Posts in "Blog"

Teach the Children

On paper, I teach a writing class based on traditional composition and rhetoric pedagogy.

But can you really teach someone how to write?

I know that the question sounds counterintuitive coming from someone with a graduate degree in creative writing, but I’m not alone in this. There have been a rash of articles in recent years questioning the value of a creative writing MFA.

In the much-discussed collection MFA vs NYC, Pulitzer nominee David Foster Wallace, who himself graduated from the University of Arizona’s MFA program, writes: “In terms of rigor, demand, intellectual and emotional requirement, a lot of Creative Writing Programs are an unfunny joke. Few require of applicants any significant preparation in history, literature, criticism, composition, foreign languages, art or philosophy; fewer still make attempts to provide it in curricula or require it as a criterion for graduation.”

Ouch.

I do see where Wallace is coming from, though. Many creative writing programs do not include a foundational context for how to write creatively. The things is, I don’t believe that they should.

I cover general rhetorical techniques and syntactical rules with my students. I try to make sure they all know how to write an effective sentence. But when it comes to crafting a longer narrative, what I’m really trying to teach them is how to think. This is the core principle that guides my approach as an instructor. It is a philosophy based not necessarily on giving students the right answers, but on teaching them to ask the right questions. I stress the importance of identifying, assessing, and applying feedback in ways that help my students learn and grow as scholars and human beings. I want them to examine and reflect on how effective writing can teach us, socialize us, entertain us, and sustain us; to reflect, in other words, on how written expression helps us to live.

And isn’t that what writing instruction is supposed to do? It doesn’t necessary seek to teach creativity, but to nurture it. In that way, I learn as much as my students in the classroom, because I have to model the kind of heart and soul I want to inspire in them.

I don’t necessarily think that good narrative writing can be taught. In the words of the prophet, Lady Gaga, we’re “born this way.” I do believe, though, that I’ve learned how to express my creativity in new ways in large part by teaching helpful techniques to others.

But that’s just me, though. What do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught?

 

 

Why I Write

I had a conversation recently with a friend and fellow writer about motivation. It’s a concept that dogs many (aspiring) writers, but we weren’t necessarily talking about how to schedule writing time or pay attention to technique and revision. For many writers, the question of motivation is one that affects the very story being told in the first place.

For writers of narrative nonfiction, especially, the story is often integral to the existence of the storyteller.

What’s the point of this story? Why am I even writing it? Do these questions sound familiar?

They should, and they should also lead to answers that lead to deeper, more profound, and more compelling storytelling. Many writers, especially in creative nonfiction, tell stories as a way of giving witness to particular set of events or a specific cast of characters. These thing happened! These people exist! They are real to me, and so I must share their story!

One of my writing mentors, Marita Golden, used to describe it as Testifying. Our stories (even when we label them fiction) give voice to people and characters who would otherwise go unheard. Marita’s memoir, Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Though the Color Complex, recounts pivotal moments in her childhood when she was made to feel inferior because of the color of her skin. But it also asserts a voice for all men and women who’ve experienced similar prejudice. You told me I wasn’t good enough, it roars in eloquent prose, but I’m still here, and I’m fabulous.

My own writing often takes on the tone of testifying. I write personal essays based on my life, so I sometimes find myself delving into issues surrounding discrimination and acceptance. When I tell the story of my first conscious crush on a boy, I dig into the feelings of anxiety, loneliness, despair, and hopeless, not as a way of begging the reader’s sympathy, but as a testimony to all the obstacles I’ve had to conquer to get where I am today. When I write about my marriage, which was invalidated by the federal government for almost two years before my husband and I finally gained legal recognition, it is with a joy and exuberance similar to that of Christians celebrating their risen Lord.

I am a writer, and so I feel instinctively compelled to tell these stories. Telling them validates my own experience, in a way.

That’s why I write.

 

 

Seeking out Rejection

Most of what I’ve written in the past few weeks has been about other stuff I’ve written. Yes, that’s right, I’m pitching a project to agents.

It’s been interesting, to say the least. Terrifying, exhilarating, frustrating, and above all, eye-opening. I was so proud of myself for finishing a solid, full draft of a book. I’ve continued to make revisions based on solicited feedback, but as part of that feedback, I wanted to get some reactions from publishing professionals. Who knows, maybe one of them would even want to publish it.

Pitching a book, I’m learning, can be much more harrowing than actually writing it. The biggest challenge for someone like me is brevity—distilling 75,000 words into a paragraph that entices someone to want to read more. What is that one nugget that is going to appeal to the broadest possible audience? How do I write a pitch that does justice to what I think is a pretty compelling book?

Well, I’m still figuring it out. Like I said, it’s not always as straightforward as writing a longer narrative, and I’ve learned so much from receiving polite rejections from several agents. Each glimmer of feedback hopefully helps me sharpen the pitch for the next time.

So far it seems that people are interested in the subject matter, but aren’t quite connecting to my description of the book. One agent “admired how easily and immediately [my] voice and personality shone through the words on the page,” but “just didn’t find herself connecting to the overall project as deeply as she had hoped.” Another found the story to have “many intriguing characteristics,” but simply “wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly” to my description of the story.

Rejections do suck, but they are part and parcel of the writing life. We’ve all heard the many stories of talented writers being rejected. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison was famously rejected over fifty times before she was published. One of my literary idols, Joan Didion, shared some of the rejections she received from magazines early in her career.

I’ve been getting rejected, yes, but many have been what I consider “nice” rejections. They don’t smack of form letter format. They provide some insight (however vague) that might help me hone both the project and the pitch. In a way, a “nice” rejection can be a valuable piece of feedback. I’m almost grateful to receive one. Almost.

I’m still holding out hope that my project finds the right people to shepherd it into publication. That’s often what it comes down to—finding the right agent/editor who will feel that wholehearted connection. As one “nice” rejection put it, “you need an agent who can immediately see not only how to make your project work, but also how to make it stand out to an editor.” Most of the form rejections I’ve received simply say, “Thanks, but it’s not a match for me.”

So I’m continually working on improving the pitch, but at the same time, I’m still keeping the faith that I’ll find that match. Apparently it happens all the time.