Jun 27

Get Born, Dude

Acquaintance, perhaps 20 years younger than I, has finished his first novel (writing it, not reading it), and isn't sure if it's good or saleable. He said he gave it to five friends to read. One friend read it; no word from the other four. He expressed anxiety. What I saw was a writer being born. It ain't pretty.

Picking up the forceps, I said, "Why don't you hire a professional editor to read it and give you feedback?"

He said, "But that's so counterintuitive!"

Clamping the forceps around his head, I said, "Business is counterintuitive. But business is part of writing. We can be 90 percent artist, but have to be 10 percent businessperson."

Then I decided I didn't have the right to yank on him; he might yet be 10 to 20 years away from being ready to be born as a (professional) writer. But if he's ready, he will:

-budget to pay for professional advice.
-not be scared to learn a professional's opinion. In fact he will be eager for it.
-realize he needs help, that he can't do it alone or with just one or two writer friends his own age.
-see that I am not trying to drag him down to my (less talented) level; I'm just telling him something I learned.
Jun 27

More Money

Writer friend and I were discussing how hard it is to ask for the right amount of money for a job. Especially if the amount of money initially offered is ridiculously low or degrading (recent request for material custom-written for some business's blog offered $10/hr. I could do better at Ponderosa.). How far should we go in naming our price? She said an older friend had advised her:

"Ask until your toes curl."

Good advice!
Jun 27

Advice to a Co-Worker Leaving Her Job to Enter an MFA Program

  • Get to know everyone.
  • Attend every literary event that you can.
  • Keep a journal.
  • When you’re suffering, telephone (don’t E-mail) a fellow student.
  • Your mistakes are okay.
  • Understand that some of your fellow students applied to the MFA program and didn’t get in, so they are getting a regular M.A., and boy are they jealous of you.
  • If you teach freshman composition, know that some of your students cannot be saved.
  • Sleep on it before submitting it to workshop.
  • Love affairs that start in the first weeks of grad school will end badly.
  • Get a bicycle.
  • Make yourself go to your writing professor’s office during office hours, just to chat.
  • If you need money, get a part-time job no matter what your contract with the college says.
  • Don't bug famous writers to help you, because they won't.
  • It's not an illusion: Male and female writers are not treated the same.
  • You'll get discouraged sometimes, but don’t let anybody stop you.
May 08

The Poet Laureate of Missouri Said

Walter Bargen is the Poet Laureate of Missouri, the first one ever appointed. Notes taken during his talk to the St. Louis Writers Guild preserved some of the intriguing things he said:
  • "The role of the writer in society is to keep us awake."
  • "Poetry is like music; talking about it is not experiencing it."
  • "Each first line [of a poem] is an argument for the poem's existence." (For example: "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters. . ."; "You don't remember the hanging, but you do. . ."; "Each lover has a theory of his own . . .")
  • "It's rhythm that marches your reader through the poem."
  • "You know you're really writing well when you're surprising yourself."
Also in my notes, not a direct quotation, maybe an on-the-spot inspiration: "IDEA: Read poetry to stones, birds, and trees." Read a post-seminar interview with Walter Bargen here.
Mar 05

Using "Dialect" in Poetry and Prose

Maybe you remember Chico Marx, playing a "stage Italian," repeating, "Gets your tuttsi-fruittsi ice-cream," or that cringe-worthy moment in Dirty Harry (1971) when the black character is forced to say, "I gots to know," or when you want to mock a "mick," saying "Sure and begorra, me sainted mother raised me on the Em'rald Isle," and so on.

In writing workshop this is often called "dialect," although technically the English language has only one dialect -- "Pidgin" English, now rare, spoken in the South Seas -- so what you really mean is "accent." But call it what ye will, matey, arrgh, a little goes a long way. Your model for doing it correct-like is Mark Twain. Mid-19th-century American "Southwestern humorists," Twain's forerunners, wrote comic novels about backwoods characters, their texts all misspelled to convey the sound of their speech. From the author George Washington Harris:

Hit am an orful thing, George, tu be a nat'ral born durn'd fool. Yu'se never 'sperienced hit pussonally, hev yu? Hits made pow'fully agin our famerly, an all owin tu dad. I orter bust my head open agin a bluff ove rocks, an' jis' wud du hit, ef I warnt a cussed coward.

It's fun to write, but the irregular spelling makes these texts viciously hard to read. Twain's genius was to let his characters use vernacular speech, but tone the author's artifice way down:

He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me.

These days we worry about being accused of stereotyping. So if your speaker or character has an accent and you absolutely must use it (knowing that it conveys the character's social class and locale), let the character use one or at most two instances of it. Your readers will "get it," keep it in their heads, and won't have to decipher misspellings. Example: "He wrote me from overseas. I have a box of his letters. I saved ever one." That character never again uses her "accent" throughout the whole novel. You can really trust your reader with this. Twain proved it.