"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

14 March 2011

"...My teeth and ambitions are bared/ be prepared."

I find it incredibly ironic that within a short time of posting a very scattered, self-conscious blog entry about being plagued by disorganization, I have come to start appreciating character plots, narrative summaries, and even scene spreadsheets! I've re-focused my attention on the structure and levels of this piece, and am, surprisingly, feeling as if I have been released from the self-loathing cave I was being held captive in.

If you've been following my blog, you probably realized that the sentiment behind my last blog post, and one of my first posts was roughly the same.  In each, I came to the conclusion that I was somehow above organization, or at least unable to draw inspiration from it.  Well, crack open your psychology books, because in the course of this past week--in which I've adamantly decided not to move forward with this novel until I understand its structure--I've come to realize that my previous posts were in some way just a self-conscious author attempting to degrade organization in order to feel better about the fact that I knew nothing about it.  I was at a horrible loss, and frustration metamorphosed into excuses and conceits aimed towards excusing my lack of focus.

The undergrad writing program at Emerson inspired me in many ways.  I worked with some wonderful professors who were very passionate about their students as well as their own work, and I was able to see examples of great writing (and, maybe even more importantly, poor or malfunctioning writing) from my peers.  But I do feel that there is a flaw in an undergraduate program that subsists almost entirely on seminar-style classes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a seminar class, here's the general conceit: students are assigned a particular week to pass a short story out to their professor and classmates (usually with an upper limit of around 20 pages), their peers read the story over the course of the week, making notations and in some cases writing critiques (depending on the professor), and the next week the author remains totally quiet while the entire class tears apart their story like Scar's hyenas in the Elephant Graveyard.

See them? They're hungry, waiting to tear your carefully constructed dialogue to shreds.  They want nothing more than to attack your characters and half-grown voice and leave you bleeding, lying in the dirt trying to keep your composure.  They'll degrade your stories into what they assume are your own pornographic fantasies or adamantly insist that you drew your inspiration from a novel which you've never heard of (but, of course, you nod your head and pretend you keep it on your bedside table for midnight reading when you're out of ideas, because this is a writing class, and you get points for being well-read). 

The one in the middle there? That one is too afraid of confrontation to say anything bad about your writing.  They'll be entirely unhelpful in their praise that "they wanted to know how it ended" and "they like your style."  They'll tell you they can't wait to read your next story.  The critique of your next story will say the same thing, re-worded.

The last type of critic, there on the right, is just plain idiotic.  They're the type of guy who will pass in stories about robotic sex-toys and undercover cops who are caught masturbating while on psychedelic drugs that literally keep their feet from touching the ground, and then critic your story for being too "literary" or "pretentious."  Oh, and their story will be the undeniable favorite if you're unfortunate enough to be paired with them for critique dates.  Not that I'm bitter or anything...

Ok, maybe I'm being over-dramatic.  But the truth of the matter is that undergrad writers are thrown into writing workshop classes without truly being taught the craft of fiction writing.  They are asked to give their opinions of their classmates' stories, and thus become the only authority on whether a story was successful or not.  The flaw in the system is that, in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of these classes, students are more apt to tear each other down in the hopes of elevating their own work than truthfully commenting on stories in a mature, selfless way.

I did transfer into Emerson's program, which may take away some of my credibility in critiquing the program itself, but I did not skip over any of the required writing classes.  Apart from a freshman expository writing class and a speech class mainly focused on non-fiction speeches and essays, the students in the writing program are introduced to fiction through a seminar class.  They take literature courses alongside their writing classes, but the emphasis is on literature's intent and affect, not on its style or construction.

In acting classes, students are taught that they are a team, a support system for each other.  Despite the competitive nature of acting, and the fact that everyone in the class is going up for the same roles you are, there is a camaraderie which forms in most of the acting classes I've had the privilege to be in.  Through the process of improv games, script analysis, and scene performance, you all become a family.  And, while actors use their bodies to express what writers use their words for, the basic principle is the same: young people tearing themselves open, bearing their darkest secrets and questions for others to critique.  So why are writing classes so cold and predatory?

I think it is a flaw in a program to assume that young writers have nothing left to learn by the time they reach an undergrad program.  These programs elevate young writers to the status of literary reviewers immediately, granting them a power which they have not yet learned how to use.  It's no wonder they take advantage of their perceived status of importance.

Now, To be fair, the professor of my first writing seminar did lead us through exercises which were helpful and instructive (if you remember, one of which lead to the first seeds of Discipleship), and in all of my courses we were each required to lead the class in the deconstruction of a published short story, but the general attitude seemed to be that, if I was going to be a successful writer, I better trust my instincts and take off running.  There was no time to go back and catch up on the basics.  The professor of my final, 400-level seminar told us in a very condescending manner that he didn't think he needed to worry about leading "this level of class" through writing exercises.  What? Four seminar classes and we've learned everything we need to know about the art of the short story?

I understand that writing is an internal process which varies from person to person, but there is something beneficial about learning the structure and elements of writing which I feel I missed out on in some ways.  In acting classes, you don't jump into the final performance before breaking the scene into beats and finding your motivation.  Many intensive acting programs won't even allow their freshmen to perform outside of the classroom setting until their second or third year.  Why were we as undergraduate writing students expected to produce high-class work without first learning the building blocks of fiction writing?

I'm not trying to blame my writing program for my inability to organize my novel at this stage (short stories are wholly different beasts than novels, and I do believe the undergrad program makes a good decision in focusing on the short story before a longer work), but I do blame them for granting me a false confidence.  My belief that I needn't focus on structure because my voice would shine through is a false belief, and I have come to realize that it is only hindering my writing.  I've been lying to myself, and that's something I'll need to change before I keep writing.  I regret that I don't have the advice on structure to look back on in the same way I have lessons about character or dialogue cataloged into my mind.

But, in terms of organization, I've already made progress this past weekend.  I ordered two books on writing, and have used some suggestions from info I've found on the web to re-structure and delve into the placement of plot points.  Before this weekend, when I sat down to write, I felt as if I were jumping into a mess of characters and ideas who had voices and passion, but no grounding.  Now, I am slowly gaining confidence in the fact that this story is legitimate, that, with help and study, I can piece together a narrative that makes sense.  Even within a few short, focused days, I feel relieved about the novel, and where it is heading.  I have a long way to go, but, before long, I'll have those hyenas singing and dancing, kick-line and all.


  1. Wonderful post. It was interesting to get your perspective on the the training you received in your degree program, and I appreciate your honesty. I wanted to be a "pantser" myself, but as I struggle to complete the revision of my first novel, I see clearly that I could have saved myself a lot of work at this point if I had plotted from the beginning. Sometimes I'm not even sure that this manuscript can be saved. I won't make this mistake again! I am curious: what books on craft are you starting with?

  2. Thanks, Pam! I've certainly learned that I am too unorganized of a person to simply fly by the seat of my pants. I need the structure, so I can reign in my ideas and thoughts!

    Right now I'm working through John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction," which I am finding a great resource, full of not only advice, but some really great exercises that I've been working on. I wanted to read through one very classically accepted book on writing, and I'm pleased that I chose this one.

    I also have Orson Scott Card's "Characters and Viewpoints" to work through, as my current novel is very character-intensive. I've been struggling with the three p.o.v. characters I am working on, and hope this book gives me the advice I need in terms of perspective.

    Do you have a blog about your writing? I would love to follow your journey as well!