Thursday, December 9, 2010

finding your voice

We're working on writing short narratives this week. In class we had time to talk about conflict, and theme, and structure, but we didn't have any time left over to talk about what it is that makes writing narrative so much fun -- voice, description, all those things that make the essay belong to you.

I love reading this week's assignments because here we are in the last week of classes, and yet I will be amazed by the writing. It will be like nothing my students have written for me so far. I will get to know my students here in this last week, right before they go off to their next session. The narrative is such a natural form, and their voice, something students might be unsure of in those formal papers from weeks one through four, comes out naturally. Some essays will make me laugh out loud. Others will be poignant. At least one has actually made me cry. Some will make me do both.

As my students work on their narratives, I wanted to share a few passages from some of my favorite get everyone thinking about how authors use vivid language to set the scene, and also to get everyone thinking about what their own writing voice might sound like.


Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 157:
"The child maintains -- she has always maintained -- that she remembers being born. It is a surefire attention getter. "I remember," she says, "the light hurt my eyes." Many of her anecdotes are literary like this, and more than a little self-pitying. Should I stop hugging her so much?"

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, p. 130:
"No one came to the gas pump, so I went into the lunch room. A sound of a quarrel came from the back room, which was probably the kitchen -- a deep voice and a lighter male voice yammering back and forth. I called, "Anybody home?" and the voices stopped. Then a burly man came through the door, still scowling from the fracas."

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time, p. 208:
"Once, at the county fair, Tobey and I had been paid twenty-five cents an hour to sit, fully clothed, on a trick seat six feet above a huge tank of water. It was a delirious afternoon. our instructions were to be as insulting as possible to the customers--an activity at which, once we warmed up, we excelled."

Monday, November 8, 2010

revising is part of life

I've been working on a revision of my novel for the last few weeks. I heard from an agent I'm incredibly excited about working with, and she suggested some changes, hence the revision effort.

She didn't write much on my manuscript, but what she did write was exactly what I needed to hear. She wrote that the issue seems to be that readers see what my characters are thinking, but not necessarily what they're feeling. And I understand exactly what she means by that. It was a perfect one-line (fourteen words!) summation of what is missing in the 90,000 word novel.

So what's happening now is that I am going through those 90,000 words word by word and making significant changes. For some reason, although this has been a difficult thing to do, I've really been enjoying it. I guess it's because the book is getting so much better. Sometimes a change of one word changes the sound of the whole paragraph. In other places, entire scenes are changing and new characters are being introduced.

I figure this one line suggestion will take me approximately six weeks to work into my manuscript.

So, as you work through your own papers, remember that revision is something we all do. It is intensive. But it also should be exciting and fulfilling.

I know it's a little early to be talking about revision since we're only in week one, but happy writing and happy revising!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

you have to show up

"Eighty percent of success is showing up" -- Woody Allen

It's easy when you first have a dream. You can think about it all day long and as long as that dream stays in your head, it's easy. There are no roadblocks. There are no disappointments. There are no setbacks. Life is good in your head.

Take that dream out of your head, though, and all sorts of things can happen. Roadblocks. Disappointments. Setbacks. Oh, it would be so easy to quit. You could quit and stuff that dream to the back of your closet, back where the ugly and out-of-date clothes are kept, and you wouldn't have to look at it anymore. You could go make yourself a cup of coffee. Raid the Halloween candy. Turn on the television. (Because not much demands less of your brain than SYTYCD, right?)

But then you'd never get to experience turning your dream into reality.

You've got to find ways to continue making progress towards your goal. Even on the busiest, most difficult days, log in and see what's going on in your classroom, or send your professor a note. Both of those are progress -- they keep your head in the game.

Remember. The process is not linear. You will move forwards and backwards and sideways. Your dreams will, too. Shifty little things.

But as long as you show up everyday, you'll get there. As long as you don't disappear and make it impossible for others to help you and encourage you.

So show up. Even on the tough days, for just a few minutes, find a way.

Monday, October 11, 2010

what's the point of composition, anyhow?

I know, I know. You likely didn't take College Composition because you wanted to be a writer. You were here because it was required. And if you had any goals for this session, maybe it was to get an A, or a B, or maybe it was to pass so you wouldn't have to take the course again. In any respect, you likely had a completely quantifiable goal. I'm all for that. And by Wednesday, you'll know how you did, and I hope that you made it.

But just hear me out about this writing thing. There's more to it than many give it credit for. Writing is important. It's taking the mess of your brain and dumping it out on paper and trying to make sense out of the gibberish. It's how we learn. And it's how we realize how smart we actually are. It's how we connect the dots. Writing isn't what we sit down to do once we're experts. It's how we become experts.

So if there's one skill I want all College Composition students to take with them after the dust from the Argument Essay, the Definition Essay, the Cause and Effect Essay, the Persuasive Essay, and the Narrative Essay has all settled, it's to continue to think critically, to approach problems with an analytical mind, to be creative, and to push yourself to not only find new connections in life, or science, or art, but to find the best method (the best words, the best sentences, the best structure) to explain your new ideas.

So happy writing, and happy reading (because that's how we become smarter and how we become better writers -- two birds with one stone), and happy writing again and again.

Good luck, everyone!