December 8th, 2013
Last week I did a “how to write short stories” talk in a grade 12 Writers’ Craft class at a high school uptown. Yesterday I went and talked literary analysis with a bunch of University College students who had read my second book. Both experiences were really fascinating and invigorating–the students were engaged and intense, and not afraid to ask the tough questions.
I love to do class visits (feel free to hit me up!) because students see different things in the writing process and my own work than I ever could, and it’s one of the few opportunities I have to hear that sort of stuff from the younger generation–or from anybody, really. In asking very basic questions, they can really challenge my ingrained assumptions about how literature should or has to work.
BUT I find myself getting very hedgey in these situations, too. Youth wants answers, I have found, and many questions simply don’t have them, or not definitive ones. I remember at that age, if I was certain something worked one way, that was the ONLY way. I just wanted to lock down an answer so I could move on to the next question; the idea that some things I’d still be pondering 20 years later would have been horrible to me at that point in my life.
So I’m very reluctant to give definitive answers in these classes. Most of what I say comes larded in, “Well, in my opinion, what works for me, some people say, I’m not at all certain but…” That probably gets annoying but better than locking impressionable young minds into the rose-coloured way of doing things when there are so many others.
There are a few things I find myself saying declaratively in these classes with totally comfort, so I guess those are the things I feel are totally true without reservation. Interesting to find this out about myself. From the two classes I spoke at recently, I have found I’m pretty sure that
1) It’s ok to be influenced by other writers. This one comes up a lot. I think it’s natural to feel other writers in your own work. The best part, though, is that the more books you read, the more you context you are able to give them so that you never quite have that overwhelming, suffused-by-genius feeling you have when you start reading you first truly good works of literature. The reason everything I wrote after I first read JD Salinger sounded like JD Salinger is that his style was pretty much alone in my brain at that point; I didn’t have any other first-person chatty, self-conscious narrator to, as it were, dilute Holden Caufield. The answer was not to read less Salinger but to read more Plath, more Colette, more Hemingway. Students who worry that their stories sound too much like their idols wonder if the best thing to do would be to read less, and sound more “like themselves.” Of course, no writer is self generated; we are all a pastiche of the people and experiences and books we’ve encountered. The trick is not to limit influences but to have lots, so that the way you put them together, your blend of influences, is truly your own.
2) There is no ideal writing schedule or setup. I’d say this to adults, too, but that doesn’t stop them–or me!–from loving to ask writers whether they write in the mornings or the evenings, with a pen or on a keyboard, at a cafe or in the kitchen. It’s funny, even while I gobble that stuff up, I have no idea why I care. No one ever asks actors whether they prefer to run their lines before or after lunch, do they? Or songwriters whether they get better melody lines if they sit at the piano or pick at their guitar? It doesn’t matter. The way you get work done is the way that works for you; it has everything to do with your individual schedule and temperament, and absolutely nothing to do there being a “best” way. The only reason to try a new schedule or chair or writing exercise is that you personally might enjoy it and it might make you feel so good you write more. I firmly believe that, if you produce better work with pen and paper than on a computer, you should keep on, but it’s really not because you have some mystical “connection with the page” that the keyboard does not afford. That’s stuff’s bunk. Do what works and, if it stops working, do something else.
3) A real writer can do something else “full-time.” I think most non-writers are a little baffled by the idea that you could be a legit, publishing, even somewhat (well, a little!) respected writer and still have to go work somewhere else. Millenials are actually less susceptible to the idea that everyone has one real occupation. The new way the world works, and the way it has always worked for creative folks, is you take the money you make from doing what you love and subtract it from your expenditures per month. The number that results is the amount of money you will earn per month doing something other than what you love. Possibly, hopefully, you will earn it in a job you like quite well, but most of us are willing to do what it takes. The idea that your real job is 9-5 and everything else is a hobby is going the way of the woolly mammoth, but the youth has still been talking to their parents and need a helpful reminder now and again.
4) I can’t tell you what my works “means.” And this is not just because I’m refusing to do your homework for you (sad but true–when students email me for help writing essays on my stories, I am so flattered I usually help at least a little, even though I really feel I shouldn’t). Sometimes I know what I meant when I put the story down on the page, and sometimes I don’t–because I was myself confused or feeling ambiguous as I wrote, or because it was a long time ago and I forget. But even if I had a very definite thought behind what I wrote, the story is only the story. If you cannot divine what I was thinking, then for you, that thought is simply not in the story. You’re NOT wrong if you can’t see it (I mean, if you’ve read carefully and thoughtfully, and basically understand written English–otherwise you might be wrong). Stories are limited to the text and what the reader can bring to it; if I got to follow each story around and add my deep thoughts and feelings to what you read, that would be a different story (and a far more annoying world for us all). So when I’m asked what my “themes” are or my “message,” I really honestly mean it when I say, “you tell me.” I guarantee, I won’t correct you.
5) You can learn how to write better. Many snotballs run around saying “You can’t teach someone how to write well.” (Interestingly, the first time I heard this was from a writing professor.) Of course you can–there are always refinements and reimaginings you can use to make your writing clearer, brighter, easier to feel for a reader. Some you learn from reading good work, some from having smart people read your work and tell you where it falls down. Sometimes you learn from staring at the same sentence for an hour. The thing is that all these things are hard and many dull, some depressing. Many people would like to stop writing fairly early on in this process, thereby not learning anything new. The rest of us slog on, getting better very very slowly, with the help of whoever is willing, forever.