Time, Will, and Ganging Aft Agley: Part 1

 If you want to write, you’ll find the time, whether you have a day job or not.  Time is not the issue: the will to write is the issue.  The ability to will yourself to write is enhanced when you have a schedule. 

–Jeff VanderMeer, Booklife


I started off the New Year with a writing plan.  Mine was either pretty modest or a little too ambitious, depending on what mood I’m in. 

Here’s what my plan looked like:

  • Write seven days a week
  • 1000 words/day Autobiographical Non-fiction
  • 1000 words/day Fiction (starting on January 15)
  • 10 shorter non-fiction pieces/month (interviews, essays, posts, etc.)
  • Keep a daily working journal

My idea was to write in one mode in the morning before the teaching day began and write in another mode at night.  Some of the journalism pieces I could slip in throughout the day, in between classes and meetings, and finish them at night.  Working on these smaller pieces during a teaching day often gets me fired up for class. 

If I’m lucky, the writing fuels the teaching and the teaching fuels the writing.  It doesn’t always work that way, but it does often enough.

After a very relaxing winter holiday, I was eager to get moving on a memoir of the time I spent working on a newspaper in the Alaskan Bush when I was 20 years old.  The words for a fiction anthology were coming slowly.  Every line I put down felt distant and strained.  I settled on the Alaska memoir as my primary focus.  I would get a good 15K into the project, before adding fiction—long or short–to the work day.

I was so excited about my plan that I even started a few days early. 

Yes, yes, I had a plan and we all know what the Scottish poet Robert Burns says about plans:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

I hit the first day of January 2010 at full throttle.

The wheels started coming off my plan by the end of the first week. 

First problem:  I was having trouble sleeping because writing autobiographical non-fiction, for me, is like taking a mop handle to a hornet’s nest.  If I do it right, I stir up a lot of hornets, and my dreams get pretty bizarre.  Great for the writing, but bad for the nerves.

One of my former creative writing teachers, Chris Offutt (Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice), used to tell me that good writing entailed picking your scabs, opening your old wounds.

At the end of one writing session, I wrote in my working journal, “I choked up writing the short scene.  This is a place I want to hit in every chapter — to push myself to emotional honesty — to get that uncertain, uncontrolled dizziness and to search out lessons from the emotional confusion.”  There were nights when I stepped away from the computer and felt like I’d just stepped off a boat that’d been caught in a storm.

I wrote hard and fast for a week or so, and then I started missing nights. 

Second Problem:  classes started up.  The month long January term, called Interim at Wofford College where I teach part time, started with a vengeance.  We met for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.  That’s a moderate amount of classroom time, but the preparation time was enormous. 

A night course at the Greer campus of Limestone College (20 miles away) began a few days later.  That one meets three nights a week for three and a half hours at a time.  That’s a lot of hours of instructional time and a lot of prep time, too. 

The last two weeks of December had been very relaxing with lots of reading, napping, and simply hanging out with my family.  January reminded me of the time I leapt off some rocks into the Red River in Canada.  I landed feet first in white water and sort of woke up downstream with a lot bruises.

I’m not complaining.  Paying work is good, very good.  In January, I had a little more than usual.  The pay checks will be a little thicker than usual for January. 

But the teaching was beating the crap out of my writing discipline.

Most of the writing I was doing was spec work.  I had few deadlines, except those of my own making.  I amended my goals.  I switched from seven days a week to six, and then dropped down to five.  I bargained with myself.  How about instead of 1000 words/ day, I do 30000 a month?  Already, that little voice in the back of my head was saying, “You know you’ll wait to the last weekend of the month to write the last 20000 words, right?” 

The fifteenth (when I was supposed to add fiction to my daily schedule) came and went.  The fiction writing never got going.  I settled for doing research and making notes on index cards.  It was demoralizing.  I sagged, stoically, under the shame.

I have two copies of Booklife near my computer.  One is the ARC, my teaching copy.  The other is a fresh, clean copy Jeff signed for me when he came to speak to my freshman humanities class at Wofford this past fall.  This morning, I picked up the fresh one to see what Jeff had to say.

Sure enough, he had plenty.

“If you want to write,” Jeff says, “you’ll find the time, whether you have a day job or not.  Time is not the issue: the will to write is the issue.  The ability to will yourself to write is enhanced when you have a schedule.” 

Thanks, Jeff.  I shake my fist at you!

He is, of course, right.  Very, very right.

A couple weeks ago, we had the novelist Robert J. Randisi visit Wofford.  I first discovered Randisi’s work in college in the early 1990s.  Back then I read his crime and private eye novels.  These days I read his westerns, a lot of his westerns.  Randisi writes in an unadorned style with lots of humanity, lots of action, and terrific pacing.  His novels are heavy on dialogue, natural-sounding and enviable dialogue that accelerates the pace. 

(Elmore Leonard, that great stylist and master of dialogue, once said, “If Bob Randisi’s Eye in the Ring moved any faster you’d have to nail it down to read it.”)

In the last week alone, I’ve read close to a dozen of Randisi’s books.

In a bio on the Beat to a Pulp website, I read that Randisi is “the author of over 540 books, 50+ short stories, 1 screenplay and the editor of 30 anthologies. He has also edited a Writer’s Digest book, Writing the Private Eye Novel.” 

Surely, I thought, that has got to be a typo’.  540 books?

Remember, I discovered this number around the same time I was struggling to get 1000 words a week, let alone a 1000 words a day.    

When Randisi got to town, I asked him about that number.  540?  Really?  Turned out, that for all my familiarity with his work, I had somehow missed the fact that Randisi created and writes the monthly action-western series, The Gunsmith.

He helped me with the math.  Randisi has written, since 1982, between 13 and 27 books a year–every year.  At least a book a month–rain or shine, healthy or ill.  Just about every single day for the last 28 years he has worked on a western in the morning and something else–a mystery, a private novel–in the evening. 

That, my friends, is the will to write.

And I find Randisi’s will to write more than a little inspiring.

To be continued on Monday…

Friday’s Links: evaporating jobs and Frank discussions

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died yesterday at age 91.

In a column at the LA Times, analysts say that the Amazon Kindle still beats the new Apple iPad when it comes to reading e-books.

A school system in Virginia has decided to remove Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl: the Definitive Edition from their curriculum based on complaints from parents regarding “explicit material and homosexual themes.”

The Book Publicity Blog offers some great advice on how to get your book noticed online.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide blog on professional courtesy

Translator Fabio Fernandes writes about “the translation lag.”

Borders Group laid off 164 more employees yesterday, leading some to wonder if it’s the next Circuit City.

Victor Keegan on how to publish your book online and make money.

Levi Asher is skeptical about the New York Times decision to put content behind a pay wall.

Comics and culture blog The Beat is leaving Publishers Weekly for its own site.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.

You Never Say “I Love You,” But I Know How You Feel

Most writers have heard the old creative writing rule “Show, Don’t Tell.”  There are variations on it, of course, such as “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell)” and “Tell Less, Show More.”

In general terms, the idea is that instead of telling the reader things–I am happy or she was sad–try showing the reader–I jump smiling into the air or she curled, weeping, into a ball.  Those of us who have taken creative writing classes or read writing how-to books or listened closely at a master’s knee have heard this admonition often enough that we may feel like there’s no need to repeat it.

However, I think “Show, Don’t Tell” is important enough that it can’t hurt for us to be reminded of it every now and then.

Also, I am often surprised at how many of my students haven’t heard “Show, Don’t Tell” or who have heard it but don’t get it.  There comes a time in each semester when I have to explain the difference between showing and telling.

Usually, this can be taken care of with a simple demonstration.

“I am happy,” I say.  “That is telling.”

Then I jump up and down, hooting and pumping my fists in the air.  “And that is showing.”

They all smile and nod.  They get it!  I am a proud teacher.

Sometimes I give them a print-out of this fine essay by Robert J. Sawyer.

Essays like Sawyer’s remind us that showing lets the reader do some of the work.  It requires the reader to be more involved and engaged.  Telling has a way of excluding the reader, pushing her out of the moment.  Besides, I don’t want to be told what to see or think or feel.  I want to see or think or feel it for myself!

Last semester I assigned my sophomore English students a brief creative writing exercise–something like, write about a person you love without telling us you love them

When they read their written responses out loud, I acknowledged their sentiments, frowning all the while.  Getting the theory of “Show, Don’t Tell” is one thing.  Putting it to good practice is another.    It is time, I announced to them, to introduce some constraints!

Late in Booklife, Jeff Vandermeer suggests introducing constraints as a way of re-vitalizing creativity and as a way of, perhaps, jarring writers out of ruts into new directions.

“The introduction of a constraint,” Jeff writes, “forces you to work within a boundary, and by staying within that boundary finding new opportunities.  For example, take a problem part of your text and ban the letter ‘t’ or ‘a’ from it.  See if you can reconstruct the text and have it roughly mean the same without using that letter.  In forcing your mind to perform this exercise, you often hit upon a new path out of your problem” (221).

I love this passage.  I love the idea of “forcing your mind” and opening “new paths.”  In this case, I needed constraints to get my students around a conceptual block.

Last semester, my freshman humanities class was reading Booklife while my sophomore English class was having trouble putting into practice the difference between showing and telling.  So I devised the following exercise.

1.  As a group, list all the synonyms for love on the chalkboard.  Include as many words as you can think of, including words closely and distantly associated with “love”.

2.  Write about someone or something you love without using any of the words listed on the board.

3.  Read what you’ve written out loud.

4.  Discuss.

I started by writing “Love” on the board in great big letters.  I asked the class to list all the words they could think of that meant love.  The seventeen of them generated dozens of words, such as like, affection, caring, respect, admiration, etc.  One joker in the back said “sex”.  We filled up the board as quickly as I could write.  They were quite proud of themselves.  Look at all those words!

Little did they know that they had dug a deep hole for themselves.

“Now,” I said, “write about something or someone you love…  without using any of the words that are on the board.”


After a few long seconds, the guy who’d called out “sex” earlier said, “I don’t get it.”

Meanwhile, the others fell into writing.

A few nights ago, the students in my night class did this exercise.  Many of them are fifteen or more years away from their last English class.  Only one or two had even a vague idea when we started of what I meant by “Show, Don’t Tell.”  One of the women wrote about her favorite flavors of ice cream in such a way that one of the men actually blushed.  Her classmates were fanning themselves by the time she got to the part about stirring the rich chocolate and creamy vanilla together in her bowl.

One student, who wrote about his wife who is also in the class, came to this conclusion:

1.  Telling = “I love you,” he said to her.

2.  Telling + Showing = He greeted her at the door with a hug and her favorite chocolate ice cream.  “I love you,” he said.

3.  Showing = He greeted her at the door with ice cream.

The first one (telling) doesn’t do enough to stand alone.  He says he loves her.  Does he mean it?  What does “love” mean to him?  To her?  We haven’t been shown much about him or her.  We hear a sort of radio silence more so than the words; there is a background drone, but no music yet.

The second one (showing + telling) tells us what he said and backs it up with actions.  Good stuff.

The third (showing) is all action.  We know that he gives her chocolate ice cream, but we don’t know what his action means.  Does he love her?  Does she like chocolate ice cream?  Is she fatally allergic?  Is she on a diet and he’s trying to sabotage her efforts?  We have to read on, to know more.  We are engaged.

In both the second and the third, we have enough information to wonder about the back-story and enough to wonder what comes next.  Both crucial elements in fiction.

Will she eat the ice cream?  Will she knock it out of his hands and…  ravish him?  Kick him where it hurts real bad?  Will he massage her feet while she eats the ice cream?  Will he listen to the ups-and-downs of her day without trying to fix all her problems?  Or will he expect a little sugar in exchange?

“Show, Don’t Tell” is fundamental to what we do as writers.  It’s been around for so long for a reason.  Essayists combine the two.  Fiction writers use both but skew toward showing.  The pure showing of an objective point of view can be… cold and distancing.  Telling isn’t all bad.  But all telling is definitely dull.

Every now and then it is fun to introduce a constraint into your work and see what you get.  It’s also fun to drag out old rules and take a fresh look at them with pen or pencil in hand.

‘As Freshly as a Child with an Adult’s Mind’: Booklife in the Classroom

This week, Jeremy L. C. Jones will be guest blogging on teaching writing and using Booklife in the classroom.  Jeremy is a freelance writer and editor living in South Carolina.  He conceived and co-developed the Living Words Program (a creative writing program for adults diagnosed with dementia) and Shared Worlds (a writing and world-building summer program for teenagers.)  He currently teaches part time at Wofford College and Limestone College.

Most of my students don’t want to be professional writers.  Some do not want to write at all.  These days, just about every class I teach is required by a college’s general education handbook.  For my students, the value of Booklife begins with the “Introduction” and then jumps ahead to “Booklife Gut-Check” and “Private Booklife”.

However, I didn’t have to use so many pages of Booklife to see positive and immediate results in the classroom.  Below, I discuss an exercise I used in a Freshman Composition night course for working adults. 

But first, by way of introduction, a little bit more about me…

I’ve been teaching in one venue or another since I graduated from college in 1993.  17 years is not all that long a time and is by no means a full career, but it is long enough for patterns to arise. 

Working with Jeff VanderMeer, recently, has helped me pull a lot of threads together and, I hope, helped me be a more effective teacher.

Jeff VanderMeer and I have been developing Shared Worlds, a teen creative writing and world-building camp, since the spring of 2007.  While I have collaborated on curricula with other teachers, Shared Worlds is the first time I’ve gotten to work with a creative writer in this way.  I’ve borrowed a lot from Jeff and from Jeff’s writing. 

When Jeff and Tachyon made the Advance Reader’s Copy of Booklife available for early adoption, I built a freshman humanities course around it and I have drawn heavily on it in other classes.

Booklife in general and “Pillars of Your Private Booklife” in particular reinforced my not yet vocalized pillars of teaching: Curiosity, Receptivity, Passion, and Imagination.  It also reminded me of my clay feet: Discipline and Endurance.

Since my first teaching job out of college (as a special education teaching assistant in an elementary school), I have focused on helping students deal with their anxieties about writing.  As a result, much of the instruction I give has to do with getting around, breaking through, or overcoming.

From the start, my approach has been to remove jeopardy—to require multiple drafts, to delay grades until later drafts, to deemphasize mechanics in early drafts—as a way of encouraging students to be receptive, curious, and passionate.  In short, I encourage them to take risks in a safe environment.  Once the hang-ups are taken care of and the imagination is enjoying the wings of heightened freedom, we can move on to greater things.

But anxiety runs deep when it comes to writing.

Many of my students, especially in high school and college courses, have a sense (conscious or otherwise) that a “bad” grade on a paper will lead to the loss of their parent’s love, expulsion from school, and ultimately destitution.  That’s a lot of weight to put on a 1000 words.  Sure, it’s irrational.  It’s illogical.  But it is real, too.  Such is the nature of fear and anxiety!

When we write, we put ourselves out there and we are, in some ways, at the mercy of our audience.  The classroom, I strongly believe, should be a safe place to express ourselves, a practice ground with consequences, certainly, but also one with compassion.

A couple weeks ago I kicked off a Freshman Composition class by handing out photocopies of “The Pillars of Your Private Booklife” (165-167).  The class has seven students, all of whom are over the age of thirty.  The oldest student is in her mid-fifties.  We meet at three nights a week for three and a half hours a session. 

Each of the students had been dreading the class since they made the decision to go to college.  For many, many folks, Freshman Comp is the equivalent of having a root canal without anesthesia.

Yet, Comp is a very important class.  It sets the tone for all the writing a student will do while in college.  If you have a horrible experience in Comp, chances are that you will dread writing throughout your college career.  If you have a positive experience, you very well may smile your way through college.  Okay, so maybe I am over-stating this, but I do believe that Comp is crucial and, certainly, not just because it introduces you to the writing process and rhetorical situations.

As I mentioned above, I passed out copies of “Pillars” and asked students to read through it.  When they were done, I asked them what popped out for them.  (I borrowed this from my brother, a photographer.  He often shows me images and asks, “What pops?”  By looking at what draws your eye, you can examine the image and yourself with a rapidly achieved intimacy.) 

Here is what popped for my Comp students upon reading “Pillars”:

  • “Curiosity reflects a willingness to be disappointed and an urge to understand the world.”
  • “The truly curious reject received ideas and try to see everything as freshly as a child with an adult’s mind.”
  • “If you are not passionate about what you write, no amount of effort can revive your work.”
  • “Without discipline, the imagination would float off, untethered, into the sky.”

These four sentences have become the pillars of our class.  The simile, “as freshly as a child with an adult’s mind,” resonated with every member of the class.  It popped the brightest and it has become a sort of mantra for the class, in part because it explicitly gives students permission to enjoy themselves.  Furthermore, it encourages them to combine the wisdom gained through life experience with the receptivity and joyfulness that was, perhaps, left behind in childhood.

And they thought class was going to be painful and boring!

Throughout the week, I will be blogging about more ways that I have used Booklife in class.  If you have thoughts on the topic or if you have used Booklife in the classroom as either a teacher or a student, I’d love to hear from you.