It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I realized what I’d been searching for all along. An avid reader, I absorbed a variety of books during my childhood and adolescence. These were carefully screened by my well-meaning but stifling folks, who paled at the thought me reading about sex and infidelities, teenage love, rock music, and rebellion. When I struck out on my own, I was eager to leave those parameters behind, along with jaded, one-sided narratives so censored they became different stories all together.
But wandering my way through the literary world I didn’t find the heroines I had expected. I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Camus and Kafka because that’s what smart people read. I concluded it was men who changed the course of the literary world, while looking in vain for female voices who wrote strong female characters, role models in a sense, to look up to. Jilted love, motherhood, affairs, suicide, and self-sacrifice seemed to be the choices allowed female characters in many of the texts I read by American authors, male and female.
But I wanted more from fiction. I wanted realities that didn’t leave women with two options: physical death, or self-denial.Continue Reading
Writers are neurotic. Are we more neurotic than other artists? Definitely. And it’s time we had our own advice column. A Dear Abby for our literary breakdowns. And if I have to volunteer to be that person, so be it. The letters have been pouring in—which is weird, because how did you know I was going to do this?—and here they are.
Dear Advice Person Lady:
I’m in an MFA program, and there’s this famous writer I kind of have a huge crush on. I’ve never met him, but he’s coming to campus next week, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to control myself around him. I mean, he’s not only talented, but he’s sooo beautiful. How do I keep from acting like an idiot?
Oh, honey. I promise he’s not as attractive as his author photo. Like, I’ll bet you six hundred bucks. Have you seriously not met a writer before? Problem solved.
Dear Advice Person Lady,
An interviewer said she loved my book, but all the questions she sent me were based on the acknowledgments at the back of the book. And the questions were stupid—she clearly hadn’t read it. When I write back, can I say something snarky like “I hope you do enjoy the book if and when you get a chance to read it”?
I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:
The Book Fair Bartering Game:
Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.
The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:
You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.
The Intentional Misidentification Game:
Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading
Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?
There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.
Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.
The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading
Earlier this month I got to spend a week leading creative writing workshops with children in the foster system, some of them as young as six-years-old. And while many of you work with six-year-olds all the time, I usually teach college students or teenagers in jail. This was challenging, hilarious, and loud.
My friends knew I was in unusual Tasha territory, so several of them wrote to ask if it was really different working with young children: because weren’t they so much more creative, so open to their own imaginations, so unpressured by life’s demands, so . . . kids? And the answer was, emphatically, no.
But my friends’ questions weren’t surprising, given the persistent advice in the creative and self-help industries to cultivate your childlike wonder! or to create like a child! or to do what you love with no regard for failure, like children! Such advice means well, but it’s weirdly ignorant . . . about children.Continue Reading
A couple weeks ago, author and marketer Ryan Holiday wrote a piece for Thought Catalog titled, “Can You Call Yourself a Writer?” In it, he argues that “[j]ust because you have done something, doesn’t mean you are something.” In other words, calling yourself a writer when the craft is a mere hobby that hasn’t (yet) earned you a keep or an audience is unwarranted, presumptuous, and likely to keep you from actually doing the work to “earn” the title.
Then again, author Judy Blume told The Guardian just last Friday,
I talk to kids and they say, ‘How do you become a writer?’, well, I don’t know that you become a writer: you just are.
So is writing something you are, or something you do? Or does it require the accumulation of enough doing over time to justify your eventual claim to being? We’re not going to clear this up today. But thankfully, what Holiday and Blume seem to agree on is that writers write. That is, a hoard of ideas or stories means little until it’s shareable; until an audience, however small, is capable of encountering it.
German Shepherd in a cone.
I knew I had a problem when I started envying my dog’s cone collar.
Now, my dog’s problem was a hot spot. Allergic, itchy, hot, and double-coated, my German Shepherd had chewed her hind leg raw over the course of a single evening.
My problem was research. Engrossing, surprising, discomfiting and endless, my novel-in-progress was generating fact after fact, but very little story.
Neither of us could resist the itch of our obsessions, which were self-ruinous and spreading. For my dog, the vet imposed a “cone of shame”—a demoralizing, and mostly effective, plastic barrier denying her access. This is what sparked my envy, for what kind of restraint could I impose on myself, a writer whose project requires research—research that also derails the project at every turn?
Latest Findings: Novel Research Leads to Pornography
How does research become a problem? Well, for one, it’s larky. You wonder if your character’s pants would have buttoned or zipped, which means you need to know about the invention of zippers, and then, hours later, you’re pouring over sketches of Victorian pornography.
A surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.
Over the last two weeks, the internets have exploded with news about terrible comment sections and how to handle trolls. As writers, we know that since comment sections are where humanity goes to die (Ploughshares comments excepted of course), putting creative work online basically means exposing ourselves to the worst mankind has to offer. (Hooray!) Enter mass advice geared toward writers and artists, telling us how to get past the paralyzing fear of encountering internet trolls. Some of this advice is legitimately helpful, but let me boil down rest of it:
1. Don’t read the comments.
2. Don’t base the value of your work (or person) on internet feedback.
3. Grow thick skin. (i.e., if you can’t handle Internet Evil, don’t publish your stuff.)
It’s not bad advice. But given that it’s aimed at people with so much imagination, it’s unbelievably small-minded. So, dear writers, I’m about to change up the going advice about comment negativity—by fixing its insane, glaring omissions. Read the below, then get to (re)imagining.
1. Question the Existence of Comment Sections.
In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.
Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.
Oh darn.Continue Reading
For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.
photo by Bohman
Writing is not like magic.
They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.
At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading