the musical problem both sonically and syntactically, situates himself firmly at the center of the song.

In taking on Dylan’s song, Hendrix does not provide a veritable note-for-note remake like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s covers of Dylan’s songs, nor a slightly stylized remake, like Richie Havens. Instead, he takes the song into the core of his being until it becomes his and his alone, a sonic scream that Dylan couldn’t have pulled off in his wildest dreams.

And now when people do covers of “All Along the Watchtower,” they bypass Dylan’s original and aim instead for Hendrix.

Because he stole that song, claimed ownership, made it his. And that’s what makes it great.

You should do the same.