Writer on Writing (RFW #9)

In third grade, my teacher gave me a journal and inscribed on the inside cover, “Never stop writing.”  I wrote a mystery short story in fifth grade that my teacher claimed reminded her of Mary Higgins Clark.  By seventh grade, I was writing every day and was about sixty pages into my first novel.  I spent hours a week writing until I couldn’t any longer and always showed it to all my eager friends.  Between the enthusiastic compliments and the ability to fabricate these stories using my imagination, I adored writing.  Then I reached junior year of high school.  I decided to show my English teacher (I’ll refer to him as “Mr. P”) a novel I was working on at the time.  When I asked him what he thought, he said, “so you left the two characters off in that ditch, right?”  And that was it.  No suggestions, no compliments, just that indifferent statement.  After that, I barely wrote for about two years and never once asked anyone to read my work.

At the end of my freshmen year in college, I realized I still had to take an English Composition class, which meant I would probably have to share my creative writing again.  That, paired with the possibility of the creative writing class, meant I would have to reapproach something that once was so familiar to me.  It frightened me, but I seized the challenge.  Besides, not every professor or teacher could be a Mr. P.

On the first day of Professor Torgerson’s class, I discovered that I would have to be writing constantly—and for the public!  Not only would my professor read and critique my work, but my classmates would, as well.  We made groups within our class, shared our writing, and reviewed each other’s work.  Professor Torgerson, who radiated enthusiasm for the craft, paired with my interested class mates began to help me diminish my fears.

We had to choose a specific topic that we would work on all semester; I chose fiction writing.  If I could accomplish overcoming the fear of writing that Mr. P imprinted, then I would have a successful semester.  However, simply writing fiction wouldn’t be enough; I wanted to read it, as well.  I decided to examine each book I read and figure out how they succeeded and how they faltered.  However, I knew I couldn’t just jump into this; I needed an introduction to the topic, a hook, just as every story requires.

I started by examining famous first lines from a few different novels: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.  Why were these simple sentences so enthralling that they entranced the reader to continue?  After comparing the first sentence to the rest of the novel, I came to the conclusion that the introduction was as simple as introducing the story.  However, it must be approached with caution.  A good writer won’t reveal too much, but provide just enough to lead the reader on.  The first line of Rowling’s novel is, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Private Driver, were proud  to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much” (Rowling, 1).  As every Harry Potter fan knows, the Dursley’s are, in fact, not normal because their nephew is a wizard.  Rowling’s matter of fact tone reeks of sarcasm.  The “thank you very much,” is what really gives it away. Rowling hints that the Dursley’s are not normal, but they wish to be.  It’s a great introduction to their characters and provides the idea that something odd will occur.  Of course, the reader has to know what, so they continue on.

Along with examining several famous introductions, I decided to read first person narratives so that I could study how other writers took on the challenge.  The first book I picked up was Stephen King’s On Writing.  While this is a memoir, instead of fiction, King’s enthralling and entertaining narrative voice winded up teaching me more than I could ask for.  With the variety of jokes, crude language, and sincere advice, King’s memoir became the foundations for my semester’s work.  He provided memorable quotes, like “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs” (King, 118), and fantastic advice.  If a verb doesn’t portray the meaning as well as the writer hoped, try to find a different verb instead of scouring for adverbs.  After all, actions speak louder than descriptions.  He also discussed something which no one cared to mention before: Writing is hard.  To find out that a famous, successful writer felt such a way was almost relieving.  I find myself faced with writer’s block and can’t figure out how to approach a conclusion that I had in mind.  Sometimes, my writers block consumes any inspriation and suddenly, I have to force myself to write only a few sentences.  King showed me that I wasn’t the only one.

King provided me with the inspiration to dive into what I wanted to do and endeavor to accomplish my goals.  However, I still had to figure out exactly what type of story I wanted to tell and whether I wanted to create several, or follow one character.  I decided to create a character using a hundred character development questions.  Patrick Miles III, a rich college student from Texas, was born.  Not only is he petrified of getting dirty, but he looks down on everyone without realizing how pretentious he actually is.  Besides conquering my fear of sharing my work, I decided to take on the challenge of writing in first person.  Normally, my work is third person because, let’s face it, an omniscient narrator is so much more simple than capturing a character’s voice and keeping it consistent throughout the story.  I decided that if I could practice first person, plus get some helpful advice (unlike Mr. P’s simple remark), I might improve my skills.  My two goals by the end of the semester became to conquer my fear of showing my work and to improve my first person narrative craft.

After writing a few posts about Patrick, my group met for the first time.  We each read our posts allowed and when it was my turn, I had to ignore the naseau errupting in my stomach.  Bracing myself for the worst, I began to read Patrick’s story outloud.  To my complete surprise, they loved it.  Suddenly, my ideas of Mr. P transformed from a well-respected teacher to someone who I wouldn’t care whether he read my work or not.  Mr. P was not my “ideal reader,” which is a term King uses.  It just means the specific person the writer is striving to please through his/her work.  For years, Mr. P’s words echoed through my head and made me feel inadequate.  King made me realize that feedback isn’t always important, especially if it comes from an untrustworthy source.  Mr. P will never be my ideal reader, and now I realize that.  I decided that if the feedback wasn’t helpful in any way, I would take the critics’ too harsh opinions into mind, but not let it get to me.  Besides, if I was happy with something I wrote, and my “ideal reader” was happy, as my peers in the group were, why should I let a lousy comment bring me down?

Just like that, my confidence in my writing boosted up enormously.  I glanced back at my original stories written through Patrick’s perspective and I decided to re-write them for myself.  I produced an introduction with almost four thousand words, far beyond the first few sections I had written.  The best part was that I actually liked what I wrote.  Even through his odd quirks, Patrick became a loveable and interesting character, one who I wanted to work on.  It’s funny what a bit of confidence can produce.

Mr. P suffocated me, preventing me from doing what I adored most in my life.  It may seem silly that I let a single sentence effect me so greatly, but I see that now.  Even if I may not be the next Bronte or Rowling, I should never have felt inadequate for something I love to do.  I guess the notion that facing your fears to subdue them is true.  With King’s words, my group’s support, and my new found confidence aside, the one thing that will always keep me going is my love for the craft.  And no amount of iciness, whether it be from Mr. P or anyone, will conquer that.

Work Cited:

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. New York: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition, 1996. Print.

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000. Print.

Palahuinuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

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The Road (RFW #8)

“Are we still the good guys?”
-The Road (McCarthy, 75)

It almost pains me to say that I can’t find anything wrong with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  His style is a gorgeous combination of fragmented, callous descriptions and simplistic, spine-chilling language.  The Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic future when a man (whose name is not stated) and his son (also nameless) are struggling to survive.  Wherever they travel, there’s a thin layer of ash blanketed across the landscape, constantly reminding the reader of an unsolved mystery.  The lingering question, besides what will happen to the protagonists, is what happened to the world?  While McCarthy provides a plethora of descriptions (mostly involving worn houses and dead trees), he tip-toes around revealing too much.  He hints that the sun and moon are hidden behind a layer of something (what I assume is ash), but he never explicitly states it.  That’s another reason he’s truly great: he always “shows.”

One of McCarthy’s more brilliant lines (in my opinion, at least), is , “The falling snow curtained them about” (McCarthy, 92).  When I read this sentence, the visual, which was already fine tuned in my head, suddenly sharpened and illuminated a fantastic scene of snow swirling around the two, veiling them from the rest of the world, and vice-versa.  And I could see them hugging their elbows, hanging their heads to protect them from the wind.  It’s one simple line, but it’s the verb that makes the sentence.  With this one, simple line, he’s able to “show” so much, while “telling” so little.

The only times he states something and, “tells,” is in regards to the little boy’s fear and the father’s constant anxiety to keep the two alive.  Even the father’s anxiety isn’t explicitly stated, but the little boy constantly voices his fear.  It seems to reflect his innocence, when “I’m scared,” is all that really matters.

At the beginning, McCarthy sprinkles hints of these terrifying antagonists, ones who I’ve barely seen.  They seem like ordinary men (the father shoots one at a point), yet the narrator portrays them in monstrous ways.  McCarthy seems to pose a question here: Are we all monsters when survival requires it?  Will we all give into our own pleasures and struggle to keep only ourselves alive?  Yet, the father’s love for his son seems to indicate otherwise.  Even after he shoots one of the antagonists and abandons a dying man on the side of the road, he focuses all his attention on keeping his son safe.  The contrast between his eternal love and the desolate surroundings creates a beautiful clash and ignites a match which burns brighter as the story continues.  Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering if the father is doing right for the little boy.  Was abandoning that man really the “right” thing to do?  What exactly is right in this situation?  And suddenly, the little boys words echo in my head: “Are we still the good guys?” (McCarthy, 75).  Such a simple phrase, yet power reigns in each word.  In my opinion, this notion is one of the most prevalent themes throughout.  And McCarthy conveys it with just six words.  So ladies and gentlemen, please stand up and give McCarthy a round of applause–he deserves it!

Work cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

The Curious Incidient of the Dog in the Night-Time (RFW #7)

“I wrote a book and that means I can do anything”
(Haddon, 222)

The combination of dedicated research and an engrossing, consistent narrative voice makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a memorable story.  Haddon’s creation, Christopher Boone, is a fifteen year old boy with autism who sees the world in a straightforward way.  Haddon’s ability to capture details through Christopher’s calculating eyes ignites a fantastic relationship between Christopher and the reader.

This aspiring astronaut, mathematical genius observes the world in a literal sense.  He doesn’t understand the imagination, he thinks the concept of life after death is foolish, and he definitely can’t grasp figures of speech.  “I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn’t clever.  That was just being observant” (Haddon, 24).  Christopher’s perspective shows us a clouded view on life.  While he can count the number of red cars he spotted on the road that day, he can’t comprehend facial expressions or other people’s emotions.  Boone captures the view delicately by insinuating to the reader what’s really going on through the fog; Boone really shows instead of tells.

After finishing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I realized good writing doesn’t require fancy language and imagery sprinkled throughout the text.  Good writing requires care; care for the character and his/her particular story.  If an author cares about their character, the rest might come naturally.  Suddenly, simple language and every day speech becomes poetry.  Just like that, Christopher Boone is born into the world of literature.

Where Boone succeeds, he also falters.  While Christopher’s upfront, yet clouded view brings us straight into his mind, Boone’s approach is almost too obvious and literal.  He forces something down the readers throat and continues to repeat certain ideas and descriptions.  Although I don’t mean to critique his style (especially since I’m no more than mediocre), but I found myself rolling my eyes at certain points where Boone made what he was attempting to say too explicit.  Just as one of Christopher’s interesting quirks is his inability to comprehend metaphors and figurative language, it also becomes a bit of an annoyance.  If Boone’s intention was to drive his reader a bit nuts, then he succeeded.  I felt that he made sure to include figurative speech within the dialogues constantly just so Christopher could say something along the lines of, “I didn’t understand what he was saying here because it doesn’t make sense” (that was god-awful paraphrasing, but you catch my drift).

Boone’s too forceful and in the reader’s face with Christopher’s personality and, while he develops a really great, fascinating character, he also relies too heavily on it.  But maybe that says something.  As I mentioned before, a writer should care about his/her character, and Boone really seems to.  Even I, as the reader, really cared about Christopher.  So Boone’s approach, although a bit ‘in your face’, achieves what every writer hopes for: creating a story and characters that the reader cares for.

(This was a really great book, overall.  Check it out if you get a chance!)

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. New York, NY: First Vintage Books, 2008.

On the Fence: Creative Writing Groups (RFW #6)

It’s odd how much integration occurs within the context of writing about writing.  A few days ago, Prof. Torg had us annotate an article by Peter Elbow called “Writing Without Teachers: The Teacherless Writing Class.”  It revolved around the idea of creating a writing club, in which all the participants were fully dedicated and ready to write as well as read.  Elbow encouraged the idea and gave several different tips to have a successful writing group.  I guess it spoke to me since I’m not only in English Comp, but in Introduction to Creative Writing, plus I work at the Writing Center–oh, did I mention I meet with a writing group once a week, as well?

Right now, my life revolves around writing, and I want to keep it that way.  King, however, believes the writing group ideal is nothing more than every writer’s dream.  He mentions in On Writing that he attended a few writing seminars in college: “The result was a four-month period in which I could write almost nothing at all” (King, 238).  While Elbow believes a writer should push themselves to write and have even their most horrific work critiqued, King enforces the idea it might be pointless.  Critiques might be vague, unproductive, and downright lame.  Besides, if you’re forced to write for a bunch of readers, your writing begins to reflect what they want to hear instead of what you want to say.

I’m a bit on the fence with the argument.  King’s methods plus his radical voice always steer me on an admiring path, but I enjoy being part of a ‘writer’s colony.’  I can see where he’s coming from, though.  Over the past few months, I’ve been so worried that my stories (whether it’s for English Comp or Intro to Creative Writing) are perfect, that my original voice slips.  Suddenly, there are too many critiques pounding at my head and I want to escape.

Basically, I haven’t been able to write.  Alright, I can write–you all see the Patrick Miles III posts.  But is it my best?  I doubt myself so much with every word choice and wonder if I’m being too dramatic to too boring to the point where I lose the story and the voice.  King’s words echoed so profoundly in my head as I read them, yet I want to stay with my writing community.  I want to be criticized–after all, how will I get better if someone doesn’t show me what I’m failing at?  Elbow understands: he knows (like King) that writers need to read and write.  Maybe King just carries warning signs.  The writing group can’t be the only audience a writer strives to please (King believes in an Ideal Reader; I don’t have enough experience to state what I believe).  Otherwise, the writer’s voice becomes lost in a sea of other writer’s and suddenly, the work is no longer his/hers. I understand.  Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lost something because of how much I’ve dedicated to making my class appreciate my piece.

Or maybe I’m just trying to make up an excuse.

Sacrificing Your ‘Darlings’ (RFW#5)

“It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.
-King (213)

It sounds a bit morbid, but don’t worry; King isn’t being literal.  The ‘darlings’ he mentions aren’t actual people, but the piece of art that a someone created.  He refers to stories as an author’s ‘darlings’ throughout On Writing, emphasizing how our pieces are like children.  We mold them and watch them grow; it’s why tossing them or butchering them until they’re unrecognizable hurts.  It’s a requirement, though.  I believe writers must hold the ability to destroy their work in order to add strength.  It’s an odd idea, but one that I clutch onto after finishing a piece.

In the quote above, King’s referring to re-reading and revising a story.  He believes writers should step back when they’re finished with their work and wait a few weeks before picking it up again.  Sure, a certain familiarity lingers in the story (it’s your story; of course it’s familiar), but the writing can seem foreign after such a long period of time.  This distance creates the illusion that someone else wrote the story.  As King says, a writer is “rediscovering [his/her] own book” (King, 214).  The foggy bias fades and suddenly a writer discovers certain mistakes, holes, or inconsistencies that weaken their piece.  Believe me, that clarity relieves a tremendous tension, which originally corrupted the writer’s ability to find something wrong with the piece.  Although King doesn’t mention this, reading out loud can benefit the writer as well.  A sentence which sounded clear in the writer’s head can become a deformed, awkward statement as it leaves the writer’s lips.  Suddenly, dialogue sounds both unnatural and unrealistic, or worse, a phrase that the character wouldn’t say.

I revise everything I write, whether it’s the next day or the next few weeks.  There’s always need for improvement and (sometimes) the entire piece just sucks.  That’s when I toss it and re-write.  I never regret the decision because it strengthens the story; I kill one ‘darling’ to save another.  Alright,  I’m sure King would have advised me to wait before completely starting over with Patrick’s story, but did you read the first two chapters?  Complete crap.  I’m not claiming the edited version is a masterpiece, but it’s better than the original (much better, in my opinion).  Sometimes, to continue a story needs to be scrapped and re-written.  Otherwise, a writer may follow a path that they detest–and no writer wants that.  So, sacrifice your darlings for the good of the piece; sometimes it’s necessary.

Raw (RFW #4)

I think I’ve fallen in love with King’s writing style.  He’s so candid and interesting to the point that I’m sucked far into every passage and every word.  Although I haven’t finished the book like I planned to this weekend (I’m only half way done; I’m really failing in the productive department), I’m so glad I’m reading this.  I’ve actually put the book down a few times because waves of inspiration pour through me and I need to write.  Maybe that was part of his purpose, or maybe I’m just too enthralled by the this book.

So far, King’s provided a comforting thought that it’s okay to be so rugged and raw in my writing.  In fact, it adds a certain charm to the story.  Of course, I still have to be careful about who the narrator is, instead of throwing too much of myself into the words.  But I feel as if he’s given me the okay to tear my characters apart and mold them however I want, simply because of how raw his writing is.

“Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.  Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
-King, 78

It’s such simple advice that could be given so generically.  Yet, he adds his own flavor, which really spiced it up.  This passage practically screamed at me when I read it.  In fact, I read it and re-read it.  I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but I constantly doubt myself.  The last sentence provided an uplifting thought that maybe my writing is not as bad as I originally believe.  Instead of wasting my time doubting myself, I’m just going to write.  And if it turns out pretty grotesque, well I can always throw it in the trash and start over.

I’ve had so many passing ideas for novels in my life and I’ve only been able to really grasp onto one which I thought was good.  However, what about all those other ideas?  What will happen to them?  Will they vanish forever?  Maybe I shouldn’t toss a potential idea for an interesting story just because it’s a challenge.  I’ve thrown a couple of ideas aside because they’re plain silly, but some ideas just frightened me when I thought of actually writing it.

So far, the most important thing I’ve grasped from King’s On Writing is just do it!  Just write, constantly write.  And constantly read.  If this is what I want to do, then I should just do it and stop worrying so much.  Any restraints I’ve felt in the past, such as concern for the audience or how intelligent I sound, should just be secondary.  I want to create raw, candid, interesting writing.  And I want to find my voice.  Who knows; maybe in the process I’ll discover something about myself, as well.

Peeling Comedy from the Serious (RFW #3)

“I did my business, and took care of the cleanup as my older brother had suggested, carefully wiping my ass with big handfuls of shiny green leaves.  These turned out to be poison ivy.”
(King, 30-31)

I finally started to read On Writing by Stephen King again.  I’m actually surprised how much I don’t remember; it’s only been about five years.  He sets up his memoir, or his ‘curriculum vitae‘ (King, 18), in a fascinating way.  It’s just a series of short stories, either 1-2 pages, revolved around random snip-its of his life.  He says he did it because his childhood is a bit foggy to him, but I think it’s a fantastic way to present his life.  The small, detailed moments really give me the ability to understand and appreciate him.

The quote above is the first time since I started reading that I said to myself, ‘I remember this part!’  Maybe it’s just because of the horrific visual I got of Stephen King going to the bathroom in a junkyard, or maybe it’s the comedic aspect of the whole situation.  In fact, all his short flashes to his past have some comedic values lingering in them.  The situations seem so unpleasant that I, the reader, can’t help but laugh.

So, where does Stephen King’s funny, short narratives fit in to me as a writer?  Well, I’ve been trying to figure out how he can make such a terrible situation so hilarious and I decided it was the seemingly exaggerated aspects of it.  One memory’s horror is nothing compared to the next, and if you don’t  laugh, well, you’re in for a hell of a ride.  He adds lines in his pieces that have this certain quirky flare to them, creating a comical, less serious atmosphere.

“Eula-Beulah laughed, then went upside my head, then shoved me into the closet, and locked the door.  Pow” (King, 21).

So what makes this line so comical?  After all, Eula-Beulah, King’s babysitter at the time, just hit King and locked him in a closet.  How could that be funny?  Well, her ridiculous name made me smile every time I read it, and certainly didn’t help making the situation more serious.  King couldn’t remember if her name was ‘Eula’ or ‘Beulah’, so he combined them.  Go ahead–say it out loud–it’s hilarious.  Then, he added that ‘pow’ at the end, which really eliminated any pity or serious emotions I felt.  King mentioned a page earlier that she used to fart on his head and say, ‘pow!’.  He took a frightening moment and sprinkled some comedic relief in it, which just made the whole situation funny.

After reading this part, I’ve been thinking of ways to make Patrick Miles III, the character I created, a little more comical without making Patrick funny.  Maybe I can include exaggerated situations or quirky lines, as King chose.  All I know is I have absolutely no idea how to start Patrick’s narrative, but King has provided me a path to follow.  He’s given me several different ways I could approach the situation.  Since Patrick’s story will only happen once a week, I have to find a way to make each of his posts valuable and powerful, just as King does with his short insights on his childhood.

Work Cited:

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000.