Monthly Archives: February 2015

Even If It Hurts: The Cold Harsh World of Creative Writing

 At one of the many meals shared during Lions in Winter, Edward Kelsey Moore, an accomplished cellist, spoke about some of the differences between the music and writing worlds. Moore felt that writers tended to not take criticism very well. He recalled attending a weeklong writing workshop and hearing his fellow students call one of the professors “mean.” He had no idea what they meant. Compared to his music teachers, the professor had been like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

One of Moore’s music professors regularly berated students in public. If a student did not perform to the professor’s expectations during a private session, the student had to give a public performance in front of the department several days later. The professor would stand in a corner, chain smoke, and look generally unimpressed.

Not one to believe the first thing I hear, I called Michael Towey, my younger brother and a percussionist at Central Washington University, and asked him about his worst experience with a professor.

As a young, impressionable, eighteen-year old fresh-person, Michael met with his Music Theory professor so she could do some quick evaluations before the class began. After the meeting, she told Mikey that she was shocked he had made it as far as he had, that he had absolutely no ear, and that his chances of succeeding in the music program were basically nonexistent.

And that was before the class even started. I asked Mikey if he had seen Whiplash. He had not because he was worried it would hit too close to home.

Michael will graduate with a B.A. Percussion Performance this spring, and he’s applied to several graduate programs, and he’s awesome.

Compared to the music world, Creative Writing workshops are like semester-long Caribbean cruises. Very few mean things are said. And when they are said, they are couched within layers of compliment-frosting. I’ve never heard a professor tell a student that she should give up on writing altogether. It’s usually along the lines of “I love the castle-setting, but maybe this story doesn’t need three pages of direct dialogue?” or “the conflict between the mother and daughter is really interesting, but I’m not sure I buy that the daughter would literally eat the mother’s heart while it’s still beating.”

Creative Writing workshops are really, really nice. And safe and cuddly. They’re the teddy bears of academic classrooms.

I’m not saying that Creative Writing teachers should be as mean as some of their musical counterparts. For one, musicians learn technical skills easily appraised by experts. Writers tell stories, which are more difficult to evaluate. To make it even more complicated, young writers tend to tell very personal stories. It’s easy to tune a violin. It’s a lot harder to tell someone that her main character, which is based on her childhood best friend who died of cancer, is totally unbelievable. One is a judgment on how much the person has practiced. The other sounds like a judgment on the person as a human being.

However, once I started sending my own work out to magazines, I realized how different the publishing-writing world is to the Creative Writing classroom. The actual writer-world is extremely competitive and almost entirely lacking in compliment-frosting. For publication, the stories can’t be pretty good, or the best story in a room full of twenty year-old writers. They have to be near-perfect.

We need to bridge the chasm between the environments of the Creative Writing classroom and the actual writing world, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.

A Critical Take on the Critical Introduction

My time at Eastern Illinois University is quickly coming to an end. And while the other students in my cohort are busy slogging through literary theses chapter by meticulous chapter, diving into subjects like Object Oriented Ontology that roughly 150 people in the country will understand/find interesting, I’ve been drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and writing short stories.

 It’s a tough life.

 In order to keep the Creative Writing students from having too much fun and also because anyone with an English degree needs to write something inaccessible to large segments of the population, English Departments across the nation require a critical introduction to creative theses. What is a critical introduction, you ask? It isn’t exactly clear.

But from what I can tell, there are a couple of different takes.

Option A: Placing your work in context

This is the best option for anyone writing genre fiction. Because one of the interesting things about Sci-Fi, Western, Horror, whatever, is that there are a lot of different and particular conversations happening within these genres. What are the rules? How can the rules be broken? How does your work follow/not follow the rules of whatever genre? And, what is gained by writing within a specific genre as opposed to writing “literary fiction,” which is a fairly unwieldy distinction?

The goal for this type of critical introduction is to demonstrate that you understand the landscape that your own work will inhabit. You know the literary geography.

Option B: Studying the Masters

Not everyone writes genre fiction, and studying the geography of “literary fiction” is like trying to sail the seven seas with a twelfth century world map.

In this particular predicament, it’s best to pick a set of writers that you find influential to your own work, and to study the shit out of them. But this isn’t a typical English graduate seminar paper. Instead of critically engaging with irony or investigating the issue of “empathy” in two contemporary texts, the critical introduction needs to study how certain authors use point of view, or the amount of summary vs. scene, or humor, or the million other things that go into a short-story/novel. It’s a study of craft, rather than theory.

At the end of that craft-study, you show how the craft-choices of those writers influences your own work. What are you copying, and why?

Why do we do this?

This is the real question. Both options for the critical introduction are good for writers. We should know the landscape of our work, and we should be aware of our influences. And articulating this knowledge is a good way to better understand our own writing.

Here’s the thing, though. The term “critical introduction” implies that the creative work itself isn’t critical. It’s like English departments decided that writing “creative” work isn’t tough enough to warrant a Master’s degree, despite the fact that creative writers take literary theory courses. If we’re going to make the creative writers do critical work, shouldn’t the lit theory people have to write some creative work? Why is this a one-way street? I would love for my lit-theory comrades to write “creative introductions.” Maybe they could write poems about the fifty or so people who will actually read their work.

But that’s not even my main problem with the critical introduction. My main issue is that the assignment itself is a hybrid mess of a thing. The critical introduction isn’t a creative piece and it isn’t a seminar paper. In order to pass my thesis, I need to write a type of paper that I have never had to write before.

There are a couple of different solutions to this dilemma. First, we could stop making creative writers do a critical introduction and substitute it for some type of oral exam that would show the writer reads and is engaged with the writing world and whatever else we need to prove. But the other option is to offer creative writing courses that are not workshops, where the goal of the course would be the type of craft-study that would lead into a critical introduction at some point.

And, if we could figure all of this out before mid-March, when my thesis director wants a copy of my critical introduction, that would be great. Thanks.

–Sean Towey

On Really Really Long Novels

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I have listened to writers name-drop the titles of Really Really Long Novels (RRLNs) like a New York City up-and-coming rapper boasting connections to Jay Z on a mixtape. The casual mention of a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow. Discussing the relationship between Ivan and Alexei in The Brothers Karamazov. And when this name-dropping happens, usually two or three beers into a first-encounter, it sounds like what the writer really wants to say is—I’m better than you and the little novels you like to read. Crime and Punishment? I fart in your general direction.

Sadly, I am one of those people who have spent an entire summer drinking whiskey and slogging through Infinite Jest. I have smiled at the bottom of my bookshelf, where four books take up all the space.

While reflecting on my love for RRLNs, I recalled a scarring event from my childhood. I was around twelve years old, and I had read every book in the “juvenile” section of my local library, and I realized that there were a finite number of books in the world. To my twelve year old brain, the concept that I could end up reading all of the books was terrifying.

I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid.

Here’s the logic that got me into RRLNs. If I read four normal-sized books, that would mean four less books in the world I’d be able to read later on in life, and I would end up an old man flipping through copies of Readers Digest. But if I spent the time to read one RRLN, I would still have three books left to enjoy in my old age. So, there I was, renting the one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings and practicing Elvish on my pet goldfish.

Over at The Millions, Mark O’Connell writes about his own relationship to the RRLN, claiming that novels like Bolaño’s 2666 work a type of Stockholm Syndrome on their readers. They are often so difficult and dense for so much of the time that when the reader comes across an easily digestible scene he weeps with joy. The reader had expected more intellectual torture, and so any kindness puts the author in a savior-like light.

Allison Flood of The Guardian also discusses RRLNs, shooting back at Ian McEwan who claimed that few RRLNS “earn their length.” Flood goes on to list a number of wonderful, but very long, novels.

I have several good reasons for loving RRLNs. I love being totally immersed in an extraordinarily detailed fictional world. Ulysses is to Wise Blood as World of Warcraft is to Donkey Kong. As far placing the reader in a flushed out space, there’s no comparison. When I read a RRLN, I feel transported to an entirely different universe, not just another world. Novels like Infinite Jest, to me, seem depthless. Also, with any great RRLN there’s a certain amount of sentence-level mastery and serious dazzling. The reader wouldn’t keep going without a sense of semantic prowess, the sheer wonder at the writer’s use of words. In my opinion, Murakami’s 1Q84 demonstrates verbal magic on every page. And that’s why I kept reading.

But there are some not good reasons I read RRLNs, one of which is showing off in front of writers two or three beers into a conversation. Another is I like how the heft of RRLNs bows the shelves on which they sit.

In the end, my love of RRLNs is like a lot of things in life. It’s roughly one-half unadulterated childish discovery and one-half ego-fueled show-boating. And that’s alright with me.

–Sean Towey

It Is Finished

The best part of being an editor at a literary journal like Bluestem is reading all of your wonderful submissions. Honestly. It’s time-consuming, and tough, but it beats the hell out of worrying about the monetary nuts and bolts of running a magazine.

At the end of the day, I’m a little amazed at the sheer number of people who write, who spend the time and energy to tell stories, and I’m convinced story-telling points to some precious gem of human nature, something we should harness and use to end all wars. Or at least use to keep Joe Buck from ever calling another sports event, ever.

The most difficult part of my job is reading a piece that I know is going to be awesome—when it’s finished. It has unique characters, a great plot, strong overall writing, but the ending falls apart, or the unique characters fail to develop meaningfully, or the piece is just plain confusing. Whatever it is, the piece isn’t done.

That’s the worst. Really. Because we as editors are praying to the writing gods for the piece’s success. We want to run a great magazine, and we can’t run a great magazine without great stories and poems. So, knowing a piece is going to be great when it’s done, but it’s not done, is brutal.

I once read a story about a young writer visiting Tennessee Williams. Mr. Williams was working on a short-story that had already been published. When the young writer asked him why, Mr. Williams replied, “Because it’s not finished.”

Touché.

I definitely struggle with knowing when a piece is done in my own writing. Usually, I feel like a piece is finished when I can’t possibly stomach looking at it any longer, when I can no longer tell if the piece is really good or absolutely terrible. I do think, in stories I’ve published, I got a certain feeling in my gut when reading it, like it all came together in some weird, twisted way that I didn’t totally understand, even though I wrote it.

Luckily, this is a common problem. The fine people at Lit Reactor have some helpful hints for knowing when a piece is finished (like reading it aloud, which everyone should be doing, all of the time). Another blog suggests letting the piece sit for a few days before going back to it.

Most importantly, have some friends who are strong readers. By strong readers, I mean a couple of different things, not just someone who reads carefully. A strong reader articulates exactly what is and is not working in a piece. They don’t want to crush your hopes and dreams, but they aren’t worried about hurting your feelings, either. They share with you, and with editors, a common goal—wanting to read great stories and poems.

–Sean Towey