Boston.com did a nice story about my MBTA haiku coping mechanism. I’m not alone in my beef with the T.
I like to tell my students that the more you critique other people’s stories, the better you’ll get at seeing areas of improvement in your own writing. I am a good example of this. Since I started teaching, I have picked up on things I see a lot of my students do, and then in turn I realized that these are often things I do myself. One thing I see a lot of is stories that start with a lot of description and telling you who the characters are and what they’re like. I understand the urge to do this. Starting a story is hard, so why not just get out who we’re dealing with here? I think that works when you’re writing an early draft. I say get as much out of your head as you can at once, so if you need to do a data dump as the opening, go for it. But when it’s time to revise, I think I can make a good argument to not open your story this way.
Let’s take a look at the opening of Charlotte’s Web, which many people (myself included) consider to be one of the great openings in literature.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
Look at how much information we get from this. We know Fern lives on a farm, (and not only that, a farm which has pigs), she is eight, her last name is Arable, and as we’ll see in a paragraph or two, she is very determined when she puts her mind to something. Now look at how a first draft of this might sound.
Fern Arable was an eight year old girl with a mind of her own. She enjoyed living on the farm with her parents where they raised pigs, sheep, and geese. She didn’t like it when animals were killed, especially for what she considered to be unjust reasons. One day as she and her mother were setting the table for breakfast, Fern looked out the window and saw her father walking across the yard with an axe.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said to her mother.
Which one grabs your attention more? The one that puts you right into the action, right? Keep this in mind when revising. You only have so much time to grab a reader’s attention.
However, don’t worry about this when you’re writing. The problem I have run into with my well-developed critiquing muscles is that I recognize when I’m doing stuff I don’t want to be doing as I am doing it. Don’t get caught up in the urge to edit as you write. The ideas want out, let them get out. No one needs to see the early drafts. Then, when you go to revise, be like Papa with the axe, and do away with the words that get in the way.
One of my former Gotham Writers’ Workshop students got in touch with me recently about a problem she was having. She’d just started an MFA program, and was having problems right off the bat. When she was my student I had given her input on my experiences with MFA programs (I was in one bad one, which I left, then one excellent one). I knew she had gotten into a couple, and was weighing which one to go to.
The story she had worked on in class was about a girl who had been held captive in a basement, who then escapes. She is picked up by a truck driver, who realizes something is wrong. The truck driver takes the girl home with her to keep an eye on her, and during a discussion it’s mentioned that the truck driver is Navajo. In my class, we didn’t get too much farther than this, which is always the problem with my classes. I get invested in the story, and then class is over, and I never see how the story ends. But when she got back in touch with me, I remembered it. It was well-written and an interesting premise, so it stood out, even after months of having taught other classes. It also was what she submitted to get into the MFA programs, so the admissions people obviously thought highly of it too.
She chose her program, and began workshops. This is where the trouble began. When her teacher read the story, he refused to let her work on it. His reasoning was that since one character was Navajo, and the writer was not, she would never be able to transcend stereotypes, would be branded a racist, and the book would never get published. This is all based on the portion I had seen in my class, where the Navajo aspect is really mentioned in passing. I agree that there is reason to treat cautiously when dealing with cultures that aren’t your own, and she is aware of this also, doing extensive research, as well as pairing up with a professor who is a Navajo expert to help her get things right. My issue with this is telling someone that they can’t write a story no matter what. If there is a concern that the story may go in a bad direction, I feel you should address that when you see the story going in that direction, and then you address the aspect of it that goes bad. I don’t think it’s a writing teacher’s place to forbid someone to write a story. How is someone to grow as a writer if they don’t experiment, take chances, and maybe even fail? Say the story did end up dealing in stereotypes and coming off as racist. That’s when you say, “I really think you need to fix this,” and if it seems unfixable, then it’s the writer’s role to decide if the story should be abandoned. I would never tell a student they could not work on something. I’d tell them that I thought a story had major flaws that needed to be addressed, but they are free to work on what they want to work on. My job is to help them make it as good as it can be.
She had a meeting with the professor and the director of the program, but the professor wouldn’t argue anything beyond his initial points, and so it faltered. The irony is that another teacher in the program is a white woman who recently published a book about a Native American tribe, which basically sinks all of his points, but here we are.
I do understand the idea to “write what you know,” but if you’re doing research into a culture, doesn’t that help as knowing? (There’s also the “Brian Wilson didn’t surf” argument, which I feel sometimes comes off as glib, in spite of being a good point). But the larger question I have is, should a teacher ever forbid a student to not write a story? Particularly the story they hoped to finish by enrolling in the program? I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts, and I hope I’m missing something.
On the one hand, you keep all the negativity in one place. On the other, seeing a whole list of “DENIED!” is kind of a bummer. Maybe I need to work on my phrasing. (See, you can put a positive spin on it! In any case, it seems poetry is a tough sell in general, mine especially so.)
My friend Nicolle and I are working on a graphic novel/webcomic type thing. We have finally decided on how the characters should look. So, presenting Tabs and Dizzy.
We’re not quite there yet, but when we are, the comics will be posted at The Cats In The Alley Tumblr.
The other night I was at a get-together for writers and illustrators, and there was a discussion of illustrating digitally vs. illustrating on paper. I am still working on getting proficient with the tablet (see my bad bunny drawing post), but I mentioned that since I am colorblind, I have been known to scan a drawing in and color it digitally using various web sites that give you swatches of various colors. This way I can go to the browns and pick one that I like, enter the values into Photoshop, and then know that I’ve at least gotten a brown where I need a brown. (Whether or not it’s still hideous is another story). This seemed interesting to people, so here I am telling you, the internet, about it.
Amazingly, I have been colorblind my whole life. Once in college, someone came up to me and said, “You know what’s awesome about you? Your clothes NEVER MATCH!” So it’s been a struggle. In spite of it, I have worked as a graphic designer and illustrator. But I have found ways to cope in one way or another, aside from that time when my mother let me got to school on St. Patrick’s Day dressed in all brown instead of green.
Lately what I do is draw a picture in pencil, redo the lines with a Micron pen, and then scan it in. Then I’ll add the colors in Photoshop, either using the Fill tool or a brush. A site I use for pictures that are just going on the web is The Other RGB Color Chart. There’s a decent selection, but not a ton, which makes it easier to choose. Too many options will probably just confuse me. It’s divided into color groups, so I look for what I like, and then add the values into the Color Picker, and I’m off.
There is a recent exception to this process.
For my “big plate of pancreas” drawing, I knew I wanted it to look like an old food ad, so I searched for old food ads until I found one that had gross enough colors for what I was after. I brought it into Photoshop, and sampled the ones I wanted, and worked as usual. I was especially interested in the weird background color, which a lot of old ads seem to have. Makes me extra queasy. I’m pretty sure this is the ad I used:
Good advice from an illustrator. The fearlessness he describes should carry over to writing, too!
If all Gary Panter did was the visuals for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, that would still be a huge deal. But he’s done a ton more. I especially like his comment about doing something to mess up a notebook when you first get it so you don’t treat it so preciously.
I got this one from Lynda Barry’s Tumblr, but I don’t remember if she invented or got it from one of her teachers. Basically (and I may be remembering this wrong, but this is how I do it) you spend two minutes writing down anything you remember from the day before. Then you spend two minutes writing down things you remember seeing the day before. Then you spend one minute writing down things you overheard the day before, then a minute and a half drawing something you saw. You’ll be amazed at first at how much of a blur your days can be, but it helps you to be more alert as to what’s going on around you, which is a good skill to have. I don’t do this nearly as often as I should. I haven’t worked it into a routine like I have with the morning pages, but maybe that means I should do it on the train also.
When I was in grad school, people were very big into Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. So much so, that it made a little resistant to it. I am of the belief that the more people gush about something, the less likely I am to enjoy it (mainly because nothing, however good, lives up to the gushing, but I am not a gusher). I liked a lot of the people who were recommending it, so I gave it a shot. As I had been warned, it was a little touchy-feely, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. There were a lot of useful exercises, but the one that has stayed with me to the day is the concept of “Morning Pages.” In essence, first thing in the morning you write 3 pages of anything that pops into your head.
Even if you only write about how annoyed you are at the train, or how many bills you have (not that I know anything about this subject matter) the point is to get the little irritating ideas out of your head, so that the good, important things can start to come out. I’ve been doing it daily for well over 10 years now, and I find it very helpful. Often I will worry on the page about where an project is going, and suddenly I have given my self a solution, just by getting it out.
Meanwhile, a whole Artist’s Way empire has risen. There are seminars, special notebooks you can buy for morning pages (I use composition notebooks, because they are super cheap) and all manner of ways to get your money. You can get the book out of the library and use the back side of printouts you don’t need anymore, and it works just as well.