On Teaching Students (and Myself)

I teach writing to high school students. Yesterday was our first day back to class, and I gave my freshman a little assignment to start things off. Nothing heavy. Just a topic sentence derived from something about which they already know a lot and three sentences that support it.

Everyone knows something about something, I said. You can write about Fortnite.

I could tell within a few minutes which of my students will fight the writing process this year, and which won’t.

That seems a little presumptive, you say. You don’t know them yet.

Right, but–here I go again with my groups–there are two kinds of students : 1). the kind that dive in and try, haltingly, maybe, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing, and 2). the kind that stare at the teacher in mental anguish (or boredom).

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I have compassion for these kids. There was a time when I didn’t because I taught what I wasn’t doing on a daily basis–i.e. staring down a blank page and pushing past the nothing.

Now I know how hard it is.

It’s going to be okay, I want to tell my kids. There is no way out but through. You will learn by doing, by giving yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. It will hurt, but it will make you better.

(You might even like it).

I will say all of those things, and more, probably. Most of my students won’t believe me, and that’s okay. We learn through experience. And, sometimes, we don’t notice the learning because it happens while we’re trying to escape our own weakness.

But it happens.

 

On Not Having a Plan (Or How Not to Quit Before You’ve Started)

Blogging is kind of like writing a novel.

Wait, I said kind of.

When you’re trying to nail down an idea for a story, one that will resonate with readers and have enough heft to be worthy of all those pages, your brain tells you to quit immediately. It tells you your ideas are, at best, lame, and, at worst, absolute garbage.

It’s not so different when you’re trying to think of things to blog about. I mean, really. What do people care if you can’t stop missing your grandmother–the one who wrestled with pancreatic cancer and taught you how to die? Or about the grit it takes to keep working on a project, day after day, when you have no guarantee it will end up being interesting or good. Or that when your Taiwanese neighbor collapsed suddenly two weeks ago, it changed your life.

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So, okay–

If I were to write a post about the top ten ways to manage your mornings, I might get some views. But I’m not interested in telling adults how to get things done because 1). they’re adults, and 2). everyone is doing what they can to get along.

Some experts say if you can’t think of ideas for your blog, you shouldn’t have one. That makes total sense. Except I write novels, and I know that if I were to quit because I don’t always know what I’m doing or because ideas slip out of my grasp like greased eels, well, I’d never write.

I’d never write.

Maybe you want to write, but the you feel like you can’t nail down a plan. I say, sit down and blog about the process of not knowing until things come into focus. Even if you’re the only one who reads your work (plus that one follower in Finland), you’re moving in the right direction.

A Book by Any Other Name

One of the things fiction writers are supposed to be sure of is where their writing fits in the book world.

Do they write romances, sci-fi, or horror? If so, they’re genre writers. Genre writing, also known as commercial writing, is extremely popular. It’s mostly plot-driven stuff and fulfills specific reader expectations. Book marketers and publishing houses call it commercial because it sells.

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The other type is called literary, and boy howdy are there ever different views on what that word means. Some say it’s writing that’s character-driven, full of subtext, or has an overarching message. Others say it’s a way of warning readers a book has no plot. Still others think of literary writing as the kind your English professor assigned you in college (the kind you bought Spark Notes for).

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Guess which kind I write?

I’m attending a huge writer’s conference in early Fall. I’ll meet lots of industry professionals there, and do you know what at least one of them will tell me?

That literary fiction doesn’t sell.

They may also inform me that calling my book literary fiction (even if the plot is well-developed with plenty of action and clean writing) is the kiss of death in terms of marketing.

In the past, I might have said, “Then tell me what to call it, and I’ll call it that. Only let me write the way I have to.”

But times have changed. My writing is literary, and that’s what I’m going to call it. It’s not full of talking heads in cafes or one dream sequence after another. It’s not esoteric or high falutin’. It is character-driven. And, yes, I’m trying to say something.

I’m not worried about the label because there are people who want to read books like that (I know I do). It’s my job to find them.

 

 

 

 

Finishing What I Started

There are two kinds of people: those who group the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

I’m in the first group.

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There are two kinds of people: those who have a hard time starting something and those who have a hard time finishing.

I can start novels all day long. What kills me is the follow-through, the big ending. There’s something scary about putting a period at the end of the last sentence.

In anything. In life.

When I was in my early twenties, I became a mother for the first time. I was excited to see those two pink lines on the pregnancy test because I had no idea what I was in for. After we finished the last childbirth class (that I’d forced my young husband to attend), I ugly-cried in a sub shop, a bite of dill pickle in my mouth.

“I can’t do this. I cannot,” I said.

“Do what?”

“Give birth.”

“But…you have to,” my husband said, blinking slowly, watching for any sudden movements across the table.

“I know.”

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I got pregnant two more times after that. Each time, I was jazzed, puke and all. In those early days, labor and delivery shimmered in the mist as future realities. I knew they were coming, but I didn’t acknowledge them.

(How big a cliché is it to compare writing a novel to pushing out a baby? I don’t care. It’s a cliché because it works).

I know women who hate actual pregnancy and live for the day they can hold their kid in their arms. They are finishers.

Then there are those of us who love the idea of things, the big-picture joy of the undefined future. We wish things could stay in the realm of possibility. We are starters.

Of course, one of the big differences between delivering a baby and finishing a novel is that, when it comes to writing, you have a choice whether to get it done or not. After all, you can’t exactly put off giving birth until you feel more inspired.

Or can you? Because I would have…

For me, choosing to see a project through is the hardest part. I tell myself I’ve done it before. I can do it again.

And I will.