Today we are pleased to feature Jen Knox as our Authors Talk series contributor. Jen talks about her contributions to Superstition Review and what she, as a reader, looks for in a strong short story. Jen also says that the why and how she writes ultimately boils down to character and her desire to understand the human condition from different purviews. She ends her talk by offering advice to burgeoning fiction writers.
My writing is better than it once was. I could be so bold as to say my writing is much better than it once was. When I examine old work from an emotional standpoint, I sometimes feel the urge to burn all those old tester stories, sentimental poems and heavy-handed essays. When I examine older work logically, however, I am proud of sticking with it for so long. I have put in my 10,000 hours and then some, after all, so why not hold my head high? Here’s the thing about writing, or at least my personal relationship with writing: logic is easy to forget.
I have drawers full of old notebooks, mostly pocket-sized deals that I used to carry everywhere, in case I had a story idea or came up with the perfect way to describe a character. I figured it was part of being a writer to pluck quirky quips, fancy words and epiphanies from the air as they floated by, and I was so incredibly afraid of missing one. I felt lost if my notebook was not nearby. When I first started writing creatively in college, I wrote constantly. I was late to the game, I thought, but I had arrived ready to make up for lost time.
It was all so romantic. I imagined a life of breezy insights piling up and turning into great works people would devour; readers would offer massive amounts of, if not money, praise in response to my insight, and all the support would keep me well-equipped to continue doing what I loved. I envisioned myself reading work in front of crowded rooms. Perhaps the notebook I was carrying would be auctioned off for great sums in the future; I thought these things, but wouldn’t dare say them for fear of sounding full of my future self.
When reading my work from five years ago, I often wonder if I should own my mistakes or scribble over them, bury them beneath other words, better words. It is tempting to hide one’s flaws and move forward—nowhere but forward.
Recently, I have been thinking about this duality a lot. I have work that I wrote some years ago, such as my short story, “Disengaged,” which appears in v4 of s[r], that still feels right to me, but I also have work I want to burn, throw into a fire ceremoniously, watching as amber sparks turn to ashes and misplaced words disappear.
If you can, imagine yourself with me, toasting to the cremation of your well-intended misses. What are we be burning, failures? Incomplete thoughts? Under-developed plots? Unlikable characters? Clichés? And what happens after these words are burned? Will we have successfully fooled everyone, even ourselves, to think writing is easy and success feels as natural as the pen does in our hands? Perhaps. More likely, though, we’ll have to arrange another burning of our current work some time from now. Then, all will be clean, pristine and unblemished. Then again, maybe there will be another burning and another.
My relationship with writing seems one in which I am never wholly satisfied, but here’s my point in this blog: This is good! I have come to the conclusion that owning my flaws and misses and failures is what truly makes me a writer. A writer’s dues are high and increasing year by year. There seem more writers and fewer readers every passing day, yet we endure because we must do what we do. We must write.
When I meet with the energy and hope of a new writer, I encourage him or her wholeheartedly. I nurture the talents I see buried when I teach creative writing, and I watch, happily, as the buried voice begins to surface. If a writer has a smaller vocabulary than her peers or a tendency to over-write, I tell that writer to keep at it. Every word matters, I say. There are no wasted words. I give this advice over and over. I say you never know what gems are in your writing, so never, never throw anything away. Never, never be embarrassed of your journey. It is a journey.
I say this to those emerging writers, to myself, to anyone who writes. Let’s own those early words. Let’s share them and show the journey. Because much like in any good story, there must be change. The story of a writer is no different.
I was flattered and excited when Superstition Review asked me to write a blog post about the craft of poetry writing. I’d just started an MFA in poetry, so I felt particularly attuned to this question of methodology, though I was also more than a little aware of my own subjectivity as a writer who is continually learning.
It’s with that spirit that I’m writing now to SR’s student-poet readers: less as an authority than as a fellow practitioner with a few best practices, ones that work for me and might also work for you.
The first thing that I have to say is this: If you’re like me, you’ll want to interrogate the aims of your poetry, especially as they relate to your reader.
I think it would be false to suggest that every poet faces the beginning of the writing process with a pre-determined notion of what he or she wants to write or hopes to accomplish by writing. In fact, poets debate about this: some suggest that if you don’t know from the beginning what you want to say, you won’t write anything very convincing, while others, especially those who advocate writing as a form of learning in itself, tend to suggest that you need to begin to write before you can really know what you want to express. Likewise, the question of audience is itself a dicey one; not every poet feels the need to imagine (or even feels comfortable imagining, or believes it is right or productive to imagine) the eventual possible interaction between the poem and its reader.
Still, I do feel that there’s something rewarding in the experience of considering, as you write, what you feel is at stake in what you are creating. What are you trying to communicate, not just literally but at all the levels of meaning that your poem might contain? Do you envision the person who reads your poem being different in some sense for having read it? Where might that difference lie – in emotion, in contemplation, in imagination? Do you want your reader to recognize himself or herself in your poem, or do you want to confront this as-yet imaginary person with the strange and unexpected – or maybe both?
Recently I had a dream in which people and events from my own life were rather surreally interwoven with the plot of a TV show I’d been watching late at night. It occurred to me that this subconscious fusion was a testament to the evocative quality of the show, which had so captured my emotional attention that in my dream, the boundary between my life and the fiction had become indiscernible. What if this type of interaction between text and reader were a goal of our poetry? How might that change the way we approach the writing process?
Of course, the relationship between writer and audience isn’t the only important one in poetry-writing. The experience of belonging to a community of writers – some of whom, we hope, will also be our readers – is for many people fundamental to writing poetry. And this brings me to the second thing I’d like to say: If you’re like me, you’ll feel better equipped to write when you learn from and participate in the work of invention.
What I mean by this is perhaps simpler than it might seem. Despite all the recent noise (much of it coming from outside the community of contemporary poets) about how today’s poetry is unmusical or prosaic or unoriginal, the stunning uses of words that I see every day in new poems have been enough to convince me that exciting things are happening and, critically, that there is a wealth of knowledge in those words – not just about poetry as an art in some larger, more monolithic sense, but about the poetry that I myself want to write.
That’s why I think it’s worth reminding yourself, as you read and write and change, not to be afraid to take lessons (figuratively speaking) from other poets who are writing today and whose work stirs you intellectually and emotionally. Don’t be afraid to admire, learn from, and even appropriate structures, syntax, and diction – new ways of choosing words and ideas and stringing them together. Think about how the formal inventions that you see in contemporary poetry might enhance the stories you want to tell in your own work.
At the same time, being part of a community of writers means being willing to experiment yourself, to add your own vision to the body of ideas about how we might express what we want to say. So don’t be afraid to invent. Instead, use the structures and strategies that excite you as a springboard for developing your own approach to the organization and language of poetry. Allow other voices to learn from yours, too. Be willing to imagine yourself as an equal participant in this world, someone whose perspective cannot be replicated.
And finally, as much as poetry is about these smaller communities of readers and writers, it’s also very much about the world at large. That’s why I’d like to end by saying this: if you’re like me, you’ll find it helps to keep your eyes and ears open.
Plenty of writers have waxed eloquent and effective about the virtues of looking around you: of eavesdropping, of people-watching, and ultimately of getting glimpses of your environment that you’ll find can inform your writing in surprising and satisfying ways. I’ve discovered that this is particularly true for me as a poet. I’ve found that when you write poetry, it helps to look for images in your world that interrupt or influence the direction or the rhythm of your thoughts. It helps to watch how other people live and how they shape the individuals and environments that surround them. You don’t have to assume that your poetry must necessarily be confessional or non-fictional or that you are obliged to be the “I” of your poem when you write in the first person. Although some people talk about poetry as an inherently non-fictional medium, you can in fact use the world around you to create beguiling fictions in your poems: fictions that are informed by lives and places that your work manipulates and reinvents in imagination.
I’ve prefaced each of these sections with the phrase “if you’re like me” because you might not be. One very happy thing about the community of contemporary poets is our diversity – not just the diversity of our experiences or our perspectives, but the diversity of our methodologies and our ideals. So maybe the best advice I can give is that you pay attention to yourself – to what works for you as a writer, to the best ways for you personally to approach language and ideas and the peculiar project of writing in verse. But you might at least find in these suggestions a place to start: techniques to explore, to resist, or to use as a platform for developing your own convictions about how we write.
Taken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.
The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.
After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.
The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.
Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?
I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork. ~ Peter De Vries
If we all felt the way De Vries purports, the world would sorely lack reading material. I believe the great Mark Twain offers a solution to the daunting task we often ascribe to writing and the reason we procrastinate, telling ourselves we’ll do it as soon as we’ve finished X, Y or Z. According to Twain, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
While Twain’s quote easily applies to myriad goals or projects, I firmly believe his advice also works well when it comes to the writing process as a whole.
I’ve found that for me, it helps to take a good look at the big picture and then put into practice what Twain suggests: break down the seemingly insurmountable goal into doable steps. But even more importantly, each stage must be easily attainable, or I will hesitate to begin the first one.
The following is a model for accomplishing Twain’s solution.
Step #1: Planning
- Make time to come up with the gist of your story. This may occur through daydreaming, brainstorming or writing organically for a pre-determined length of time, and can take place anywhere you do your best thinking: working out, meditating, hiking or lounging on your chaise.
Step #2: Writing
- Commit to write a minimum number of words a week. This requires you to put pen (or pencil) to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to recorder — anything to get a word count somewhere other than the gray matter inside your right brain.
- Set aside the required number of hours per day, preferably uninterrupted. Accomplish this by removing distractions; i.e., log out of Facebook, instant messaging, Google, Dr. Phil — whatever keeps you from the first part of this step. If you’re the type who’s inspired by a little Beethoven or Pit Bull, by all means turn up the volume on your iPod. Along these lines, don’t underestimate the power of your muse; keep it forefront in your mind (stay tuned for a future post on this concept). The short of it: if an ocean view is what you need to write, then plaster your surroundings with the sights, sounds and smells of a tropical paradise. And if you can bring the real thing to life, all the better.
Step #3: Editing/rewriting
- Read drafts one at a time, making notes/edits as you go. Try to read your words with new, fresh eyes. Pretend you’re picking the piece up for the first time and gauge your reaction as if you’ve never seen it before. Be critical.
- Schedule a day or a week to rewrite. This is where a lot of us lose steam. But it’s important to consider this just another part of your “job” as a writer. Take what you’ve edited in the first part of this step and get it done. If you don’t, someone else will.
These manageable steps can be adapted to any writing assignment, such as articles, short stories and blogs. It simply takes an idea and a commitment to see it through.
What is your secret to getting started?
Britney Gulbrandsen is an Interview Editor at Superstition Review. When not interviewing authors she spends her time reading, writing, crafting and spending time with her family.
I’ve recently been asked the question, “How do you write?” The question has been posed several different ways, the language varied depending upon the person asking, but the message remains the same: what is my process for writing?
Well, my first reaction to this question was, “I just put my pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, depending upon my mood—and write.” But I wasn’t going to get out of the question that easily. So I examined my process more closely to think of what my method actually was.
Here is what I came up with:
- Sit down with a blank page looming in front of me.
- Turn on some light music (my writing playlist on iTunes).
- Stare into oblivion.
- Check my email.
- Update my Facebook status.
- Turn to my list of ideas or my list of things that inspire me.
- Check my email again.
- Finally begin to write.
Now I know that sounds like a joke, but ninety percent of the time, that is actually what I do when I sit down to write. But the real depth of my process comes from the tips I’ve gained and learned from experience.
- Read as much as I possibly can. I’m a firm believer that the more you read, the better you will write.
- Read the genres that I want to write, as well as many others. I read everything: novels, short stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, magazines, newspapers, articles, blogs, etc.
- Keep pieces that inspire me near my writing desk. When I’m feeling a lack of creativity, I turn to one of them.
- When an idea comes to me, I write it down immediately. I’ve learned through experience that I won’t stop and write things down in a notebook I carry with me. It just won’t happen. But I do have an app on my phone that allows me to write notes to myself as well as to make checklists. So when I think of something intriguing that might work itself into a story, I quickly type it into my phone. Then I transfer it to paper later on when I have more time.
- Develop my characters. This is crucial. Characters will transform the story. When writing a longer work, such as a novel, I get to know my main character(s) before I begin to write. I go through every detail until I feel that, in a way, I have become my character. This means that I work through the character’s hobbies, fears, dreams, motivation, favorites (movie, book, food, song, store, activity, etc.) most tender memory, what he/she would grab in a fire, every aspect of what that character looks like, each personality trait, and much more. I want to get to know my characters from the inside out. Generally, most of this information won’t make it into the actual story itself, but it will help me understand my character so I will know what he/she would do or say in a certain situation.
- If I need to stop writing before I finish the story, I go back and reread the past few sentences or so before I sit down to write the next time. This helps get me back in the mindset of my story and characters.
- rite down everything that comes to my mind. Lots of things won’t make it into my final draft, but none of that matters now. Something raw—even a list of sorts—can help lead me to some revelation later on. The first write-through is for ideas. It’s all about getting the story out.
- Let go of whatever ending I have in mind if it just doesn’t work. I once had this “grand” idea for a short story that I had created from beginning to end in my mind. When I finished actually writing it, I realized the ending didn’t work. My character would never do what he did in my story. So I erased that portion and let my character guide me based on what he would actually do. The ending is so much crisper and realistic now.
- Revise, revise, revise and then be done with it. I’ve learned that I can always make changes to my work. In my mind, it will never be good enough to get published. I may think it’s ready, but if I put it away for a week, take it out, read it again, I will inevitably find something to change. But at some point, enough is enough. It’s time to try to get it published.
I’m learning more and more every day. Each time I sit down to write, I learn something new. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is to just write.