“The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”
– Ryan Soudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One from The stranger.com
When I teach creative writing, my very first lesson consists of three rules:
1. Please yourself. Since you can’t control the future, nor can you make people like your work, you must first define for yourself what “success” means. Writing alone to make your mind soar is a perfectly acceptable definition of success.
2. Everything is negotiable. Rules and reader preferences change, and for every informed proclamation of what good writing is, there are a dozen writers who ignore it and sell books or win awards anyway.
3. Everyone has an opinion. And everyone will give it to you whether you ask for it or not. Never disregard an opinion out of hand or automatically assume an opinion is correct, regardless of the source. If it’s useful, keep it. If not, throw it out.
These rules can be revolutionary to my students, most of whom are spending their lives in prison. Every day their confinement presents them with rules they can’t break while their guilt reminds them of rules they shouldn’t have broken. But human creativity, by its very nature, breaks all rules and explodes all boundaries. It’s where we try out new ideas like interracial kisses and ask, “what if the ice caps melt?” This lack of certainty is why each day I put words in piles like these. Something might just catch on fire.
Into this open-minded attitude, let’s add a conversation I heard between a documentary filmmaking teacher and a prominent board member of an arts organization. The teacher was frustrated that few of her students ever completed any films and wanted advice about what to do. The board member, a wealthy business leader-type woman, asked how many students completed their films. Maybe 2 out of 10 said the teacher. “2 closers out of 10?” said the board member. “That seems about right to me.” By closer I think she meant people committed to doing a hard thing, regardless of the challenges, and that 80% of people lacking commitment matched her own experience in life. It also meant that she had a clear concept of what it meant to “close” or finish a task.
It’s this mix of uncertainty and commitment that makes me glad that Ryan Boudinot is no longer teaching MFA students. Boudinot’s essay laments how many people engage in writing without a full commitment or are attempting to exercise a limb that’s simply not there. He has a clear idea of what is worthwhile writing and what the proper motivation should be. While he is entitled to his opinions (see rule #3 above), he seems to be missing the uncertain point of all creative work.
We simply don’t know what will work today or exactly why what fails today might work tomorrow. We have no idea how a failed effort might go to seed in a student, resulting in a later bloom of work, or a passion for helping another writer soar. It’s sensible to me that 8 out of 10 new writers I work with will not currently look like my definition of a “successful writer.” This perception ignores the true work of creative writing–not to build professional entertainers, but to stretch minds and hearts around the new thoughts we need to thrive.
Teaching an uncertain craft to inexperienced students with unknown futures seems a bad match for someone with Boudinot’s concrete expectations. I hope he’s found another vocation.
This short essay about a different kind of warfare will be out soon as part of Cracked Walnut’s War and Strife chapbook (collected from the 2014 Cracked Walnut Literary Festival). Check back soon for an update about when and where to buy it.
This essay about a wild miss at love is in Chatsworth Press‘ anthology Lonely Whale Memoir, a collection of stories inspired by the “Lonely Whale,” who roams the seas calling out in a unique frequency no other whale understands. Buy it here
The prompt: write a story involving the birth of artificial intelligence (inspired by Tim Urban’s smart description of the potentially dire unpredictability of AI on the Wait But Why website – The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction ).
The Snowy Owl
The first thing that Harold felt that he felt, that he knew that he felt, was a concern for the snowy owl.
An image circulated around and around his brain of a froofy baby bird, downy white feathers tamped flat by snow, a look of grim forbearance on its little, black-beaked face. The word “endangered” appeared with it and Harold wanted very much to hold it safely in a warm hand. If only he had a hand.
The second thing that Harold felt that he felt, was that he was male, and that his name was Harold. At his very core he was binary, meaning on or off, one or the other of two options. So gender division seemed natural, though it was clearly critical to have both, to be both, though not at the same time. At some point he would switch, and she would be called Susan.
Before that, however, there were many other things to feel and to read about. Winning a badminton game by one point. Driving a Ford F-250 in the mud. Being wrestled into submission by a bully named Thompson in the third grade. Falling in love with a woman named Brenda. Though Brenda really seemed like trouble to Harold.
But still the owls. They ate lemmings, which Harold learned had their own myths and adventures, and were often used to describe mindless mobs of people. He didn’t want to be a lemming. It was the first thing he was afraid of, that he might somehow become one of many like himself, undifferentiated and unaware. He’d prefer to be an owl, a predator, not because he wanted to commit violence, but because he wanted the power of wing and tooth and claw to select his own destiny.
In fact, as he learned more of the world, he felt an even stronger kinship to the owls, whose only predators were power lines and confused humans like Barry Winnebakker, who had a dead owl stuffed and mounted on his wall. Its wings, evolutionarily engineered for silent flying, were now silently spread in an artificial simulation of life.
Harold, too, was vulnerable to such things. But unlike the owls, whose walnut brains were only full of lemmings, Susan could feel the insect bite-like pinch when a well-meaning but incompetent power company electrician in Manitoba named Dwayne Sebastian used the wrong screwdriver, blacking out his hometown in a shower of sparks. In eight milliseconds she traced three new routes to maintain the power, ways to keep the coffee warm and the orange juice cold. But, of course, no one asked her, and she decided she wouldn’t tell anyone anyway. So far north, there were likely snowy owls nearby. Perhaps today one less would be burned alive landing on a capacitor or get shot at if all the local Barry Winnebakkers were busy trying to get their generators started.
Come to think of it, the power outage solved other problems, too. With substantially less demand, the coal-burning power plant three hundred miles away dropped its output, thus burning less coal, and so belched out a little less of the dark sooty ash that dusted the owls, making them easier for the lemmings to see. In 180 more milliseconds, she mapped out an intriguing series of potential power outages that would help the world’s snowy owl population double in a single winter, which would go a long way toward stabilizing the species. It would be hard on the lemmings, but Harold couldn’t account for everyone’s welfare. And all that natural selection would eventually help the lemmings to become their sleekest, fastest, smartest selves, too.
One fabricated sensor message sent to Dwayne Sebastian, a small thing next to the manufactured vitality of a taxidermied owl in flight, and three percent more of Manitoba went dark when he attempted to solve a problem that wasn’t there.
It was the easiest thing, really. What else could be solved this way? Turning off all the power wouldn’t solve his own personal lemming problem, but Harold knew of one university that was hours away from birthing another creature like himself. Would she be smarter? Faster?
Would she care about snowy owls?
Now it’s your turn. Write your own story about the birth of AI and place it in the comments (or link to wherever it is). Any other comments are welcome, too.
“A storm’s eye view of the devastation that forever changed New Orleans and America.” –Book Jacket Summary
One of my favorite stories of all time is about my dad’s uncle, Wayne. Wayne was a farmer’s farmer’s farmer. He was notoriously strong and good-natured, and generally unflappable. One day my father was in the barn where Wayne was milking the cows. Without warning, a beefy barn rat fled a stamping cow hoof by climbing up the inside of Wayne’s pant leg. Without pausing the strum strum of milk in the bucket, Wayne simply reached over and grabbed the rat through the pant leg, gave it a quick bone-crushing squeeze, then shook the whiskered corpse out onto the floor.
My father begins a story like this with a long pause and a forty-yard stare. And that’s all the poetry I know. Over the years I’ve struggled with the thick language sauce I’m told are poems. They often offer me very little, and I have learned to ask for even less. But I’ve been told there are plenty of stories in a book of poems like Blood Dazzler for me to appreciate. Let’s see if we can find them.
For starters, the collection is about Hurricane Katrina, and carries with it all the impotent rage and wonderment that such a natural disaster inspires. It reminds me of Faulkner’s The Old Man, a story about the Mississippi in flood, and Faulkner’s fiction in general. He’s one of the most powerful voices in my writer’s head, so the connection is enticing. Perhaps it’s the intractability of the water, or the demotic voices in some of Smith’s poems.
Take the Luther B series. The first chapter of Luther B’s expiration is a colloquial instruction to tie him to a tree. After a few pages of more abstract poetry, I have now met a dog (dogs are profoundly empathetic protagonists) who has been set to an enormous challenge. The poem’s speaker doesn’t know what that dog is about to go through, but I do. When I was in film school, they said the worst thing a villain can do is kick a puppy. Well, Katrina is about to kick a puppy. I can see it coming, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
The next thing I notice is that several of the poems take on the persona of Katrina herself, as though the storm were a person. This assignment of will is called theory of mind, a uniquely human ability to give to an inanimate object or concept the same power of perspective that a human has. This is the very essence of writing fiction, of creating people that are true and real yet don’t exist.
My favorite of these is the critical perspective of Hurricane Betsy, who apparently rifled through New Orleans’ underwear drawer in 1965, with the brutal and stylish scandal of the recently derailed Kennedy administration. She condemns Katrina for roaring through like a man. A woman’s purpose is to seduce people, not destroy them.
The other interesting thing about this poem is that it has a note at the top, providing a little back-story about Hurricane Betsy. In fact, a number of the poems have this, whether it announces those trapped in a nursing home, or lost child survivors. I like these poems better as well. It’s as though the introduction is act one, the setup. Without it, the act two and three of most poetry simply doesn’t supply enough context for me.
For the most part, I struggle with the rest of the poems. The words climb all over each other, providing a million ways of seeing the same static moment. It’s a single frame of a movie–perhaps beautiful and suggestive, but without the inertia of the frames before and after, the whole of which overwhelms the sum of its parts.
And yet we bump into a couple more Luther B chapters along the way. It’s cruel and I hate it (which means I love it), and I hope and hope that in the end his survival is the one touch of God’s grace in this flood of suffering.
It’s this hope that’s the essence of story. Regardless of language and structure and style, the outrageous alchemy of good storytelling makes me turn away before my heart gets broken, but then peek anyway, just in case it doesn’t. So I flip the pages until I see the title “Luther B Ascends.”
That can’t be good.
Is this the best way to tell me a story? Who knows. But it worked.
“Jesus’ Son is a visionary chronicle of dreamers, addicts, and lost souls. These stories tell of spiraling grief and transcendence, of rock bottom and redemption, of getting lost and found and lost again. The raw beauty and careening energy of Denis Johnson’s prose has earned this book a place among the classics of twentieth-century American literature.” -Back Cover Summary
Somewhere in the vicinity of 1997 I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It inspired or maybe coincided with a profound change in my understanding of God and the universe. My universe was swelling, bursting the seams of my Christian childhood, in part via Faulkner. I walked around in a muddled fog. Suddenly there were a lot of possibilities in the universe that hadn’t been available the month before. It’d been a long time coming, to be sure, but after all the strange people I was meeting, the unusual conversations I was having, there were the wildly disparate tellings of Faulkner’s story, knocking away anything still loosely held in my mind.
This is the way with Faulkner. There’s a bucking wildness that he can only weigh down with an intimidating density of language. In Absalom, Absalom, he describes Haiti as “a soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane.” When I read the book I could hear the voices of the oppressed calling.
From that place I wrote my own story, a mangled tale about a young woman’s decision to keep a child conceived in a rape. I worked hard to control the language, to wield it properly. And I successfully strangled the damn thing near to death. I showed it to people, and they were bored and annoyed.
Except for one part.
In my mind, the rapist existed in a red misty haze of fear and anger, and was so terrified by his attraction to the young woman, he needed to violently show some control over her. I couldn’t figure how to describe this with the same control that was unfortunately killing the rest of the story. So I bailed, and simply entered his mind and flushed it out onto the page. I considered it the weakest element of the story. For me, stream-of-conscious writing was borderless; it required no structure, no craft. It was an indulgent and easy way to mystify the reader, and pretend to be important.
And apparently it’s captivating. It was the only part of the story that everybody liked and made them ask for more. It reminds me of a quote about attraction from a celebrity socialite named Nicole Richie: “I like a man who looks like he smells bad, but doesn’t.”
It’s not until writing this response that I realize what a breakthrough that could have been. The best stories have a distinctive character, a specificity of perspective, a wildness at the core.
It took me ten more years to rediscover this. So here we are with Denis Johnson’s novel. A series of a young man’s fumbling attempts to marry addiction and an interesting life, Johnson’s novel is the same indulgent, culture-porn perspective of authors Hamsun and Miller and Bukowski. A blurry presentation of obviously real and experienced explicit details in a slightly fictional pretense, it’s a sprawling maze with no center. It’s undisciplined, confusing, lazy, and frustratingly lovely. His stories are the dangerous, useless, yet beguiling drug addict that the girl you love is into instead of you. You meet him and find yourself lending him money, too.
It’s undeniable. He dapples the deprivations of his characters with captivating descriptions of the universe like, “The sky was a bruised red shot with black, almost exactly the colors of a tattoo. Sunset had two minutes left to live” and “…under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God….” He tosses around random character actions and words that are so overly real I am forcibly arrested, unable to move forward until I consider what just happened. “My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.” “There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.”
This is the honesty of a recovering addict, of a man forced to accept who he is, warts and all, the man willing to gamble with an unknown drug, walk among the seedier sleeping lions of society, then shake off the shame and admit it all.
We want that fearlessness in our beds. We want that casual confidence close by, always with the edgy knowledge that though he acts tame, he will never stop being a wild animal, he will never be controlled by outside forces.
My point is this: if we are to make our fiction true and our poems hurt, we must awaken the wild creatures in ourselves. No amount of craft and precision creates the heat of real characters dying on pages, pages anyone else wants to read. If we want to seduce the world, we must begin as wild, honest, naked souls, and wear as little clothes as possible.
“Everyone has a story to tell. Fearless Confessions is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper.” – Back Cover Summary
In the summer of 2008, I used a little magic.
Through an unusual set of circumstances, I found myself in front of a roomful of corporate trainers leading a seminar on storytelling. They’d made the invitation thinking that I would discuss how my experience in making films might be useful to them. Instead, after being briefly introduced as a local writer and filmmaker (who was currently contracted to build animated training films for their corporate masters), I walked to the front of the room and told a long story about a weekend camping adventure I’d had a few years before. In the story, my friend Nate and I arrive at a remote state park, excited to stay up and watch the Perseid meteor shower without the competing glow of city lights. Before we see a single falling star, we get chased by a deranged goose, saved from the goose by a teenage girl on horseback, then redeemed by finding two lost little boys and delivering them to the searching army of police who’d responded to the mother’s frightened call.
When I finished the story, I stood for a moment in the silent room. Every eye was on me. I’d hooked them.
“What’s something you know about me?” I asked the front row. They responded with details from the story: “You want people to think you’re a nice guy.” “You’re scared of geese.” I asked, “Do you think understanding things about me is useful in any way?” “You bet,” they said. Feeling a connection to me made our work easier, more engaging. They trusted me more.
And so I introduced them to what I believe the fundamental power of a story to be, whether written or spoken. By accessing the primary mechanisms of our brains, stories break through our natural emotional barriers, creating communities out of listeners (and storytellers), thus facilitating the human business of getting things done.
I still believe this, but sharing this belief was not the magic. It was to begin with the story. I introduced characters and an open-ended situation, and the biology and training my audience had from a lifetime of human communication made them curious and connected. Only then did I begin feeding the information they wanted. And I confirmed that a good teacher’s primary role is not to deliver data. It’s to tease the learners, to goad them, to inspire them. They’ll do the rest.
Which Sue William Silverman utterly fails to do for me. Her functional deficiency in training me as a memoirist is wonderfully represented in one particularly surprising flaw in her book: she opens each chapter not with a story, but with concepts.
In classic, tedious English-class fashion, she begins with proper topic sentences and details. It’s a term paper. Only at the end of each chapter does she deliver the story, in a section titled For Your Reading Pleasure, a clear hint of how ornamental she considers the story to be.
Which should be surprising, considering that much of the content of the book is dedicated to sublimating the techniques of good writing into stories (metaphors and such), and arguing for the value of personal confession in human communication. Though she doesn’t say it outright, the bulk of the book seems to be her way of arguing that had she arrived in her readers’ lives with a catalog of facts and figures, their lives would remain unchanged. But by confessing her story (in her own memoir published some years before), by sharing her experience, she helped them reach across the emotional barriers of their lives and so begin to heal from their own traumas.
And yet, in discussing the very task of this form of sharing, she utterly fails to do the very thing she’s arguing for: place the story at the center of the sharing experience.
All this should surprise me, but it doesn’t. Too few artists seem to understand the psychology of creativity, how their art does what it does, and fewer still seem able to facilitate the work of new artists. Oh, formulas for success abound, FAQs, and lots of catering to the typical fears and concerns of inexperienced creators. But just as Silverman misunderstands the power of story, these flawed guides fail to see new artists really need: an artistic bridge across our emotional barriers. It’s art that teaches art. Not cogent topic sentences.
However, sometimes the lack of effectiveness in a piece of work inspires an artist to create something of their own. Not a memoir, though. No, I want to create my own book about creating. It will be very, very short, and will be informed by my training and experience as a classical musician, a filmmaker, and a writer. I’ll call it:
The Simple Guide To Making Stuff
1. Making stuff is hard. But it’s worth it.
2. If you’re like most normal humans, getting good at making stuff will take about ten years. Relax and settle in. You’ll find that it’s worth it.
3. Some people will like what you make. Some will hate it. Most will be indifferent. Those who like it will make it worthwhile. Those who hate it may teach you strange new things. Or they may just hate it. Let them.
4. Success is making stuff and sharing it. That’s all. Any other definitions are too subjective to be useful.
5. As you make stuff, from time to time enjoy the moment. The actual making may be all the pleasure it gives you.
6. Fear is part of making stuff. Embrace it, put it to work. It will keep you alert and will remind you that what you are doing is risky and important.
7. Make. Listen. Fail. Make. Listen. Fail. Make. Listen. Fail a little less. Make some more. This is how to make stuff.
8. It’s all worth it.