Archive for December, 2009

Breaking the Rules


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There are certain rules that every writer is taught after spending some time taking classes and reading “how to” books and articles.  Avoiding adverbs is one of them (”the door shut loudly” is weaker than “the door slammed shut”).  Avoiding passive voice is another.  Dialogue tags other than “she said” (e.g., she cajoled, she joked, she pondered, she teased) are cheesy and should be used at a minimum.  Cut fat that doesn’t move the story forward.  Avoid the verb “to be.”

I take these rules to heart in my own writing and my teaching of writing.  Sometimes, though, I can’t help wonder about their validity.  We have language for a reason.  Adverbs are an entire part of speech.  Why should we be afraid to use them in our writing?  Isn’t there a place for passive voice?  As for cutting the fat, sometimes the fat is the part of the story I like the most:  following Andy Sachs through her day-in-the-life routine as an assistant at Runway magazine, sitting down with Becky Bloomwood and her mum with a steaming mug of coffee and a huge stack of glossy bridal magazines.  As for avoiding “to be,” could there be a more satisfying conclusion following a novel of turmoil than a character simply saying, “I am happy”?

I think all rules are to be taken with a grain of salt.  I teach five-paragraph structure to my high school students, who in turn ask me if this is the only way to write an essay.  No, I tell them.  Essays can take any shape or form, but students also need to master five-paragraph structure… as a genre.  It’s good to be aware of the effect of excessive adverbs and passive voice in a piece.  However, I think it’s just as important to be aware of what orthodox observation of these “rules” could do to your writing in general.  We have language for a reason–let’s use it.

What Does Your Favorite Author Say About You?

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Found a witty blog entry by Lauren Leto that stereotypes readers by authors they like.  A few authors I like made the list… here’s what they supposedly say about me, and whether the stereotype is true or false.

Virginia Woolf:  Female high-school French teachers who have their master’s degree.  Sort of true.

Alice Sebold:  People who liked Gilmore Girls – even in the first season.  Absolutely true.

Elizabeth Gilbert:  Women who liked the movie “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” but didn’t read the book.  False.

F. Scott Fitzgerald:  People who get adjustable-rate mortgages.  Might be true in ten years?

Nick Hornby:  Guys who wear skinny jeans and the girls that love them.  Used to be true.

Emily Giffin:  Women who give their boyfriend marriage ultimatums.  Sort of true.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:  People who can start a fire.  False.  Unless using one of those fire-starter bricks counts.

Lauren Weisberger:  Girls who can’t read. Or think.  False!

Jeffrey Eugenides:  Girls who didn’t get enough drama when they were younger.  True.  Ha.

A Teacher’s Winter Break To-Do List

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1)  Finish revising draft #5 of the novel.

2)  Grade papers.

3)  See family and friends–especially the ones I haven’t seen since school started in September!

4)  Update blog.

5)  Send thank you cards.

6)  Read books on my to-read list.  Among the zillions I have on there, included are Pickett’s Sideways, Katsoulis’s Telling Tales, and whatever fun chick lit novel I’ll inevitably pick up at the airport on Saturday.

7)  Plan lessons for the first week back to school.

8)  Stalk Sherman Alexie in Spokane.

9)  Decide whether or not to run the Disney Princess Half Marathon in March.

10)  Remember to be grateful for all the wonderful things in life.

Some Crucible-Related Humor

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INT.  A Junior English classroom.  1:15 PM today.

Junior #1:  But did they have any physical proof that Tituba was a witch?

Junior #2:  Dude, this isn’t CSI Salem.

I love my students.

Authors Winking at Other Authors

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Before students can do any kind of sophisticated literary analysis, they need to understand the basics of a story–what actually happens.  During student teaching, my kids had a hard time understanding Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi short story, “All Summer in a Day”.  Nowadays, I’ll always check for rudimentary understanding of a chapter via reading check quizzes before assigning something longer, like a passage analysis.  As a result, I get excited when a student comes into class and says, “Huck Finn was referenced on One Tree Hill last night!”  If they can recognize classic literature in their pop culture, I feel as though what I’ve taught them expands beyond my classroom door.

When an author does this, however, I have to pause.  I’ve started reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I’m enjoying so far).  Diaz’s protagonist is a sci-fi fanatic.  On page 23, Diaz writes:  “Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.”  That’s a direct allusion to Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” and even though I understood the reference, its presence bothered me a little bit.  Is Diaz trying to test his readers to see how well-read they are?  Is this an inside joke that only the literary among us are supposed to understand?  Or maybe it’s less malicious than I think–maybe Diaz WANTS to connect to those who understand Bradbury, or maybe he thinks more people have read that story than I think. 

I realize this is ironic.  I’m educating students in English literature because I believe it’s important, but I don’t think it’s fair for an author to banter with himself using literary references that may not be understood by his audience.  It’s a happy day when a student cracks a literary joke in my class (I mentally pumped my fist when one recently quipped that her parents are the Thought Police from 1984).  As one of the literary masses, however, I sometimes find it elitist, one author winking to another author while I sit on my IKEA couch in sweatpants, paperback in one hand and Diet Coke in the other. 

Same thing with authors who play with form.  First person plural, elimination of quotation marks, a whole story in a sentence, a single word on a page.  How many times have I read a first kiss described in a jumbled run-on sentence soup of sensual verbs, nouns, and coordinating conjunctions without enough commas?  Sometimes I feel as though I’ve circled the realm of literary style and am back to craving the conventional.

Fair?  Demanding?  Stuck up?  Not sure…

A Highlight of the Week

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I just gave my blog address to George Packer

The end.


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Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter is being auctioned off at Christie’s soon, according to this story by Erica Wagner, book editor of The London Times.

There’s something about typewriters that always appealed to me.  When I was younger, we had one in the basement on which I’d compose little stories or just lines of words.  I loved how the machine buzzed, the clacking of the keys.  I loved the way the block-y font looked compared to the plain Arial that was the default on our little Mac machine upstairs.  When I visited my parents’ work, I would ask to play on the secretary’s typewriter.  In fact, one of my life’s ambitions was to be a secretary so that I could sit at a typewriter all day.  When I studied abroad in Paris, I’d take pictures of typewriters I came across in shops and outdoor markets.  I briefly entertained the idea of buying one before remembering I would have to transport the heavy item back across the Atlantic.

There’s something inherently romantic about a typewriter:  the way it sounds, the way it looks.  The great tradition of writers that used them.  The permanence of the letters on the page, the mark that something was there and can never be erased.

These days, my laptop is my most prized possession, and I would never want to give up the luxury of saving multiple drafts of my manuscripts.  How easy writers have it today compared to our predecessors–we can save every single draft, just keep copying and pasting everything into a new document for each revision.  I appreciate that and would never give it up for nostalgia’s sake.

Recently, though, I inherited my grandmother’s mint-green manual typewriter.  She used to write me letters on that typewriter, and now it’s in my room, a reminder of writing from both the past and future.  Perhaps inspiration could come from leaving the laptop behind once every so often and banging away on that typewriter instead.

The Plath to Poetry

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I usually meet my friend Kate, Writer’s Digest blogger and fellow MFA candidate, before class for dinner and writerly chat.  Yesterday, though, when my writing workshop had a make-up class scheduled, I found myself Kate-less with an hour and a half to kill before class.  I looked at the list of readings my school offers and saw that the reading for that night was Catherine Bowman–a poet. 

Here’s a confession:  poetry scares me.  I’ve taken poetry classes, I’ve read it, I’ve taught it, and I’ve written it (usually only when experiencing the dramatic distress of loss–a breakup, a death).  But I certainly don’t consider myself a poet, and I don’t usually read poetry for fun.  I have trouble articulating what defines the genre, what makes one poem worthwhile as opposed to worthless.  I often fear that I’m misinterpreting the poet’s meaning.  I resent poetry that seems to obfuscate instead of clarify.  I’m confused by the unspoken “rules” that seem to exist among poets–is it not cool for poems to rhyme, in the way that fiction writers tell each other not to use adverbs, but everyone uses them anyway?

So when faced with the choice of either attending the reading or purchasing a second helping of Pinkberry, I deliberated before finally saying to myself, “Might as well… I have to go to eight readings anyway.” 

Catherine Bowman is from Indiana, and her new collection, The Plath Cabinet, plays with the works of Sylvia Plath.  Last night, she read poems that collage Plath’s works, such as the poem “Sylvia’s Mouth,” which pieces together different lines from Plath’s poems that contain the word mouth.  Apparently, Plath was invited to 22 weddings in one year and saved the invitations.  As part of her collection, Bowman turned the invitations into poems by inserting lines from Plath’s poems in a sort of Mad Libs fashion.

I was intrigued by the poems and the collage fashion in which many of them were constructed, but my interest was at its highest during the Q & A session.  Bowman was very open about her process.  She said that when creating the poems, she wrote freely, whatever came into her head, and that she wrote these particular poems fairly quickly.  Certainly a good deal of revision went into these poems, and I didn’t leave with the impression that it’s “easy” to write a poem.  But I’ve noticed that authors often take a kind of pride in saying they spent 10 years writing a novel, or throwing out a 200 page draft and starting over.  Hearing that a writer achieved something in a short amount of time was refreshing for me–if nothing else, it provided a new perspective on process.

During the reading, Bowman mentioned how getting permission for reusing Plath’s work was challenging, and that she had to cut many of her poems from her original manuscript as a result.  She therefore called that first draft her “secret manuscript.”   Later, the moderator asked her to elaborate on this “secret manuscript.”  Bowman laughed and said, “It’s not really secret, I just said that to be provocative.”  She wasn’t out to mystify herself, her work, or her process, and I had to smile of the sheer friendliness of her honesty.  She was just up there, doing her thing, being honest.  She also talked about how poetry is fun–what a concept!

I wound up buying a copy of Plath’s Cabinet, excited to devour poems as opposed to the frozen yogurt I wanted an hour prior.  When she autographed it, I told her about my complicated relationship with poetry.  She said that back in Indiana, she teaches a poetry-writing class specifically geared toward fiction writers.  How cool is that?  I’m jealous of the students that get to take it!  Under her name in my copy of the book, she wrote, “Try some poems!”  I think I will.