I might add kitty petting, a couple dozen games of Free Cell (to get your brain working), checking texts (to see who you are not paying attention to), switching mouse hands (from playing too much Free Cell), procrastibaking, keyboard cleaning, etc. etc. etc.
Welcome to the Fall Semester! A little bit late, but excuse me, I’ve been a bit preoccupied teaching actual students! For this edition, we look at one of my students who is studying classic sci-fi and fantasy novels. One of their readings is a Jules Verne, and they had noticed that much of the writing is a bit cliched and dog-earred. Perhaps, but crossing two centuries into 2019, we’re still reading him. That led me to thinking what made this author so popular? Why does his writing still resonate? My observations on that were thus…
We tend to forget, in our sophisticated world of writing and reading, that all writing and reading had to start somewhere. What seemed dated and clichéd was at one time innovative. Jules Verne, when he wrote his tales of (then) high-tech and science was prescient for the times. His stories were forward-thinking as well as fantastic to readers, and the Victorians ate them up. The times were also rife with innovation—think about the technology that emanated from the period. Railroads, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, sanitary medicine, vaccines—and the novel, which was considered the scourge of the masses at the time. But the era that spawned Jules Verne also gave us Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain—all masterly writers whose wit and wisdom and style are still the standard for excellence in prose. So where does that put Verne? Well, think about it. There are writers and there are authors.
An edit is a cruel, cruel thing to the mind, but especially to the body. It’s not enough you’re forced to rethink all those trite plot twists, kill some of your favorite characters, remove 97 out of a 100 times you used your favorite word (yes, my moral failing, I just can’t get enough of the word just), as well as barrel higgley-piggley to an ending you’ve changed a dozen times and still can’t get right. No, all that upheaval isn’t enough. No, you must suffer more. And suffering doesn’t come any crueler than when your body starts breaking down.
Look at that hand above. It’s in a “Futuro” brace. (I just love the name. It reminds me of the robot in this scene from the 1927 movie Metropolis. I don’t remember what the robot’s name was, but I think “Futuro” would’ve been just dandy.) What you’re seeing there is a textbook case of carpal tunnel , brought on by an excessive use of just about anything that involves a keyboard. Particularly highlighting to cut and paste, which I find extremely hard to do with my left hand, which I am now forced to use if I want to continue Life As I Know It. Today’s Wednesday, and pain has been shooting up my middle finger since Sunday, when I picked up a fork–I suppose–the wrong way (how does one do that wrongly enough to injure themselves??) The pain’s easing, but it’s still not gone. And it’s a prime pain-in-the-ass to someone who makes their living by spending three-quarters of their work time using a keyboard.
So am I quitting? Hell no. I’m a writer, and I need to get this book done. Why would you even ask me that? Sheesh. But I sure wish there was someplace to apply for hazardous duty pay.
I think I’ve said this before and excuse me for being redundant, but writing can be a lonely business. True, there are writers’ events where you can all write together at a coffee shop or a winery or at the shore, but at the end of the day it’s just you, your keyboard, and the little imaginary friends in your head. So it helps now and then to get among your fellow writers to commiserate, focus on craft and publishing, and realize you’re not the only writer in the world that has issues with head-hopping, comma splices. or rejection letters.
That’s why writers conferences are so important, like Thrillerfest last week, Romance Writers of America’s going on now, or Writers Digest’s huge conference next month. For me, it’s not only the craft sessions, and workshops, the readings and the pitch sessions, it’s the realization that writing isn’t just an occupation or creative endeavor or even a business. It’s a way of life, a big, beautiful, noisy, extravagant, vibrant, lush, existence, that’s exciting and inspiring and humbling all at the same time. It can be as exhilarating as it is devastating, it can be cruel, it can be disappointing. But just like the perfect word that makes your prose sprint across the page, a writers conference can be like a B-12 shot to your flagging writers ego. It can recharge your creativity just being around other people that get you. I mean really, wouldn’t it be so refreshing not to have to explain why you’ve been locking yourself in that room for eight hours at a stretch?
So here’s another writers conference for you. The Authorpreneur Workshop in Red Bank, NJ, coming this September 27-28. Writing and Craft and Publishing Professionals by the beautiful Navesink River. Time to get out of your head and get a glimpse of what the writing life can be. And if you’re already there, come and share your expertise with the rest of us. If I’m going, then you know it must be worth it!
My friends, even the writer ones, must think I’m insane. Because I think I’ve told everyone I know–I mean EVERYONE–about the utterly delightful, witty, and completely sagacious style book by chief copy editor at Random House, Benjamin Dreyer called Dreyer’s English. Why, you may ask? Because I’ve read a lot of style, grammar, craft, and instructional books on English in my writing and academic careers. And among those books, there’s a few I would recommend whole-heartedly. But Dreyer’s English is the only book on style I’ve read that was truly fun. Making it the only book of its kind I actually want to go out and buy for my writer friends. I don’t mean just for their birthday or Christmas. I mean I want to run out NOW to Barnes and Noble and buy a stack of them, ensuring that each writer I give them to will pay attention to the rules he outlines so hilariously. Truly the written word could only get better for it.
Publishers Weekly says: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: “Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ” (“Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ” he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and “trimmables,” or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so “delighted” he “scarcely had the heart” to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—“Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style”—later called him to ask, “Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?” This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Go buy it now. Or you run the risk of my blathering about it again.
Students in our MFA program understand that one of the most important skills a professional writer can have is versatility. Students choose a primary (creative) genre as well as second (professional) genre.
Here, there is no genre hierarchy or arbitrary boundary between genres. All students take workshops and courses with writers of all genres and styles, learning how different approaches and craft techniques can inform their primary and second genres. Our students are poets and grant writers; playwrights and copy editors; horror novelists and technical writers; investigative journalists and speech writers; young adult authors and PR specialists; and so much more!
Our low-residency model allows students to build a writing habit into their professional and personal lives. Through internships and teaching practicums, students apply their coursework in their field of choice. These features, in tandem with our emphasis on multiple genres, are some of the reasons why our student success rate is so high: 87% of graduates go on to publish books and/or work full-time as professional writers.
You first felt it when your were in grade school. You had an assignment to write a poem for Valentine’s Day, like for a greeting card. You got a little tingle down your spine because you knew you could do it. You started right away, scribbling in your notebook, those cutesy-sweet words that moony-eyed fifth-graders would love. But those words linked together, as made-for-each-other like a daisy chain, and that tingle reappeared, because you knew you’d done it so well. So well, your desk mates noticed. “I wish I could write a poem like that.” You got that tingle again, but this time in your brain. “You could,” you said. “For a quarter.” A quarter later, you made your first sale. Four more, in fact.
You knew you couldn’t stop there. You had to write short stories. Adventure and love and mystery filled your notebook. Soon, you got a special one you filled in the summer, more poems, more stories, and one notebook later, you started a novel (about a girl and her horse, of course). You got a library card and you read. And read and read and read. The more your read, the more you learned how the words played off of each other. They more you learned how a scene can bleed into the next, the more you built secret lives around each character. And you wrote. More and more. A diary. Essays. More poems. For the school newspaper. You graduated, and entered the real world. This time writing for a small-town newspaper, in the days when small-town newspapers existed. From there you graduated again, from college and into a “real” job. You wrote copy. Press Releases. Advertisements. More short stories, and started a novel for real this time.
It was awful. But still you wrote, finishing it. But as awful as it was, after dozens of tries, it got you an agent. (Who apparently didn’t believe you could do awful. Who probably believed in unicorns, too.) But the real world was more realistic. You parted, still friends.
You wrote. Another novel, and another. Three, four. More agents, more parting as friends. All those finished books, all going nowhere. But still you wrote, asking yourself why over and over. You wrote more. Wrote a thesis. Graduated again. You hear other people say they don’t know why they write. They just do. But you know why. You found this out after years and years of practicing going nowhere. You also found out your reasons for doing it sound too hokey for words. That you write because to not write is worse.
That for some weird, bizarre, sadomasochistic reason it makes your fractured self seem whole. That it gives you a raison d’etre not only in the morning but in the middle of the night. That once in a while you write the perfect turn-of-phrase and when you do, it’s akin to an orgasm. That your moving and arranging of words around a page can sometimes move you to tears or laughter or unfiltered fits of rage. That sometimes those words shoot out of you like rivets to steel, and when they do oh my fucking Lord you need to get out of their way — because you need to get those words out before they stop like a crash into a brick wall. Because inevitably they will stop and when they do, the only thing you can do if you want to call yourself a writer is to keep your ass in that chair until your Muse and your own determination break through. Because there is no magic cure for creative constipation. There’s just you and the words and no magic formula, just a million monkeys at a million keyboards who sometimes, sooner or later, when the planets all line up and you finally get it right, and there’s the world waiting for you to step right up.
So you want to be a writer, huh? Then you can be. But only if you’re not afraid to say it out loud. Can you?
The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are proud to present the 2019 Housatonic Book Awards.
The Award will be given to book-length works in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and YA/Middle-Grade. Books must have been published in 2018. The Award carries a $1,000 honorarium in exchange for appearing at the winter or summer residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University to give a public reading and a one-day, three-hour workshop with MFA students. The Award also includes a $500 travel stipend and hotel stay during the residency.
For more information and submission guidelines, visit: Housatonic Book Awards