I received an email from a former student on Saturday. It was a surprise in more than one way. While I teach fifty new students per semester, only one or two per year will contact me after the class is over, usually to request a letter of recommendation. This student took my class almost a decade ago, and he had a different request.
“Is there a way for me to read your Say Quick novel?” he asked. “Your short descriptions sprinkled throughout various blog posts leave me with the impression of a work built around belief in light during our darkest moments,” and he went on to explain how the current situation with covid-19 has made that a pressing need in his life.
I started writing novels in fifth grade. I emphasized in creative writing in grad school, writing a novel as my thesis with the help of a committee of three professors. I’ve attended week-long writing conferences with editors, agents, and published authors. I have friends who are published authors. I’ve read books about writing novels. I spent years revising my first novel and then wrote a second and have spent years revising that. I taught a novel-writing course at the community college in 2015 that I’m now teaching again.
You would think I would know the key factor for how to write a novel.
But somehow, although I knew a story should be character driven and transformative etc etc, I missed the crucial memo for how that works:
A story is built around the tension between what a character wants and what prevents them from getting it.
A couple years ago, I took a summer yoga class that gave homework. One of our assignments was to create a piece of art. I don’t remember if the parameters were more specific than that or if we were simply getting in touch with our creative selves, but I knew intuitively what I wanted to make.
I’d recently hiked to see a local waterfall and had started thinking about the paradox of rising up by falling down, just as mist rises from the base of the falls. I plopped a snapshot into a new Instagram post and used my thumbs to shape and reshape lines of text, like a potter molding clay on a wheel. Then, with some trepidation (was it good enough for others to read it??), I hit share.
Before that, poetry writing had been a rarity for me. I’d write a poem every other year when a certain elusive mood coincided with the alignment of the planets, and I’d show it to no one. But somehow the pairing of photo and poem hooked me. I became addicted to the sport of stalking poems and trying to capture them with both camera and words, and my output increased to every other week and sometimes even every other day. They began to pile up like gleaming trophies in the cute three-column grid of Instagram.
I love to start a post with a good old confession, so here it is: Last year I thought my manuscript was done, I thought I was ready to query, I thought that I just needed to keep drafting new versions of that letter and getting feedback and even paying professional editors for help until I had an amazing query that would get instant responses from an agent and I’d be on my way to publishing.
I spent six months trying. I went through almost a hundred drafts of that query letter and a few hundred dollars in editing fees.
And then I accepted a conclusion I didn’t like—a conclusion so depressing that I didn’t open a single writing file for the next six months. Read more
A few weeks before the start of spring semester this year, the department asked if I could rearrange my schedule to accommodate a mid-afternoon course on grammar and style. Partly because I’m a nice person who likes to be helpful but mostly because I’m a confessed grammar nerd who was geeking out at the opportunity, I said yes.
But it didn’t leave me much time to plan the syllabus, and the first decision was the most crucial: what text to use.
A colleague had mentioned Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to me months before, so I pulled it off my shelf along with a couple of textbooks and hurried to weigh out the pros and cons of each.
The awful truth about most grammar textbooks is that they try to teach style without much flair. Technical definitions and lifeless examples are more soporific than inspiring. Some creep toward being interesting by dissecting sentences from famous writers, but the analysis is usually dry. I’ve even heard a textbook author admit this, blaming the approval process for sucking all humor and vulnerability out of the prose.
Pinker doesn’t believe in trite sentences. He believes, like I do, that to teach someone how to write, you better write well enough to show them what good writing looks like.
When seventeen people—human beings with names and lives and futures—were killed in Florida on Wednesday, I was writing a draft of a blog post about pain. I stopped, knowing it would take days of perspective to sort out my thoughts in this horrible new context.
Pain brings everything else to a halt, most of all when it’s sudden and violent. I think of Brené Brown’s description in Braving the Wilderness of drivers in Houston pulling over when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I think of lyrics from Les Misérables after the young revolutionaries are slaughtered: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” There isn’t anything we can say or do, so we stop, helpless.
I believe that’s how humans were created to function. Grief strikes us down because we are meant to feel that torture and use it to reassess our lives and choose a better course. Read more