Monday, July 14, 2014

Why we write together

[This post originated in my newish blog Payperazzi.  I crosslist it here on Creating Van Gogh, for the sake of CVG readers and also because I provide some news about my forthcoming book Island Fog, half of which is made up of historical fictions.]

In a recent commentary in The New York TimesBonnie Tsui discusses her lifelong difficulties writing around other people and her recent breakthroughs doing just that.  (Thanks, by the way, to Erika Dreifus for another great reading recommendation.)  Interestingly, one of Tsui's discoveries stems from the fact that when she is around other people she talks more than she writes.  But that, it turns out, is a good thing.  The talking lets her flesh out various possibilities in a piece and thus decide what it is a right path and what a false trail without wasting several hours of writing before coming to the same conclusion.  (I'm not sure if, for a fictionist, any writing is truly wasted--but that's a discussion for another day.)  More intriguing is Tsui's past reasons for resisting writing in groups and the fact that despite these reservations she finally found value in it.  Some of the reasons--e.g., fear that someone will steal one of her ideas--seem almost amateurishly overblown (nothing is more commonplace than an idea); other reasons--such as the fear of distraction--strike me as more realistic.  The bottom line, though, is that Tsui has discovered a generous, supportive community that not only gives her important feedback on her work but informs her about, and connects her to, many important aspects of the writing world that lay beyond her narrow personal focus: readings, conferences, classes, etc.  Tsui has discovered that writing is both solitary and social; that the two aspects can and do feed each other.

Since in just about every class I teach I make my students spend at least some in-class time generating new material, I was heartened by Tsui's essay.  I can't remember when I first started making my students produce original work in class--I was never made to do this myself as an undergrad or a grad--but it has come to seem essential to me.  This is especially so in a forms class, in which I lead the students through a series of specifc fictional or non-fictional or poetic forms, and I want to make sure that they actively try every form we cover.  But no matter what the class, I always set aside in-class writing time.  In my mind, it's as central to a creative writing class as workshopping.  After all, if one takes a class in painting or dancing or acting or playing the piano, one expects to paint, dance, act, or play the piano in class.  One would feel cheated if denied the chance to do so.  So why should it be any different for a writing class?  Just as with painting or dancing, it's a matter of working on one's craft.  A minute spent practicing writing is about the best minute a writer can hope for, and the minute in which the writer learns the most.  And if one does that writing in the company of others and then shares that work with others--or at least hears about it from others--one learns not only about his or her own work but about someone else's and about the genre at large.  The learning is multiplied.

I always write along with my students, and I look forward to those days more than any other on the schedule.  First, as anyone who has taken a creative writing class can tell you, doing nothing but workshopping each other's stories or essays or poems all semester long can wear you out and finally even sap your creativity (because you're exercising your analytical and not your creative self).  Meanwhile, doing nothing but reading the work of masters, while an extremely valuable activity, turns the class into a literature course.  Having the element of on-site creativity affords a crucial pedogogical element of pause, of rest, of reenergizing, of rediscovery.  And far from being "just crap"or "just writing," what my students generate in class often becomes what they work on for their formal assignments.  Often what I write in class leads to a finished and published story.  I can't tell you how valuable that time has been for my career.

Over the years, nearly all my students have appreciated this in-class writing time, even my graduate students (and never more than when I teach Novel Writing Workshop). But of course this is not always the case.  Most years there is a student or two who turn their noses up at the practice, as if they are too good to waste precious time wrting in the presence of plebes.  Yes, as you can tell from my description, these students don't simply not want to write in class but, almost to a man--and they are always men--believe that they are better than that.  They glance around the room, at the other students and me--our heads bent over notebooks or laptops--with a caustic smile on their face, as if we are all dupes, or beginners carrying out grade school games.  Their writing time, you see--unlike everybody else's apparently--is special, holy, inviolate.  It must be done entirely in priviate--like some cultic religious function--or it can't get done.  In fact, again, to a man, that's what they tell me when I question them about their in-class inactivity: I have to write alone.  I became so quickly tired of this attitude that years ago I installed in my syllabus a warning (yes, I felt I had to warn them) that--gasp--we would actually be writing in this writing course.  I would remind them that my department existed in a College of Fine Arts, an arm of the university where creativity was routinely expected in classroom settings (painting, playing, dancing, etc.) and no excuses were afforded.  Finally, I felt I obliged to add this sentence:  "Being writers, this prospect ought to excite not discourage you."  

And that's really what it comes down to for me.  Of course writing is a solitary activity.  And I am someone who typically tries to keep distractions to a minimum when I write.  I don't write to music (although the vast majority of my students do); I don't write with the television or talk radio on; I don't try to write and text at the same time; I even like to keep the internet out of the way, unless I need to quick research a point directly related to what I'm working on.  I am by nature quite the solitary person.  But I learned easily enough, as soon as I started asking my students to, to compose while in the company of twenty or more people.  You do that by not being so much into yourself and about yourself and your holy rituals as into and about the work at hand.  You let the work at hand take you away.  And that can happen anywhere, in any company, no matter how large or small in number.   Finally--finally--you need to get over yourself.  That's what it's about.  For the good of your own writing, your own development, you need to.  And that includes the attitude the you can't ever learn from the people sitting in class with you; and the attitude that you can never learn a new way of composing.   To me, the writer who can't summon the necessary power of concentration to be compose--and I mean compose meaningfully--in a group of others is not more of a writer but less of one.  He is not able to do what others clear can do, and even enjoy doing.  His proud resistance is revealed to be less that of a genius than that of a misanthrope.  And perhaps, for all his haught, an insecure one at that.  Fortunately, with every year I see fewer of these types of students.  Perhaps initiatives like NaNoWriMo, with its big fat group writing parties, has shown young people the value of writing together.  Or perhaps this generation of students has just been been better taught how to work in a collaborative fashion, or at least in group settings.  But so far there are still the tenacious holdouts.  God bless them, I hope for their own sakes they leave aside the tiresome role of lone wolf, roaming the woods at night in search of inspiration, and allow themselves a step into the sunshine of immediate generation.

Quick personal note: I had a wonderful vacation last week in South Dakota, specifically in Custer State Park in the middle of the Black Hills region.  I'd never been to the Black Hills, or even to the state, before.  And now I won't ever forget it.  (Trying to figure how we can import buffalo herds down here to Arkansas.)   

Follow-up to my book marketing post:  Several weeks ago I put up a post that highighted all the marketing and promotion work I'd taken on for the sake of my book of linked stories, called Island Fog, which will be out in October from Lavender Ink press.  The last few weeks, thanks to a great reference book my wife gave me, I've been researching hundreds of book bloggers, national and international.  (Yes, I am pleased to report, there are hundreds of them out there.)  As a result, I contacted 65 or so to ask if they wanted to read and review Island Fog.  To date, 25 of these bloggers have said yes!  This is better than I could have anticipated, and now I can't wait to see the results.  A few of them are ready to go right away and I have to tell them, "Wait, it's not available for sale until October!" So I talk them down to September. I'm so glad I'm doing this all in advance.  (And I have to thank my publisher for the timely kick in the pants to get going.)  Hopefully Island Fog will be blogged galore come fall.  I'll let you all know.  


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