Writing Lessons: E.B. Bartels

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from E.B. Bartels, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @eb_bartels—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

EB Bartels - headshot

Photo: Janna Herman

Usually, when writing, I practice what I call The Withholding Method:

You wake up—time to write. But first you want coffee. STOP. Have you written a sentence yet? Write a sentence, then make coffee. Now you want to drink the coffee? NO! Write a paragraph first. Funny, you’re hungry? You’ll need a page before foraging for a snack. You chose something salty? Too bad. No water until you have two pages. Now you want to take a shower? HA! Maybe after 2,000 words. Go to the bathroom only if you feel good about your work.

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Writing Lessons: Mary Mann

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Mary Mann, a student in Columbia University’s nonfiction MFA program. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_e_mann—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

MMANN headshotAs I completed the first semester of my nonfiction MFA program, my mom found and read an essay of mine about growing up as a preacher’s daughter, which had been published online. I had thought the essay was funny, but she thought it was sad. “I didn’t realize things had been so hard for you,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

I apologized, then got off the phone and cried. Somehow I hadn’t imagined this problem before. I was not prepared. It was like finding out that my greatest source of pleasure was pulling out people’s toenails. What I loved to do was painful to the people I loved.

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Writing Lessons: Sara Nović

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students—and this month, writing instructors!—will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying and teaching writing. This week, we hear from Sara Nović, a teaching fellow at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @novicsara—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

noviccropThere comes a time in all writing courses when a professor must call in the big guns, and raze a path on which our students can travel toward their writerly epiphanies. This summer, the time came when my students handed in drafts of their dramatic scenework, an assemblage of well-meaning but painfully direct dialogues:

“I am sad.”

“Why are you sad?”

“I am sad because I am afraid that my boyfriend doesn’t love me anymore.” And so forth.

The culprit? Overwriting. Aliases: over-explaining; overthinking; overcrowding. Known to kill even the most promising story ideas in cold blood. To combat it, I brought in the biggest guns I knew—Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei, at their finest in My Cousin Vinny.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Rose Waldman

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rose Waldman, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Trip to Europe 2013 448 - CopyLike many emerging writers, I had become resigned to soulless “Thank you for your submission” rejection letters. But amidst a succession of form rejections, I finally got a personal note. It began with some kind words about the story I’d submitted, and then came the but: “Unfortunately, we felt that the characters needed to be filled in a bit more…”

I analyzed this editor’s words as if they’d come from an oracle’s mouth. Determined to “fill in my characters,” I printed out the story and painstakingly underlined each word, phrase or sentence that appeared to be highlighting the character’s, well… character. I made bulleted lists of each character’s attributes; her/his backstories, hobbies, and idiosyncrasies.

Armed with my lists and my marked-up story, I approached Sheila Heti, with whom I was then taking a class called “What is a character?” She read the editor’s note and glanced at my red-marked story. “Rose,” she said, “I don’t think the editor is interested in more characteristics; I think she just wants the character to feel more honest.”

People sometimes talk about a lightbulb moment, and this was mine.Continue Reading