Writerly Thoughts

As a writer, I need a place to share my writerly thoughts. This is where I get to explore what makes writing effective or interesting, as well as lay out my general philosophy on writing.

AWP Seattle 2014: Day 1

This is my third year in a row attending AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs {yes, I know it should be AWWP}), and this year it is in Seattle, WA. The last three years it has been in my three favorite cities: Chicago, then Boston, and now, Seattle.

You call yourself a writer? AWP is a great time. As I said before, I’ve gone three years in a row, and I plan on continuing to go (See you next year, Minneapolis!). Why, you ask? Well, it’s a great place to meet writers face to face (I’ve shaken Benjamin Percy‘s manly hand a couple times), talk to publishers (journals and presses), and hopefully, learn more about the craft and business of creative writing.

Writing as business … Ha! That’s a good one. So, I’ve been to two panels thus far this morning. The first was on structuring a novel. I’m interested in this because I have tried (unsuccessfully) to write a few novels, and I want my MFA thesis to be a novel. I have an idea for a new one, but the talk was helpful. The presenters were a few novelists: Summer Wood, Amanda Boyden, Melissa Remark, and Joseph Boyden. They talked at length about thinking of forms like the three act play or the hero’s journey. A few of them recommended paying attention to movie plot structures as a sort of easy way to think about sustained stories. As a movie fan, this is extremely helpful advice for me, so next time I watch a great movie, I plan on keeping a notebook out to track the general structure.

The next panel I went to was called “Like Sand to the Beach: Bringing Your Book to Market.” The presenters in the panel were an editor from a small press (Jarret Middleton), a bookseller (Karen Maeda Allman), an expert on self-promotion and social media (Rachel Fershleiser), and a very quirky and interesting author who’s made it on self-promotion (Jonathan Evison). I love self-promotion. I love the internet. I suppose I don’t trust the idea that anyone will be as invested as I am about my thoughts and my work, and this panel laid out the process of bringing a book to market and finding a reader base. They kept stressing relationships, that times have changed, and we have to connect directly to readers.

I’m sure readers are happy enough not to find your work. It was an empowering panel. I say that because, though I love AWP, I find a lot of the panels to be rather useless. There are a lot of abstract and ungrounded thoughts (example: “write from your heart” sort of advice), and it’s great to see a well-organized and practical panel that gives me tools to immediately apply. For example, based on the last panel, I created a Tumblr account for myself. If you’re a Tumblr fan, feel free to follow me here. My blog posts will now show up there. But with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about building up my Twitter followers. So, if you feel like following me on Twitter, go here.

Yes, yes. Good, good. I gotta go home now. Alright, well, the moral of the story is this: if you’re a writer, think about coming to AWP. It’s worth it. It can be overwhelming or disappointing at times, but the experience, the panels, the bookfair, I mean … it’s worth it. Give it a shot. On to more panels …

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Vonnegut Month

I have decided that December is Kurt Vonnegut month for me. After getting burned out on forced readings and pretention, it’s nice to have a vacation in the beauty that is Vonnegut.

AdamAsVonnegut

Nice Mustache, buddy. Thanks. Yes, I am growing a mustache. I’m also letting my hair grow out to be the best Vonnegut dopplegänger I can be. You see, I’m trying my best to be Vonnegut for this month. I’m reading a lot of his stuff, and it’s fun to sort of envelop and embody the man.

The reason I’m doing this is that I’m afraid that I’ve been sort of castrated (in a literary sense {not literally}) by a sort of writerly sensibility. I think that’s one of the downsides of working with writers is that we begin to trim the little oddities we all have in our natural voice, and pretty soon, we’ve shaved each other down to that very respectable, very stale college creative writer. In an attempt to avoid cliches, we become the greatest cliche of all, the MFA writer. (Oddly, there’s a decent Spongebob Squarepants episode that I think speaks to this sort of removing of rough edges called, “Not Normal.” Here’s a clip.)

You look nothing like Vonnegut. I know. But the reason I chose Vonnegut is that I feel like he’s an astounding mix of approachable, dark, hilarious, and irreverent. Those are all things I would like to be. I want to have no respect for the self-labeled “intelligentsia” (I had a professor in my undergrad anoint herself and other professors that way), and I want to let personalty traits come out in my writing again, particularly humor.

I mean, that’s probably been the biggest wake-up call for me of late. I’ve basically scrubbed myself right out of my fiction. It’s “acceptable,” it’s “writerly,” sure, but, as my good friend Dustin would say, it’s boring. And it is. I see it. It’s boring and I haven’t loved my work of late because it has become a form of pleasing a certain type of know-it-all reader instead of pleasing readers I actually care about (real people), but more importantly, myself.

Oh, what a surprise, you’re rebelling against authority. Yawn. Well, that’s just it, though. It’s not an authority figure, like a politician or a professor or anything. The thing I’m working against at the moment is a system I’ve bought into and participated in. I’ve trimmed people. I’ve stymied them. I’ve said, “Hey, why don’t you hide behind your words some more, eh?” It’s such a destructive mindset, and I don’t think it creates better writers. Or, maybe it can create better writers, but it does not create exceptional writers, in my opinion. It creates work that is technically good. It’s the sort of stuff that we say, “Well, it’s good, I guess. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

This is not one of your better sermons. Point is, I’m done with that. Scrubbing myself and my personality and what I find exciting and entertaining out of my work is maybe the cardinal sin of writing. Asking if work is “boring” or not, though the question seems simple, is actually a rather compelling way to think about writing, because at the end of the day, what are we doing but entertaining (or not)?

So, I’m curious, from my faithful readers, who would you embody to reclaim the reasons you went into your art?

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A Blogging Void

Got kind of a wake-up call about my lack of blogging (apparently somebody reads this stuff {who knew?!}), and I need to come back to writing more posts.

Well, I’m not reading this stuff. So, I’ve sort of let my blogging drop off. I don’t know why particularly, but it’s a shame, because I really enjoy writing in this form. It’s a great place for me to express my opinions on writing and movies and life, but I guess I fell into the trap of believing it wasn’t being read by anyone.

What an easy trap that is. As writers, sometimes it’s hard to fathom that our work, no matter how individual or silly or simplistic, actually impacts people. It then begs the question, “Why am I doing this?” I know, for me, that I don’t want to simply journal. It’s important to reach people, to make their lives richer for my work, but it can be difficult to see the fruit of that labor.

Frankly, I’ve had enough of your fruit. I guess that’s the thing. The world is better and best when people pursue their passions and work toward achieving what they see as beautiful in the world. In so doing, they do make the world more beautiful. But when we get caught up in pleasing, in trying to be what others want us to be, we end up becoming “acceptable” instead of exceptional.

It can be easy to think that pursuing passions is selfish, but in the grand scheme of the world, the people we admire most in life are people who vigorously pursued their own goals, whether that’s a musician, a scientist, a writer, a Quaker, a baker, or a candlestick maker.

Quakers? Anyway, it’s time I started doing more of what I want instead of what I imagine people expect of me. Seems silly to say it that way, but if I really want to make a lasting impact on people, I need to validate that thought. I hope others do the same.

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My Second Reading

So, last night, November 4th (my birthday), I was given a chance to do a reading of two pieces for a new series called “The Munch.” Here are the recordings.

MunchReading

Munch ado about nothing is more like it. So, this is only my second reading, and these pieces are pretty rough, but it was fun to read them. I’m still getting reading down. I feel more comfortable giving a speech than doing a reading. I tend to stumble a lot, as you are bound to soon hear.

My first reading was of “Many Generations Dead,” and you can hear it here. Because I went to EMU, and EMU does not even know what a fiction reading is, I didn’t get many chances to read, but I think reading in groups is a fantastic and positive way to show our work. It’s easy to be wholly negative and critical when dealing with other writers, and it was nice to get some positive feedback. I’d love to hear more fiction readings. We grow up hearing stories told to us, and it feels natural.

The first story is called “Margot & Steve.” It’s a love story, but it’s also meant to be humorous. Check it out:

This second story is a bit more serious. It’s called “Taproot.”

Well, that was underwhelming. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that. I had fun doing it, and hopefully I’ll be doing more readings in the future. We’ll see.

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On Teaching College Writing

I don’t think we’re doing a very good job teaching students (particularly freshmen) to write in college. The essays and arguments I read are weak and disengaged, and I think I know why.

Tell us, oh wise one. Honestly, I think the root of the problem is that we teach kids to write for academia and nothing else. The thing is, we teach a form of essay, and we define the word “essay” to them by this form, that only exists in the walls of academia. We have to teach it, because otherwise, students won’t know how to write to professors in further classes, and they’d be handicapped going forward. The problem is, the kids don’t care. And it shows in their writing.

Kids read all the time. They read essays all of the time. They may not be reading “respected” literary works, but they’re reading pieces on The Atlantic, The Onion, ESPN, Cracked, Buzzfeed, and others. They care about these works, and yes, it may seem crass to call a Buzzfeed article a work, but it is.

This is rich. Point is, I don’t feel like we’re giving kids skills and tools to take home and apply in their lives. We limit them to meet the needs of their academic pursuits by stressing that the thesis sentence goes here and the topic sentence goes there. They don’t take ownership of their works because we’re asking them to jump through hoops. They’re not showing their essays to their friends, sharing their ideas, publishing it on Facebook or on their blog. No, they fill out a rigid form for their professors only. Content doesn’t matter. It’s about pleasing the professor, and this is where academic bullshit comes from (my honors thesis was about this topic, if you care to read a long-winded piece). Also, there’s a great piece written by Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer on the topic called, “A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing.” I suggest you read it.

I’d love for college freshman to quit feeling unsure about writing some wholly arbitrary form and be able to express themselves in the form they love. I feel like until we can empower them to write about what they love, and in the form they love, they will not embrace writing (and by writing, I mean, sentence by sentence communication). I see so many kids who say, “I’m not a good writer,” or “I struggle with grammar,” or “I’m not good at organizing my writing,” which to me, is all code for, “I don’t know how to give the teacher what he or she wants.”

Complain, complain … OK. Thing is, if a student knows how to write sentences well and communicate in strong verbs, they often get a pass in future classes. Students who embrace writing, and can say to themselves, “Yeah, I know how to write,” do well in academia. The standard academic essay, prompted by weak and vague topics, and criticized under the perceived notion of “What does the professor want,” creates weak writing and disengaged students.

Point is, students need to be empowered in the work they love. It is only then that they can move on and write with confidence to please, not just the professor, but other students, friends, and readers in general. But that’s my take.

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Trying My Hand at Nonfiction

Recently, I have been trying to write and read some creative nonfiction. Honestly, I’ve not even been sure what creative nonfiction was for a long time or how to define it. I’ve been grappling with that of late.

Nonfiction, you say? Well, recently, I wrote a piece called, “My Life as a Buffalo Bills Fan.” In it, I wrestle with the ideas of hope and disappointment in my life, and I try to connect it all through my ridiculous loyalty to the lovable losers, the Buffalo Bills.

Nonfiction is a curious animal. I guess I don’t much believe in it. In a way, I don’t much believe in fiction either. For me, I only ever write what I know or I’ve experienced, not that my fiction is autobiographical, but I try to tap into a real, honest emotional experience. But with nonfiction, so much of it seems to be about an account of something. And I don’t really trust people’s memories that much. Is it good enough to say that the author tried his best to tell the truth? I mean, personally, the person I lie to the most is named Adam Nannini.

So … you’re not writing nonfiction? Well, I am. I’m trying. It’s a fun process. I find myself writing about such heavy themes in fiction that it’s kind of nice to just write about some things I love. I find it invigorating. And I suppose I’m trying to stick to the form of nonfiction, which to me, seems to be a collection of anecdotes or a singular event that is talking about a central thread. Fiction can do this as well. The line between them often seems blurred.

I feel like in nonfiction, I have to be more accountable to the reader, like I need to spell the change or the lesson or whatnot out more than I do in fiction. Maybe this is inaccurate. I enjoy the essay (when it’s done well {and that’s rare to me}), and it’s been a lot of fun to just share personal loves and experiences in the nonfiction form.

What are you reading? Well, recently, I started reading a book by David Sedaris, and I bought another book by Michael Chabon (I’m not 100% sure if this is nonfiction yet), but the thing I think I’ve liked the most is reading pieces on the online lit journal Brevity. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s allowed me to begin to think about this different form.

I suppose one of the issues I have defining nonfiction is the name. I mean, it’s defined by what it is not. Someone said to me when I asked them if a certain piece was truly nonfiction (it was a story about a man imagining that there were ghosts in his house), and the person responded, “Yes. I didn’t feel deceived by the author. I didn’t feel lied to.” I don’t think fiction seeks to lie or deceive at all. I think the main goal is to find some emotional truth, to capture the feeling of a character, something real. I know I don’t try to deceive readers by my fiction. I’m not even quite sure what that means.

Wind it up, bub. OK, Logan. Point is, it’s been a very interesting little diversion for me. I have not really read much nonfiction (unless you count Orwell), and I certainly have not written it. I’m curious what my readers’ experience has been with this genre and if they feel the distinction of fiction vs. nonfiction really matters. I guess, to me, it’s about if I’m moved by it. I don’t really care if it was real unless it is claiming to be a historical document or some such. But that’s me.

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Every Writer Should Have A Website

I believe every writer should have a website. It’s great for getting a readership and for exploring ideas as we struggle through stories and poems and “nonfiction” pieces. Why don’t more writers put themselves out there on this great medium?

So, how come? Lately, I’ve received some guff over the afro’d pic to the right of my website. It’s also the pic I use for my profile images, because I think it’s funny. I’ve heard from people who meet me, “But it doesn’t look like you!” I understand that, though my beautiful ‘fro will return, I promise. But I bring this up, because recently, I had to look up some information on some authors and link to them somehow and maybe pick and image, and a number of famous and semi-famous authors didn’t have a web presence. So I had to search Google Image for a reasonable picture. Yes, my picture is silly, but it’s my favorite pic. I have control because I have a website.

For writers to not take advantage of this wonderful internet, to me, is inexcusable. I mean, I get that self-promotion feels dirty, and maybe it is, but when I find an author I love online, either through their website or through Twitter, I’m happy to get their thoughts. But with a website, an author gets to control their image, promote and supplement their works, and influence their readership.

So, every author? Well, look. Obviously, Foer or McCarthy or Card or other big names do not need a website, though many of them do have a web presence, but this is particularly useful for upcoming and semi-famous writers. I mean, maybe you find an author for their thoughts on postmodernism or Midwest Gothic or the use of the word insouciance (which I’m casually indifferent to, as opposed to being vehemently indifferent), and you get turned on to their writing. Maybe their site has links to publications or samples so you can get a quick sense of who they are. Isn’t that a lovely experience?

Plus, being a writer is more than just telling stories. It’s about being a voice about writing. I know, for me, I’ve been the one searching the web for answers to my writing doubts, my fears about risks, about publishing, about sentence structure, etc. etc. etc. It’s great to find someone out there who can answer your questions in a simple fashion, changing your perspective on it. I mean, there are fantastic resources out there on writing thoughts, like Brain Pickings, but I feel like it’s useful for writers to take it upon themselves to share what they’ve learned in their experience.

Because let’s face it. Writing is a strange thing. As Carl Sagan said,

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.

It’s an abstract, changing, and difficult thing we all do, and none of us has it figured out yet. The world seems better served by more open discussion on the how’s and the why’s of writing.

So, just get a website, huh? Well, there are a lot of great and cheap (or free) resources out there for making a website. My suggestion is this: get some hosting and add the WordPress CMS (not to be confused with the blog website). At that point, find a template you like and style it accordingly. Learning HTML and CSS is a good idea for writers. And the WordPress CMS is powerful, with its widgets and plugins, so you won’t need to bug your nerdy developer friends to create tools for you. They’re all out there, as WordPress is rather ubiquitous.

Basically, if I hear you’re a writer, I want to find your website. I want to see where and what you’ve published, as well as your other accomplishments. I want to see your thoughts. I want to get a sense of who you are. It’s, to me, the modern CV … or at least, it should be.

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Fantasy Football Sketch I Wrote

Recently, I worked with my good friend Mitch Crane (I wrote it, he filmed it) to create a short video to promote his church’s fantasy football league. Below is the resulting video.

Screenwriting, eh? Indeed. This isn’t my first screenplay, but it is my first comedy sketch, so we’ll see how it comes off. My friend Mitch, who also happens to be the ex-bass player for The Really Bad British Accents, has a film company called Mitchell Crane Productions out in Spokane Washington and wanted to create a short video to promote his church’s fantasy football league. So, I whipped up a quick script, and below is the resulting video. All of the actors are volunteers, but I feel like it came out pretty well.

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Questioning Breaks in Stories

We all have pet peeves, and this post is about one of mine. It’s about the almost ubiquitous scene change line break and its overuse, or more accurately, misuse.

Questioning the who-what now? Well, there’s this trend I’ve noticed among my writing friends to use spaces or breaks or asterisks to signify a scene change. I don’t want to throw out the practice altogether (ALTOGETHER: “I don’t want to throw out the practice.”), but I do think it is often overused.

My basic complaint is this: I feel like people are using these line breaks unnecessarily. And yes, this does not seem like too much of a crime, but for me, as a reader, I find that it takes me out of the scene, where it would not necessarily have to do so. I mean, sometimes they can be cut with no loss to the story, and sometimes something as simple as “Later” would suffice.

You’ll complain about anything, won’t you. I’m not trying to find gripes, but I think that these visual breaks need to be used sparingly and for dramatic breaks, like a massive shift in time or a change in perspective. Because that sort of break allows for those sort of changes, as a reader, I always feel the need to reground myself after seeing one of those breaks. Yes, it’s only a moment’s confusion, but it jettisons me from the scene, and I must wonder OK, where am I now? because the shift could potentially put me anywhere and in any perspective.

I don’t know who started this trend. I don’t seem to recall O’Connor or Orwell or Steinbeck or whoever using this technique. And that’s not a condemnation. More, I’m just saying that it’s not required to tell a story. I feel like for many of us, it has become our go-to means of changing a scene, and I feel like that’s sad. I mean, I’ve read ten page stories with ten breaks, and most of them were unnecessary. So, ten times I’ve stopped reading, come back to reality, and wondered why the writer put that break there. It must be there for something, I think, but I’m often disappointed.

How judgmental of you, Mr. Overuses Interrobangs! Fair. We all have our loves and our style quirks. I’m not saying this is an incorrect practice. I just wish that I wouldn’t be unnecessarily pushed out of the story. I wish, as a reader, to have flow. This is a small gripe, but I feel like it’s extremely common.

* * *

See? Completely unnecessary.

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Writing Honestly 1: Emotions

What does it mean to write honestly? I look into what it means to write honestly about emotions and to be authentic in story-telling.

Honesty? Yep. To me, the number one thing a writer can do to make his fiction more compelling is to be more emotionally honest. What does that mean? Well, that’s a good question. When I look at so many writers, they can be extremely autobiographical. Orwell is a great example of this. The man didn’t seem to write about anything he didn’t experience.

Still, I’m not suggesting that we write a story about exactly what happened to you on Tuesday. That wouldn’t be fiction. What I’m saying is that writers need to tap into what they’ve felt in their lives and write about it. For example, if you lost a parent early in life, tap into the feelings you had in those moments. I’m not saying every story needs to be about the deaths of parents, but I’m saying that this is something you know, something you’ve been through, and if you’re honest, you’ll write it well.

Don’t writers always do that? Well, not really. It’s tempting to write about characters that are extremely different than us, that don’t go through anything like we’ve gone through, but really, that avoidance of self feels kind of dishonest. Writers need to embrace the hurts, the loves, the abuses, and the losses they’ve had and use them throughout their writing. I mean, where would Vonnegut have been if not for his experience in Dresden?

It can be tough to write about characters from a different time or place, or even of a different sex, because we can’t speak as them, we can’t know what they’re going through. But that’s not true. I’ll admit, I don’t write amazing female characters, but I’ve had some decent ones, and it’s because I’ve tapped into my own experience to inform the character. The reason I am able to do this is that some feelings are universal. If I’ve experienced loss, I can tap into that experience to create the motivations, weaknesses, and pains of a character, and it doesn’t matter who they are. It’ll work, and it’ll make the character feel real.

I think sometimes that we think we can’t write from that place. It’s cheating maybe? It’s autobiographical? I don’t think so. I mean, all art is self-portrait, right? It’s not about telling people exactly what you’ve done, but it’s about sharing that experience. It’s an amazing thing to listen to someone that’s been through a particular trauma or wonder. They can speak to that issue, and they can more deeply understand characters going through similar experiences.

So … So, look in the mirror and be honest. Open up to yourself about some painful or exciting moment, and tap into those feelings. Let your characters’ experience flow from your own, since they are just little brain-children, and can be no more than what you are. Maybe you wish you were more, and to that, I’d suggest experiencing more. Be honest with yourself and with your readers, and I think they will note the difference. Don’t write from false emotion, and don’t avoid emotion. Readers will see when that pain feels real and when it feels dishonest or distant. Don’t intellectualize. Stop preaching and write from a very human place. Your ideals are much better sold by an identifiable character that feels real than some robotic Adonis on a soapbox (yes, I’m looking at you, Ayn).

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