Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘writing’

After a Brief Hiatus

I’ve entered that part of the semester when everything comes crashing down or hits the fan, depending on the colloquialism you prefer. As this semester is my last at TCU, I’m finishing up a 120-page honors thesis that combines research and creative memoir narrative, and on top of that, I have a whole host of projects, papers, and assignments for my other courses. I’ve pretty much been treading water for the past couple weeks, and despite skimming through my PW Daily e-mails every morning, I haven’t really seen any articles or news that has piqued my interest enough to write an entire post on the topic. Plus, I’ve been avoiding the news to an extent lately, because I just can’t take anymore election coverage. My political views aside, I just can’t take anymore analysis of sound bites and nitpicking over semantics or yet another poll.

Instead, today I’m going to talk a little bit about careers with a BA of Writing or any liberal arts degree. I’ve heard over and over, “So what are you going to do with that?” when I mention that my major is Writing. There’s an underlying, snide tone, too, with the subtle hint of, “What an impractical major. Good luck finding a job once you get your degree.” When I started at TCU, I was an art history major. I planned on going to graduate school and eventually becoming a curator or opening my own gallery; I thought this path was practical. After my confusing, inexperienced professor’s confusing teaching led me to change my major to Writing, my then-boyfriend criticized my decision, claiming that I’d never go anywhere with writing, despite writing being my lifelong love and passion. His discouragement and negativity about my major was one of the reasons I left him not much later. And even though the general attitude about liberal arts majors is negative, I refuse to believe that majoring in the liberal arts dooms someone to a life of underemployment or unemployment.

Here’s the thing. I work as a writing associate at the second most selective university in Texas (I’m not bragging here, just pointing out that you have to have a fairly strong application to get in), and I read papers from undergraduate students across the curriculum, from nursing to business to communications to psychology to art history. After a couple semesters and input from my colleagues and professors, I can make a strong claim that a minority of students at TCU can actually write effectively, coherently, and persuasively. The skill of writing well is becoming rarer and rarer on college campuses. Although I do not have a strong theory as to why, the staff at the TCU writing center guesses that about twenty to forty percent of the students at TCU can write well. Let me be clear: I by no means intend to insult the students at TCU, who are on the whole bright, engaged, motivated students who excel in their chosen fields, just not in writing. I hear so often, “I’m so bad at writing; I just can’t do it,” when really the best way to get better at writing is to write. A lot. But how to improve your writing is besides the point.

This paucity of writing skill opens a lot of doors in the career world. Businesses need strong writers who can write technical documents such as white papers or press briefings or even instruction manuals, who can lay out and write a business or marketing plan, who can even write a simple business letter. People have trouble expressing themselves and articulating through the written word; those who have this skill are a commodity. Ada Limon, a poet who spoke at TCU, said she got her foot in the door when she was an assistant and her boss needed her to write a business letter because he couldn’t. Her performance on the letter helped her move up the ladder. So people who major in writing or English aren’t walking into the career world without any marketable skills; indeed, they possess an ability lacking in many college graduates–the ability to write and write well.

I have several career options open to me: trying to break into the publishing industry as a copyeditor or editorial assistant, copywriting or writing promotional materials, editing or writing for a business or firm, and so on. I know how to use language effectively and how to communicate via the written word. I’ve had practice in copyediting, workshopping creatively, tutoring students both online and in person, and managing acquisitions material. That’s a lot of different ways to evaluate writing and to generate content. I try to remain optimistic about my prospects despite the pessimistic reports about the growth of the economy. Somewhere out there is a place who needs my skills. I hope.

So far all you liberal arts majors out there, ignore the naysayers who claim your liberal arts degree is about as useful as a bent spoon. Being able to think critically, analyze and synthesis large amount of information, and write clearly are marketable skills that are absent in much of the business world. And anyway, unless you’re planning to go into academia or an advanced field, a graduate degree is pretty unnecessary, and a liberal arts degree is pretty much one size fits all when applying for a job. Market your writing skills, your thinking abilities, and your range of communication skills.

The value of a liberal arts degree is far more than knowing more than the average person about psychology, philosophy, or anthropology. Many CEOs were not business majors; they were liberal arts majors. Having a degree in business is great, but a liberal arts degree teaches you how to look at the world in a different way. This unique perspective gives a leg up on problem solving and looking at a situation in an original way. I’m currently working on a marketing project about a product we invent as a brand extension, and I’ve found that my training in writing has helped me to think creatively, write snappy and grabbing copy for advertising, and brainstorm. I would posit that problem-solving skills aren’t just in writing majors’ pockets; the whole liberal arts field provides opportunities to hone these abilities.

Hopefully next week I’ll be back with a post about publishing, but I wanted to make a case for the English and Writing majors out there who are looking at graduating within the next year and are planning to enter the job market. Having a liberal arts degree is not a one-way ticket to a life waiting tables, far from it. That degree is a weapon for penetrating the inscrutable, confusing career world with insight and acuity.

Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

How to Boil Water

I never took the freshman and sophomore comp courses at TCU; I tested out from AP testing (thank God). I got to skip out on the repetition of how to write an essay, how to analyze a source, how to do research and cite sources, how to write about literature. But I have read the course outcomes for freshman and sophomore comp. Because TCU’s accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), requires these course outcomes, these lower-division courses have the following outcomes listed:

ENGL 10803 Introductory Composition: Writing As Inquiry

1. Students will demonstrate the ability to write in a range of genres, using appropriate rhetorical conventions.

2. Students will demonstrate competency in reading, quoting, and citing sources as well as competency in balancing their own voices with secondary sources.

3. Students will demonstrate the ability to employ flexible strategies for generating and revising their writing.

ENGL 20803 Intermediate Composition: Writing As Argument

1. Students will demonstrate facility with the language and analysis of argument.

2. Students will demonstrate the ability to write an argument for a specific rhetorical situation.

3. Students will demonstrate competency in using sources (primary, secondary, digital) in argument construction.

4. Students will demonstrate the ability to use computers effectively as a communication mechanism.

In my cyberliteracy course, my professor asked us to rewrite these course outcomes to reflect relevant and useful skills in writing and composition. These courses often focus on a narrow set of writing skills, particularly geared toward academic writing that has little application outside the university setting. My group and I discussed some of the issues with these course outcomes as they do not prepare students for what the writing world is like beyond the college campus. We argued that the first course’s three outcomes could be shortened simply to, “Learn to write in an effective and appropriate manner with clarity and precision.” Instead of focusing so much on the academic composition side, introduce students to publications online through blogging and social networking. So much of getting a job these days, in publishing or otherwise, depends on your online presence and proving that you know how to express yourself. Many entry-level positions involve maintaining social media for the company, and being able to compose anything from a tweet to a blog post is essential. Also, these classes do not teach essential digital skills such as effectively using a search engine or using online databases such as JSTOR or Academic Search Complete. We are leaving students illiterate in the world of Google and Wikipedia. We thought that if students want to continue in academia after undergrad, there should be a separate course for academic writing and instead have the intro comp classes focus on more utilitarian forms of writing such as technical writing, magazine writing, newspaper writing, business writing, etc. Students should walk out of a freshman comp class and understand how to write for a variety of positions and workplace demands–even composing a memo or writing a brief business letter.

The sophomore comp class should continue with how to develop an online presence through social networking (LinkedIn, e.g.) and continuing to find online publication avenues. Rather than focusing on a competency in using sources, focus instead of the ability to analyze sources for their accuracy, reliability, and meaning. I come across so many writers in my job at a writing center who cannot analyze a source for its meaning and implications. They can summarize a source but not take it a step further and say what they can infer from reading a document. Also, students should learn more difficult software such as InDesign. So many jobs expect students to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite–particularly Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and InDesign. Composition should involve some visual rhetoric as well–showing students how to build an effective website, how to edit an effective photo, how to create an effective ad or page. These are all useful skills. Of course we should never drop the ability to effectively express oneself and have a practical use of grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling, but the intense focus on the academic essay is not helpful to students who want to go out into the “real world.”

Also, this type of formal writing does not prepare students for the times they will need to write personally. Personal writing and creative nonfiction are some of the most difficult genres to master. Being able to write about onself, especially in a concise and clear manner, is a difficult task, one professional writers struggle with. Expecting students to walk into college knowing how to write a good personal essay (even when admissions expects a good personal essay in five hundred words or less–ask a professional writer to do that and they might throw something at you)  is unrealistic–a good amount of maturity and deft handling of English is required. Instead of forbidding students to use “I” in essays or address the reader as “you” or to use contractions, teach students the importance of communicating, getting your message across, because the point of writing is to communicate, to spread information, to tell someone something you want them to understand. Rather than leaving students in the dark on the real applications of publication and writing, give them the tools to walk out of college and enter the real world.

This lack of real world preparation is a controversy in universities. Some people see the university system as overly indulgent and too focused on the curricula of esoteric learning removed from real life. Others argue that the university system is designed to teach the ability to think critically and not a technical school for vocation preparation. The whole point of the university, some argue, is to learn for the sake of acquiring knowledge, not to get a job after graduation. But students expect a bachelor’s degree to be the key to a job after school (at least they used to). Not teaching students tools to be effective in the workplace leaves them at a disadvantage, especially when they are competing with more experienced and skilled workers already out of school. We can still teach writing, composition, and rhetoric while supplying skills necessary for “real life.” These skills are as basic as boiling water–universities that don’t teach students how to express themselves and publish online are leaving students in the dark about how to create an online presence, find jobs, and showcase their skills.

Your Participation Grade

Writing has evolved tremendously over its 6,000 year history. No, I’m not talking about the evolution of language. I am not a diacrhonic linguist; I leave charting the changes and growth in language up to them. Writing has moved from carving on stone tablets to scratching on animal skin to using a quill and ink on parchment to ballpoint pens to the typerwriter to the computer. The ability to write (not just the spread of literacy) has grown exponentially because the technology of writing has so vastly improved. With graphite penciles, felt-tip and ballpoint pens, and the modern-day keyboard, the amount of time it takes to write out your thoughts has diminished vastly since writing’s inception. Back in the day, many writers employed a scribe who would write down what they said, because the process of writing out characters on a difficult surface was too time-consuming and diverted attention away from the words themselves. Today, many would-be writers face no such barriers. In fact, the barrier between writing and publication has practically shurnk to zero if you have a computer, a Internet connection, and a blog. At the end of writing this post, I will press “publish” and have shared my thoughts and writing with the world. All within an hour or less.

Seed magazine’s article, “A Writing Revolution” ( http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/a_writing_revolution/), charts the growth of authorship from 1400 to the present. Spoiler alert: the growthh as been exponential as Internet users tweet, post, and blog. Suddenly the spread of influence moves from how many people read your article/book in a sanctioned publication to anyone who stumbles upon your page. Everyone writes e-mails to groups, shares status updates on social networking sites, and posts videos and photographs of themselves. We live in what one might call a “participatory culture” (http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF) in which the ability to express and circulate one’s own work and thoughts is easy and simplified. Members of various groups (including wordpress) crowdsource information, learn from one another’s posts, and believe their contributions to the website’s content matters. Through these sites, people can share their writing easily and quickly. The standard roadblocks between composition and publication have all but disappeared so long as you have a will to write and feel encouraged to log in, type away, and hit “enter.” We follow one another’s blogs, subscribe to follow different users on facebook, etc. , so we believe that what we are writing and sharing is important, that others will read it and consider it.

This massive growth in influencing others through informal publishing is only an asset to encouraging the love of the written word. More and more as traditional writing and reading books is seen as too time-consuming and irrelevant, the explosion and outgrowth of personal publication is a way for budding writers and skeptical readers that the written word has concrete value. The fact that anyone can put their thoughts out their is a testament to how the world has simultaneously grown and shrunk as the global network becomes increasingly interconnected. Writing is the pleasure of transferring thought to word, and we are well to honor our literacy, both on paper and online.

The Memory in the Memoir

Memoir is one of the big ticket items in our literary zeitgeist. Memoir appears everywhere on the bookshelves and on the homepages of Barnes and Noble and Amazon. From the French mémoire, the memoir is a form that has in some ways surpassed the novel and is the most prominent form of nonfiction in contemporary literature. Writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and public officials have all jumped on the bandwagon. The appeal of memoir is simple–we assume that “this really happened.” The person writing actually experienced what we are reading. We’re consuming some form of truth, a primary source document by someone who really lived it. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha by Aruthur Golden and Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki both deal with the life of a Kyoto geiko. But while Golden is a white man writing a fictional account, Iwasaki was the most renowned and famous geiko of her time. In fact, she sets the record straight about some of the misconceptions sown by Memoirs, such as the fact that high class geiko are essentially courtesans who sell their virginity for the highest bidder and that they are essentially the Japanese equivalent of escorts. (In truth, there is no true “Western” equivalent of the geiko; it simply does not neatly translate into our standard of company for hire). The appeal of Iwasaki’s account over Golden’s is clear; she lived the life of a geiko in Gion. We can believe her more than we can Golden. Her memoirs are true memoirs, rather than Golden’s fabricated account. A memoir of a Holocaust survivor can be trusted more than Holocaust fiction.

Yet the validity of memoir has come under some scrutiny, particularly after the Million Little Pieces scandal on Oprah. Although James Frey’s book was marketed as memoir, much of his account is fictionalized, although loosely based on truth. The appeal of this traumatic account being factional was just too tempting for marketing purposes; it’s more entertaining as memory than it is as made-up. Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors came under similar fire when his own family members questioned the truth of his accounts, and one can assume that Burrough’s took large liberties when recounting his family history.

This literary license leads one into the skepticism a reader must either put on hold or caution when reading the memoir. Because our memories are not video recorders, accurately transcribing and recording our past, many memoirists edit, delete, or alter the account either because their memories are truly faulty, they can’t fully remember, or the edited version better suits the storyline and artistic style of the piece. Creative nonfiction is allowed a little bit of latitude with “fact” when it comes to the memoir. Our memories are far from perfect, and sometimes the “truth” needs tweaking to better serve the genre. Yet one must draw the line with how much a writer can change the past; the account must be based on reality, with additions and deletions minimal and based on need rather than sensationalism. It’s a fine, fine line, one which personal essayists and memoirists struggle with daily.

Additional backlash comes from critics who accuse the memoir as little more than the published equivalent of a psychotherapy session, the thought being if you drank, drugged, or sexed as a way to deal with inner pain and external turmoil, go ahead and share with the world. Why not? Skeptical readers assert that the memoir is indulgent and guilty of navel-gazing. The question arises, “Why should we care if this happened to you? Quit it with the confessional whining and self-serving recounting of your past.” But in truth the memoir is more than self-absorbed rambling. The memoir, when well-written, provides an account of an aspect of the writer’s life, a way for readers to live vicariously through an experience or theme of a person’s life and perhaps reflect on their own. The memoir taps into the human story, the human experience, which, in my opinion, is what true art strives to do. Art tries to tap into the One Story of humanity, what it is to be human, to be cliche–the human condition.

At this point I should make a clear distinction between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography, while also a reflection of a person’s life, is usually a linear account starting from the beginning and moving toward some presupposed end to the present. The writer is attempting to accurately and truly represent the passage of their life, from childhood through adulthood in the ownward march toward death. Autobiographers are often older, able to go through decades of life (presumably full and hopefully well-lived). Autobiographers take little artistic license and are concerned with the retelling of the life story. A memoir, on the other hand, usually focuses on one time period or one aspect of the writer’s life, usually coming-of-age, a relationship with a parent or the family, a traumatic event, or a lesson learned. The memoir is often about self-realization or self-actualization, the process through which the writer lived to reflect and reconsider their past through an artistic lens. The writer is using a dual mode of narrative and reflection to weave an overall picture of an aspect of their life. For example, in Loose Girl, A Memoir of Promiscuity, Kerry Cohen Koffman recounts her parents’ divorce, troubled youth, and subsequent “loose behavior” and how she learned to overcome her low self-esteem and develop a healthy sex life. Alex Lemon’s Happy recounts his years of alcohol and drug abuse as he coped with his strokes and brain surgery, how he recovered and dealt with his lost identity as a star baseball player.

The memoir is a difficult form, and one struggles to come across a well-written memoir in the wealth and breadth of memoir available today. Writers struggle to avoid the trap of “And then…and then…and then…” Rather than merely recounting a story, the memoirist must endeavor to interweave the past with the present person. We must know who the person was when it happened to them, otherwise why should we care? Why should we be invested in what happens to this person? The memoirist must create themselves in a new image, into a character and avoid the urge to provide all the backstory, the impulse of “They won’t understand if I don’t give all the background information.” The memoirist must trust reader just enough to assume they’ll put the pieces together but not too much that the reader becomes lost and confused.

Much of this post is coming from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts, who supplies the different subgenres of memoir, good examples of each, the challenges of memoir, etc. But I want to stop recounting his point and offer my own criticism of the memoir. Rather than disliking the memoir for its self-indulgence, I think the memoir has become too popularized, too dominant on the nonfiction shelves. Anyone can write a memoir and sell it if famous enough (Bristol Palin, anyone?) The art and craft of the form becomes secondary to the personality of the writer (who usually works with a ghost writer). My issue comes from not the idea that memoir is essentially narcissistic and an exploitation of our culture’s fascination with dysfunction and self-help. I’m not of the opinion that the memoir belongs in the closet instead of on the bookshelf. The well-written memoir is an experiment of introspection and self-knowledge, the combination of experience in the moment and the looking back of a different person.

No, my criticism comes from this idea that memoir is a one-size-fits-all way to represent a person’s life. That anyone with a ghostwriter, a computer, and a celebrity personality/scandal/entertaining story can publish a worthwhile memoir. The memoir has exploded. The memoir worth writing is not the memoir of the famous screenwriter or the celebrity singer; the memoir worth reading has been carefully crafted, edited, and manipulated to show a person’s life without specific chronology, without all the details spoon-fed to us, without the writing handholding his or her reader every step of the way. As a creative nonfiction writer,  I acknowledge the immense difficulty of writing a memoir and writing it well. How to tell your own story, represent it for a reader–this thing is daunting and seems impossible. It is a form and a genre that is delicate and difficult to master. The well-written memoir is not about the story but instead how the story is told, how the narrative connects with the reflection.

 

The Method in the Madness

Just a little over a week ago, my friend and I were standing in front of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting looked more or less like a bunch of random, schizophrenic scribbles–babbling, rambling artistic squiggles that were akin to a magic eye drawing. I have no strong aversion or love toward modern art, so this interpretation is up for debate. My friend and I had been discussing writing, as we are wont to do. She’s a fiction writer, focusing in the short story and young adult fiction. We spend a lot of time discussing our writing, focusing on the similarities and differences in crafting our respective genres.

I pointed to the painting, my finger following the curve of the wiggling lines, and said, “That’s pretty much how my notebook looks before I write something.”

She looked surprised. “Really? But your writing is so straightforward and structured.”

“Yep, pretty much. Once all the crazy is out on paper, it all comes together when I start typing up the final product. The structure comes from a lot of mulling and pondering and jumbled up thinking in my head, and then once the ideas come out in the end, it’s all neat and pretty.”

This conversation, of course, wasn’t the first discussion I’d had on the writing process. As a peer consultant (read: tutor) at the Center for Writing at TCU, I spend a good deal of my time discussing how to brainstorm, how to write a first draft, how to revise and edit, how to include sources, how to use run-in versus block quotes, and on and on and on. I try to avoid the formulaic, five-step process when talking to other students. They’ve heard it before, and they’ll hear it again. Repeating that step-by-step process is nothing more than white noise, so introducing new approaches to the same old, same old helps keep attention. But this writing process is for formal, academic prose and is intended to create genre- and area-specific discourse for the sake of passing a class.

In contrast to straightforward academic writing, my discussion of my creative writing process is vastly different. My boyfriend, who has a BFA in film, writes screenplays and once asked me about my writing process, whether it came in bursts of inspiration or from studied, drawn-out linear thought or through just sitting down and hitting the keys until something worthwhile appears on the page.

My answer?

All three.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to discuss my creative process in regards to the essay. I write poetry and prose poetry, but since those aren’t my focus in creative writing, I’ll let you use your imagination for how I write in those conventions. In short, the main difference is that poetry and prose poetry are for cathartic, emotional purposes, and the final product rarely, if ever, makes it outside of my file folders on my laptop. And usually, almost always, I get my ideas from sudden inspiration that just hits me. I have to write down whatever I’m thinking at that very second; otherwise, I’ll lose it. This necessity has led me to write the first few lines of a series of prose poems on my phone while walking over narrow stone streets in New Orleans. I almost broke an ankle and got hit by a car, but I had to write down the lines in my head that instant. Damn broken bones and human-versus-car accidents, I had ideas.

But back to creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction for me is an intellectual exercise, a playing with ideas and thoughts I’ve had churning and burning in my mind for weeks, months, even years. It feels like the back of my head is kind of like a cement mixer–always turning, always mixing, always folding ingredients together until a final product comes out. Oftentimes I don’t even realize the idea is in there and has been all along until I sit down at the computer and just try to get it out there. For example, the majority of these blog posts are from things I’ve been musing on a little bit at a time until the half-baked thoughts come out in a semi-coherent, semi-comprehensible process that I record on the page.

My admissions essay to TCU is a good consideration of this principle. I chose a prompt that read, “Go forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.” I later found out that most of the students who choose this prompt end up talking about 100 years in the future and their robotic cat. At 17, I had no interest whatsoever in discussing the massive advances in technology or the equivalent of dystopian flash fiction. Instead, I chose to go backwards 100 years to 1908. I looked through the list of major historical events that occurred that year and chose Gandhi doing his first demonstration against the registration of Indians in South Africa. I chose this topic back in early September but didn’t actually begin writing the essay for another month. Without fully realizing it, I was deciding how to structure the essay, figuring out how to tie the topic back into me, and doing research on the topic. My parents thought I was procrastinating, but when I finally stared at that blank screen in front of me, I wrote 500 words in about 15-20 minutes without breaking a sweat. The result of that essay as part of my application was a four-year full scholarship.

Other times, this semi-subconscious thought process takes months, even years to complete. I’m currently working on four or five forty-page essays for a senior thesis to graduate from the honors college at TCU. I began thinking about what I wanted to do for this project during the second semester of my freshman year, two years ago. I knew I wanted to write CNF, and I knew I wanted to focus on the essay, but other than that, I had no idea what I was going to do. During the fall of that year (2010), I stumbled across an idea while writing a short essay for class about feeling like an outsider when I’d grown up so much in the majority of my hometown. I was trying to examine feelings of alterity and otherness that I’d so rarely felt during my somewhat sheltered upbringing. This idea led to a thirty-page essay that meandered through topics that had already been discussed and explicated ad nauseum. After about three or four months of banging my head against a wall, I met with my advising professor to talk about the direction of my thesis. Forty-five minutes later, after having sifted through the hot mess of my essay, we came up with the project I have now–essays on the places I’ve traveled, my experiences in those places, and the history of those locales. I got to combine my ability to write sensory detail, my love of history, and my strength at explicating without having to rehash tired ideas already explored. Once I had the idea, the rest was easy. I wrote about 40 pages in less than a couple months.

But if the idea isn’t fully formed and no divine inspiration comes, you’re forced to sit and keep on typing until you write something even slightly useful. Taking that scrap of useful writing and expanding on it until it becomes a full-fledged essay takes a little time, but to make it a product you’re happy with? Well, let’s just say lots of writers have the philosophy that pieces are never finished, only abandoned. And if you’re stuck with twenty pages of okay writing that you want to transform into something else, to twist and meld and mold an un-malleable piece and bend it to your will? That kind of falls into the whole idea that you should wait a year between writing something and editing/revising it. Stay away from it for a good, long while, then come back when you’re fresh and have a clearer sense of your objective, once you’re not so entrenched in just typing it all out.

When I’m traveling, I try to keep a travel journal and take lots of photos of what I’m seeing so that when I go back to write, I have a clear memory of what I did and saw and thought to translate into an essay. These lead to the schizophrenic notebooks full of little drawings, hastily-written anecdotes, messy notes from museums and exhibits, and little thoughts I jotted down in the margin while I was out. This notebook is the physical manifestation of the mental process that seems to be going on all the time without my even realizing it, the crazy recording of the meandering, wandering lines that my brain follows when classifying and reorganizing cluttered thoughts. Out of the coffee-stained, water-logged pages comes something almost worth writing, something I can push and knead and flatten into the written word.

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