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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Humanity of Nuance

I let a man kiss me who killed an unarmed child.

This is not a story. It's not one of my playful embellishments. It's not fiction. It's very real. I let a man kiss me who killed an unarmed child.

Stripped of nuance this whole thing sounds a little twisted. (Not the kissing a man part; if that bothers you, feel free to fuck off.) Me kissing a child-killer. What sort of foul world am I a part of? What sort of unsavory characters do I associate with, and why am I kissing them or letting them kiss me?

However, as details are added a far more rich and complex story emerges:

It was World War II, and the word was, the army band was going to end up shipping out to Europe. One of the clarinet players heard that the Marine band would be staying stateside indefinitely, and went and signed up for the Marines. Well you can't enlist in two branches of the military at the same time, and when the punishment came down, the clarinet player ended up with a rifle instead of a clarinet and platoon of paratroopers instead of band-mates and behind enemy lines instead of entertaining on the front line. They would load up into a big engineless glider (which was basically a giant paper airplane) get towed towards the front line by a big plane with an engine, get cut loose, and then glide over the fighting to jump out behind enemy lines. It was one of the most dangerous jobs you could have short of being the guy holding the flame thrower. The glider would get shot at. They would get shot at while they paradropped. It was about as close to hell as anything in this world can come. And the clarinet player was the sole survivor of a botched drop–wounded and alone in occupied Germany. Behind enemy lines he ran into a very young German soldier. This was near the end when they were giving rifles and two clips to the "Volksstrum"--men as old as sixty and boys as young as 16. The kid (who was about the same age I was when I was pining for thatblondmom and playing F-Zero for a few hours a day) was scared and out of ammo. And for years after his capture and safe return to the midwest the clarinet player woke up screaming from nightmares about shooting him anyway.

That clarinet player was my grandfather. The same one I wrote about yesterday who made me practice my trumpet. And who did indeed kiss me, changed my diapers, and from what I've been told (and my childhood experiences do little to dissuade me from this opinion) loved nothing on this Earth quite as much as he did me.

When we strip complexity and nuance down to a sound bite, we lose the gestalt of humanity. We lose the nuance of who we are as humans and why our simple labels are so ineffectual. Our strength of pattern recognition becomes mismanaged when we use it on our fellow humans. We are all so much more complicated than that. So much better than that. Sometimes so much worse than that. Just plain so much more than that.

I won't end with a "Writers ought to..." didactic lesson. Writers far better than I know just how much mileage they can get by leaving out a detail or two. Not everyone who has experienced fundamental marginalization and dehumanization should be expected to return only nuance. And sometimes a writer very deliberately robs a character of their humanity.  (Even the intro to this post used a lack of nuance to pique interest.) But I will say that there's a reason that the great authors seemed almost unable to NOT bring nuance and complexity to their characters, and why stereotypes, two dimensional characters, goofy villains being evil for its own sake, and archetypes are the bane of modern fiction.

Leave the humanity of nuance at your own peril.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Suit Up and Show Up (Mailbox)

Words of encouragement.  

Luna asks:

Do you have any really great words of encouragement? I'm having a real "What if I'm not good enough," moment.

My reply: 

I'm having one of those myself, so today is probably a good day to answer this. Last week I had a zillion writing ideas beating on the back of my eyeballs like the "Open open open" woman from the Mervin's commercial, but it turned out to be an unforgiving week on the househusband front, and I experienced one of the most frustrating and depressing experiences an artist can have: impotently watching a genuine burst of creative energy go sailing right by because life got in the way.

In case you weren't living in Southern California during the 90s.

First of all, the peaks and valleys of being an artist can sometimes suck, but the best thing you can remember is that it's normal. Every time you go into one of those crippling self doubt spirals, remember that you are a writer, an artist, a creator of worlds. Soon you will emerge from the ashes of your own destruction blazing in glory, arms akimbo, and vaporize everyone who doubts you with your laser beam side eye of doom.

There is no middle of the road. You are either a shitty artist imposter with zero talent who may have tricked a few people somehow and is fooling themselves, or you are better than Betty White and Chuck Norris's love child.

When you're riding the highs, you know why people are artists. You know from the Sulawesi caves to the tortured garage band kid why people give their lives to art. You know why artists think the creative process is better than sex. You can lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, and even though you don't believe in omnipotent father figures who sent dogma to Earth thousands of years ago, you know why such a being would create.

But when you hit the lows, you have to just keep doing the work. If you're not there doing the work when the muse shows up, she'll just move right along.

That's where my Grandpa comes in.

My Grandpa was a lot of things, (and like everyone who ever was, not all of those things were wonderful, but that's not why we're here today) but one of the things he was really really good at was teaching. He was a music teacher at Arkansas State University and before that high school. My mom still has a picture of him teaching Bill Clinton to play the saxophone. (This is my family's "We Knew Him When" story; we're very proud of it.) He understood, perhaps better than almost anyone in this world, the way that art required the sort of practice, drills, and dedication that no one could possibly feel excited about doing every day. But he also understood, also perhaps better than almost anyone in this world, that the end result was worth all that work and that no end result worth anything wouldn't be work.

Grandpa got a lot of shit for his pedagogy (people thought it was too easy on his students), but he led every band he directed to more trophies than they could fit in a case, so he must have figured out how to do something right. And here was the bulk of how to make a grade in his class:

Suit up, and show up.

Grandpa knew that this was how it was done in art. You didn't cast a life raft out onto the mercurial waves of your inspiration and hang on, and you didn't judge an artist based on any one day of their effort. You treated it like a job and you knew that at the end it was going to be worth it. He gave his students points just for being there and being in the right mindset. If they did that, day after day, the rest would attend to itself.

When I went to Arkansas to visit him in the last summer before he died, I experienced this philosophy first hand. I was a carefree early-teen on a lazy summer vacation to be filled with water slides and arcades. My school year of trumpet practice and scales was behind me.

Or so I thought.

When I arrived, a rental trumpet was sitting in his office. The first full day I was there, he looked at me and said, "We can go out for our afternoon activity as soon as you practice for an hour."

An hour??????

My most intense practice sessions before that had been perhaps fifteen minutes. I don't even think we practiced a full hour in class once you accounted for taking out and putting away instruments. I stammered, I protested, I dragged my feet. I assured him this wasn't necessary.

"One hour, boy," he said. "The longer you dawdle, the longer it'll take to be over."

The first day was a special kind of torture. I didn't even know what to do for an hour. I fiddled with my spit valve and played through some exercises. He came in midway through and put something skill-level-appropriate in front of me, turned a metronome on and left. My embouchure hurt by the end.

Day two he hit me up while I was still in pajamas: "One hour."

"But I just practiced yesterday?" I complained.

"Do you want to get better?" He asked.

I nodded. Probably not as much as I didn't want to practice right then, but I sort of did.

"One hour," he said. "Just go in there and do it. You know I'm not going to listen whether or not you make mistakes. I'm only coming in if you're wasting time. An hour will go really fast."

I started to leave.

"Oh and change into your clothes."

"Huh?"

"Get out of your pajamas. You're in your pajama brain. You shouldn't be relaxed to practice. Put on your clothes."

I thought that was particularly petty, but I did so. By the time I was in shoes, I had already thought through what I wanted to work on, and was even unconsciously practicing the fingering. I was practically excited to get the trumpet into my hand.

By the end of that trip, I nailed that song. And by about day five, Grandpa didn't have to remind me to go practice. I just did it like I brushed my teeth at night. I got into the more advanced band when I got to Sierra Vista chiefly because I practiced that summer. I never forgot that mindset. Not just to get down and stop whining and just fucking show up and DO it mindset, but also the put-yourself-in-the-right-frame-of-mind, suit up mindset.

When the blood is upon me, I can dive for my laptop and fire out 2500 words without ever leaving my bed or my boxers, but when I'm struggling against myself, I remember this advice. I get out of bed, shower, brush my teeth, shave, put on pants and shoes and sometimes even a nice button-up shirt like I'm going to work, even though I only have to stroll across the hallway to get to my writing space. And I'll be damned if every button I button and every tooth I brush and every shoelace I tie doesn't help me conquer that inevitable sense that this is just work I have to do, and I'm going to do, and it'll be over when it's over.

Because here's the money shot, Luna. I don't know if this will work for you, but a zillion band kids can't be all wrong. Once you get over the idea that you can talk yourself out of something, you start to talk yourself into it. As you're suiting up, it just becomes a given, and then you start to make the best of it. Sure you maybe still have those days where you're just fighting yourself the whole way. But more often than not that is when you come bursting out of the ashes with your arms akimbo. Because if you're going to do this, you might as well be fucking awesome.

And just between you and me (shhhhh), it's not bad advice for life either.

Suit up, and show up.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Minor Characters

The Gamers- Peeps I don't see enough of these days. We roll icosahedrons to determine the results of simulated combat against our shared delusions.

The Ex Spouse- I was married once. All very sad and tragic and filled with bad feelz, like a proper divorce ought to be. They ended up with custody of a lot of our friends–friends I didn't even expect would be taking sides (certainly not without ever even talking to me). Very tragic. I wouldn't much appreciate the deluge of cranky e-mails I'd get if I shared details. Somewhere around here there's some creative non-fiction with some that story. The important thing they did for my writing was being wonderfully enabling of my addiction, and even took on a sideline cleaning gig so that I could quit waiting tables and instead take a year off to write. That's when I found out I wasn't actually very good at writing, and decided to go to college. They're mostly a character because she knocked over the first domino that led to so many good things. Going to college was the beginning of a lot of wonderful chapters.

Ratontheroad- Trolly question poser and philosophical sniper.  He might show up here or there in cyberspace, make one comment about how philosophically sophist you are in your totally-wrong face, and then disappear again....like a ghost. Never even replying to follow up questions. But he's always there.... Waiting....  Watching.... Ready to take down your layman argument from 5000 yards. And if you try to simply "not move" he'll draw you out with a trolly question like Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gate. Still, he looks like Daniel Craig and could call in a favor that sees you looking down the barrel of an M-1 Abrams, so we don't call bullshit very often.

Thatblondmom- My first serial commenter!  She knew me back when I was a wee lad writing in yellow legal pads about Bunnyrats that took over small towns by reproducing insanely fast and eating people or drowning them in their...you know actually the less said about Bunnyrats, the better. She undoubtedly spends her every waking moment wondering what her life would be like if she'd said that she would totally go out with me on that fateful February day in our sophomore year of high school--even though she will deny it vociferously. Obvi.

The Librarian- No matter what I'm reading, it isn't good enough for The Librarian.

Mother Juxtapose- Raising a psychic superhero is no easy task. M.J. tags in from time to time to help me when Uberdude and The Brain are on extended patrols.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Excuse of Damocles

Hi everyone,

Chris here.

The Excuse of Damocles that hangs perpetually over everything I do here at Writing About Writing has fallen this morning. After a week of The Brain attempting to upload into a new patrol region in order to give access to her awesomeness to all new people*–meaning I've been doing LOTS of extra hours with The Contrarian and I'm already behind on writing–Uber Dude came into my junk room/office this morning, literally within seconds of my sitting down to write, and told me that he has to install new supervillian/misdemeanor detection and discrimination software into the TK-4000s that patrol the Temescal. They have been blasting jay walkers with rail guns, and could I please go with The Contrarian to his pediatric appointment?

*underprivileged children as it turns out–The Brain is like a superhero INSIDE a superhero

Of course I said yes. Turning jay walkers into fine red mist is not what we're about here at The Hall of Rectitude, and that shit cannot go on without attention for another eight and a half months.

There is LOTS of good stuff coming. (I'm serious. I'm entering one of those "amaze even myself" periods of creativity and productivity.) But I don't want to half-ass fire out my ideas in the fifteen minutes between The Contrarian falling asleep and the Fed Ex guy pounding on the door with a package (that totally would have fit in the slot) for which "no signature is necessary." (Fuck that guy!) And I don't want to slap my post up at 6PM on a Friday when the east coast has already left their computers for the day to do jello shots and make questionable life choices.

So I must invoke the baby excuse....

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Dangerous Intersection

There's a really dangerous intersection near my house. I have to be careful when I'm walking with The Contrarian. It's a one way turn from a freeway offramp, so drivers often only look left to see if there's oncoming traffic before turning. If I'm coming from my house (coming from their left), they usually see me without any problem, but if I'm walking towards home (from the right) they often don't bother looking–they glance to see if there's oncoming traffic and then dart out, never thinking that there could be a pedestrian coming from the other direction. Every couple of days, drivers whip out without even seeing me and if I'd kept walking, I would have been hit. I try to make sure I have eye contact before proceeding. There was a near miss yesterday as a driver–

DRA: Not all drivers are like that. I'm not like that.

Where did you come from? I'm in the middle of a Writing About Writing post. Excuse me. Anyway, I have to keep vigilant for these drivers because they don't look both ways–

DRA: Not all drivers do that. You can't just make sweeping generalizations like that.

Okay, I don't know what you're doing here, but you're kind of derailing my point. Enough drivers are like that to make being a pedestrian very dangerous–especially when they don't think to look out for our safety.

DRA: What you are saying impugns all drivers, and we need to stop painting them all with the same brush. Not all drivers are so careless.

Yes, but all pedestrians are in danger and have to be careful of drivers who aren't.

DRA: But what you said was about all drivers. ALL drivers are not dangerous drivers, this is about drivers. Because you are generalizing in a way that hurts me.

Actually this is about me almost getting hit.

DRA: By ONE driver. ONE bad apple.

Yes, but this happens all the time. I am constantly being endangered by drivers. I don't know which drivers are going to be the safe ones and which ones are going to not pay attention at a one way turn.

DRA: Not me though. This is about all the good drivers out there you're hurting and offending with your generalizations. I take umbrage with you painting "drivers" with the same brush.

This is not about drivers. This is about how dangerous it is to be a pedestrian. I'm sure there are great drivers, but enough of them are dangerous that my safety becomes an issue almost daily.

DRA: You know drivers probably wouldn't almost hit you if you wore something more visible. Maybe you should carry a whistle to let them know you're there. Maybe if you walked in pairs you would be easier to spot.

Or maybe they should look both ways because that's like the first thing you learn in driving school.

DRA: I do look both ways.

Great. Then this is not about you.

DRA: It is about me because I'm a driver. You said "DRIVERS" don't look both ways. Not all of us are like that. Most of us look both ways. Whoever allegedly almost hit you is probably a good driver too. They spend their whole lives making safe turns and now you want to assassinate their character because they didn't think one turn all the way through?

I'm not assassinating anything. They almost hit a baby. And it happens EVERY FUCKING DAY.

DRA: So you say. I'm sorry, but I can't really even listen to this without getting the other side of the story. Well meaning drivers who (maybe) make an innocent mistake deserve my rational impartiality.

The other side of the story? What other side of the story?

DRA: How do I know you didn't make one of those "go ahead" gestures, and then regretted it after the fact.

What? Are you out of your mind? I'm telling you I was almost hit and that it happens a lot.

DRA: But you're fine. Be thankful it wasn't worse. If you really don't want to get hit, you'll dodge the cars. When a legitimate hit is coming towards you, the reflexes have ways of shutting that down.

That's completely absurd. Pedestrians get killed all the time.

DRA: Look, I'm not saying you just want attention, but there are a lot of people who fraudulently report accidents–maybe for the insurance money, or maybe just for sympathy. How do I even know you're not one of those?

Why would I do that?

DRA: How should I know? You pedestrians have your reasons. Did you report this "terrible crime"?

The cops wouldn't care.

DRA: Convenient. Did anybody else see it happen?

Lots of people saw it. Nobody did anything. I don't know who any of them are, and they didn't stop to do anything about it.

DRA: Wow. The convenient hits just keep on coming. Pedestrians have been making up stories about dangerous drivers for a long time.

Pedestrians get killed by drivers all the time! How is that making anything up?

DRA: Sure, but those pedestrians... I mean they're near the road, wearing clothes that don't scream "get away." They're kind of asking for it. I mean sometimes drivers can't control their vehicles. Drivers will be drivers. Have you even bothered to think about how traumatized the driver might be? 

Are you completely out of your mind?

DRA: Changing drivers is too hard. You should focus on how to make sure pedestrians DON'T GET HIT. You can't just go around generalizing that all drivers are bad because you didn't bother to undergo a few basic safety precautions.

Yes, I fucking can! Get out of my post. Go away!

DRA: I don't see why you can't be reasonable about this. Pedestrians are always so hysterical about everything. I already can't drive my monster truck on their sidewalks without consequence, but they sure can come into my streets any time they want. You Pedestrian Safety Warriors and your anti-driver rhetoric are just trying to destroy good and decent drivers with your Pedestradry. I'm tired of your anti-driver, anti-car bigotry.

What????

DRA: And why aren't we talking about how often people on foot hurt cars. I mean they can key them or break their windows. Do you think it's another driver who steals a stereo systems. No. It's a person on foot. The struggle is real.

That has nothing to do with–

DRA: Wait you said this happens a lot? Why do you keep putting yourself in that position day after day.

What? You mean walking down the street?

DRA: Honestly, you probably wanted to get hit. I mean, look at how much attention you're getting.

You need to leave.

DRA: Sounds like you could use a good collision honestly. I hope you get run over!

Get the fuck out of my post.

DRA: Look I'm sorry that you're misunderstanding me. See how emotional pedestrians are? And they're anti-driver bigots. 

LEAVE!!!!

#notalldrivers 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Whipping Up Some Grounded Parents

Today my blogging ju-ju is going towards writing a long overdue post for Grounded Parents about polyamory and skepticism. If you want to see that post the instant it is done, be sure to follow me on one of the social media where I post everything I write (not just Writing About Writing posts).

In the meantime, I give you The Ideology of Skepticisma post I wrote for G.P. a few months ago about the dangers of treating issues within skepticism with ideological tools instead of a gritty self-questioning quest for truth.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Best Heroine (SEMIfinal 1)

Who is the best fiction heroine?  

The results of your votes in the quarterfinal polls are in and the survivors are on to the semifinals. Come vote to see who will end up in the final round.


I'll run the semifinal polls for two weeks each. I will take the top five names from each on to the final round.

Everyone will get three votes (3). Before you simply vote for your favorite three, consider that, as there is no ranking of those three votes; each vote beyond one dilutes the power of your choices a little more. So if you have a genuine favorite--or pair of favorites--it's better to use as few votes as possible.

The poll itself is on the left side at the bottom of the side menus. 

Don't forget that the Polldaddy program tracks the ISP you vote from for only a week. Since I can't stop people from voting twice, I might as well work it into the system. Vote early! Vote often!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Not ALL MFAs (Mailbox)

But my MFA was different!  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Some days I respond to responses of my responses.]   

My MFA was great/I value my MFA/My program didn't hate genre/My teachers weren't lit snobs/My program wasn't like that/Clearly you just don't respect the MFA/Y U h8 on muhfays?/~screams and flings poo~

My reply:
I begin with a true story: I once wrote two versions of a post, placing one on one social media and another on another. The posts were identical in their valuation of Creative Writing MFA programs as useful to some writers but not others. One post, however, concluded that MFAs were not for everyone and only particular kinds of writers would be able to appreciate them. It framed an MFA as something that only an elite cadre of writers could truly handle. MFA graduates LOVED this post and took the time to tell me how insightful it was. The other post, identical in every other way, said that MFAs were not a good decision for most writers. It framed an MFA as something not every writer would actually want. MFA graduates HATED this post and took the time to tell me how wrong it was.

With the exception of "write every day," my blogging about MFA programs gets me the most antipodean feedback. ("You are so right/wrong! I want to shake your hand/punch you in the face. Please have my babies/die in a fire.") Even the spate of cheers and jeers that starts rolling in around August or in response to my Nano caution can't compete with the ongoing attrition people seem fit to visit on me because I've dared approach the question of MFA programs with some nuance.

Two Sundays ago, I got a phone call from a New York Times journalist who had run across my 14 Reasons (Not) to Get an MFA post, and wanted to use parts of it in a piece she's doing on writing programs. (It was mostly just clarifying and background questions–I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything about the piece.)

She seemed to understand the morass of intense feelings that she was about to slog into and asked her questions carefully. I did the best I could to not represent myself as anti-MFA so much as anti-"I-don't-know-what-to-do-next-and-I'm-not-a-famous-novelist-so-I-guess-I'll-get-an-MFA," which is far more accurate. But it reminds me of so many of the comments and conversations I've had about that article, as well as several follow up posts.

People like to skim the bullet points, file everything under a "good" or "bad" column, ignore nuance (or miss it because it wasn't in the bullet points), and then fire off nasty responses. I'm not sure if they quite realize how foolish that makes them look. I mean...I'm an English major and an English teacher. One of my superpowers is knowing when someone hasn't really done the reading.

Nobody likes to think maybe they turned left when they should have turned right or that a decision they made wasn't the best. And while I'm not sure why everyone wants their decision to be a one-size-fits-all BEST CHOICE EVER FOR ANYONE EVER, they do seem to get defensive if anyone impugns them.

The problem is that we all want to be special snowflakes, unless it involves other people not wanting what we have. Then you can take that special snowflake and shove it into the oven. It doesn't count if we go our own way for our own reasons. We have to go our own way and be envied by people realizing the folly of not being us. MFAs not being for everyone is okay as long as it's in an elitist way, not a pragmatic one.

Anyway, on to the responses:

Clearly you don't understand why anyone would get an MFA.

Clearly you didn't make it to the end of the article before hitting reply. You should try that in the future. It makes your righteous indignation so much less head pat worthy. Now run along....

I love literary writing. I'm a poet.

Then you probably will enjoy the number two reason I gave for getting an MFA. You did make it all the way to the end, right?

These aren't good reasons not to do something. I want/wanted to get an MFA!

Yes, why on Earth would warning people they are about to spend three years getting a pragmatically useless degree with a $30,000 price tag for a bunch of justifications they could mostly replicate themselves constitute good reasons to caution someone of something? What WAS I thinking?

Look, if you really want/wanted to get an MFA, and you bothered to read the article, then you already know, you're not really my target audience. You are mentioned explicitly in the last few paragraphs. Take deep breaths and repeat to yourself "the blogoverse does not revolve around me."

I got a lot of value out of my MFA! 

Awesome! I hope it was equal to the value of the time and money you put in because that is the point I've made only about half a billion times. If the corner drug store were giving out MFAs for five bucks, I would have no end of good things to say about them. If MFAs were free and could be done through correspondence courses on the weekends, I would probably be one of their biggest cheer leaders. If MFAs were the vital first step in a career as a published author, I would be the first to let you know that it's just part of the cost of doing business. For most people, with the kind of writing they really want to do, just sitting down to do some hard work would save them about thirty grand and three years of navigating pedagogy that might be antithetical to their writing.

I wouldn't have written my novel if it weren't for my MFA.

That sounds like a real problem. I hope you cultivate the discipline to sit down and write on your own because when your MFA is over, you can't just go get another one.

What I learned was worth more than what I paid.

Only if you pay handsomely for that warm, fuzzy feeling. Look, dewd, this isn't medical school. The ROI on a Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts is the worst of any advanced degree, and a lot of people have a real ideological problem with going into debt to "study" art. The professorships look suspiciously like a ponzi scheme (and even if they're not, that comparison is so accurate is chilling), and published, successful writers, with only a few exceptions, do not have a lot of great things to say about their programs. Many of the things MFAs actually teach can be replicated with an internet connection and some dedicated time.

X part of my program isn't like you describe.

There are hundreds of MFA programs in the U.S.  I'd be more surprised if they were all alike. Some have better guest programs. Some explicitly like genre fiction. Some have worked very, very hard to incorporate non white, non male, non cis, non het, non upper middle class voices (and some have even had some success). I hear there's one that doesn't allow boxed wine at their literary events. (Unconfirmed.) My generalizations are based on reading HUNDREDS of MFA graduates write about their experiences when I was finishing up my undergrad and deciding what I was going to do next. Such an overview necessitates some generalizations.

Most MFAs are funded. They pay you.

This statement is accuracy challenged. A few prestigious programs may be able to pay your tuition and offer you a small stipend if you teach undergrads, but this work won't be idyllic cloud watching, and funded programs amount to a small number of prestigious MFA programs. Most you pay for.

It's not going to hurt your resume.

A lot of things "won't hurt" your resume. I know a guy who still puts winning a hot dog eating contest on his just to prove he's a jocular spirit. No one has ever told him hot dog lovers weren't welcome or that the inappropriateness of that accolade cost him the job. On the other hand, it has also never been the deciding factor in getting him a job. ("Well, we have someone better qualified, but they look like a stick in the mud, and frankly, I'd sort of love to see you working hundreds of meaty phallic symbols.") We actually rate the value of most three year programs that cost as much as the downpayment on a house not by their inability to cause harm, but by their PROACTIVE ability to be helpful. It's wild and radical, I know, but most people don't have the privilege of spending that kind of time and money on something that "couldn't hurt."

Mandatory hot dog GIF

MFAs are absolutely vital in performing arts.

Um.... You're right. Performing arts are very different than creative writing. You look through a playbill at a professional theater and the question won't be IF someone has an MFA, but where it's from. However, those programs offer years of intense practice and training that hone voice and dance skills (and have a horrific hazing and attrition rate) which Creative Writing MFAs, outside of the most prestigious programs, notoriously lack.

Hey, I met agents in my program.

Sure you did. So did I. But those agents weren't there to meet you. They were there to meet all of you. They were there as part of the curriculum. They probably paneled a talk for dozens of students, maybe glanced at a couple of pages of your writing and gave you some quick advice along with dozens of others. Maybe you got a card. Meeting an agent is really not that difficult, but you still have to impress them with your writing if you want to be taken on. That's no different than someone who isn't in an MFA program. They won't be excited to meet you or keeping a close eye on you unless you're in one of the country's top programs.

MFAs Don't Cost $20,000. They're much more affordable than you claim.

You're right–well no you're not. You're actually dead wrong. But the first half of what you said is right. The current average is closer to $30,000 actually (costhelper.com), and that is JUST textbooks and tuition. The price goes up if you have to take time off of work or fold things like rent and food. I was lowballing it when I wrote that article. Thanks for the push to verify my numbers.

My program wasn't so limited/focused/myopic/experimental.

Understand that this article is now pushing three years old, and it was hardly the first piece of criticism to land about MFA programs at the time it was written. MFA programs have absolutely TANKED in the last decade partially because the extended recession means that fewer people can afford to run off and blow thirty grand, but partially because those writers who go through them and publish have said that they did almost nothing to help in the process of being a published author.

Some programs have really taken an introspective look at themselves and adjusted their pedagogy. Most have not. I'm glad you found one that isn't quagmired. Really.

Not every MFA is going to have the same limited voices.

This is a bigger problem than you seem to think. It is a mark of extraordinary financial privilege to be able to spend 30,000+ on an education that almost prides itself on a lack of a marketable skill. The overwhelming majority of MFA populations are upper middle class and white, and even when the students aren't, they are being shepherded by instructors who are.

Don't believe me? Most programs put their faculty profiles online these days and you can check out MFA program's instructors. Like this one here.  Notice anything?

Academia is whitewashed. Advanced degrees are even more so. MFAs particularly. It's so bad in Creative Writing programs that many prominent writers of color (Junot Diaz for example) have framed MFAs as antithetical in a dichotomy to POC. Think about that for a second.

Why do you hate on MFAs. You seem to like good writing.

I don't hate MFA programs; I have some problems with them. Mostly I think they are a dreadful decision for a writer who just wants to be a working novelist. It's not because they have no value or can't help anyone write better. It is because, for the vast majority of writers, they are undertaken for quite the wrong reasons--usually reasons that would be better served by simply writing.

And unless someone is going to make $30,000 from creative writing (very unlikely), they aren't "worth it." And if they're not "worth it" you better get some pretty spectacular intrinsic value.

Keep in mind that MFA programs are a pretty new phenomenon. They are only a couple of generations old and exploded mostly to fulfill a demand for a niche. With the exception of a few authors and works (notably Raymond Carver coming from the Iowa Writer's Workshop) most of the canon–that's literature and "good writing"–has been crafted without the benefit of any MFA programs. Most of the good writing from other cultures is likewise crafted without the benefit of MFA programs.

MFAs don't necessarily produce good writing. They produce literary writing. Literary fiction is a genre of its own. It is largely produced gatekeepered, and praised by a particular aesthetic of both form and content. I like literary fiction, but I have never confused its style for an automatic claim to quality and neither should anybody contemplating a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Best Heroine Poll (Quarterfinal Results)

Our final quarterfinal poll has completed. Thanks to everyone who took part. Here are the results:



Everyone from Lyra up will be going on to our semifinal polls. 

Rachel, Susan, The Wife of Bath, and Phedre will receive some lovely parting gifts; let's give them a warm round of applause for coming on the show.

So here is our list for the semifinals. Take a breather. They will kick off on Tuesday. 

Killashandra Ree–Crystal Singer
Eowyn–Lord of the Rings
Vin–Mistborn
Jo March–Little Women
Laura Ingalls–Little House Series
Katniss Everdeen–The Hunger Games
Charlotte–Charlotte’s Web
Cordelia Naismith–Vorkosigan Saga
Elena Michaels–Bitten
Lisbeth Salander–Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Anne Shirley–Anne of Green Gables
Matilda
Hermione Granger
Honor Harrington
Keladry of Mindelan
Lyra Belacqua 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Best Heroine Poll

Come vote in our last quarterfinal during our impromptu extension.

We're headed home today, but I won't be able to close our last quarterfinal until I can sit down with a laptop and proper internet rather than on my phone. That might not be until tonight, or it might be at a McDonalds in Gorman because the kiddo is melting down in the car. So enjoy an unknown amount of extra time to vote on which heroines will go on to our semifinal poll.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When Firefly Isn't About Star Wars

An extended metaphor for geeks:

Imagine that every time you try to have a conversation about Firefly, I show up and talk about Star Wars. You bring up the laser in the brothel episode, I talk about the new lightsaber cross-guard. Talk about Serenity the movie, I bring up the new Star Wars trilogy. Fox canceling mid-season? That's not going to happen with Star Wars because of the Disney merger. The way canon psychics didn't get developed in the show. I talk about Force powers and midichlorians. When you finally point out that you're actually talking about Firefly right now--not Star Wars, and that I am derailing a conversation in the middle of a Browncoat's Ball, I claim that you obviously don't LIKE Star Wars, and have no real interest in the broader arc of modern science fiction as a whole--even though both those statements are patently false (and in fact, you can probably better contextualize how Star Wars fits into the Science Fiction milieu than I can). 

Everyone has heard of Star Wars, I point out. It's obviously better. No one even knows all the characters or actors in Firefly. I can't even be bothered to learn what Firefly has to do with that vampire show from the 90s.

No matter where you go or who you're talking to, there I am to derail your Firefly talk into Star Wars. It's not enough to say "You're right, Star Wars is awesome" and go back to talking about Firefly. I demand that the subject be changed. I demand that you stop talking about Firefly. I derail every single conversation. And I fricken show up EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Hopefully some of you now realize what you sound like when you pull that "what about the menz?" crap in the middle of a conversation about women's issues.

Social Justice Bard's Social Justice Metaphors

I often write metaphors on my Facebook page that are connected to social justice. They are usually imperfect (as most metaphors ultimately are--love is, after all, nothing like a rose), but they serve to illustrate social justice points–and also how to set up a good extended metaphor.

Because writers never can have too much practice setting up good extended metaphors.

Most get a few likes and slip quietly into the night. But the most popular will get a fresh coat of paint and ascend to more permanent glory here at Writing About Writing.

The Really Dangerous Intersection
Allies are Like Sports Fans
Ducks and Monopoly
The Shawshank Metaphor
Tall Privilege
A Reminder About the Tone of Rebels (Happy 4th of July)
No More DOTs!
The Nut Shot
Why Others' Stories Matter
Repairing Cars
On Crappy Social Justice Teachers

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Best of February 2015

February was a month of Social Justice Bard posts being the heavy hitters. These three posts will be going on to The Best of W.A.W.


A Year of Diverse Authors (Cue Literary Frenzy) Can you spend a year reading non Cishetwhitemale authors? And why did that challenge hit so much resistance?

Cultural Appropriation (Mailbox) When does artistic borrowing cross the line into appropriating another culture?

The PC Police (Mailbox) Shouldn't good writing offend people? Why should I care if I'm using slurs?


Once we're done with this vacation, I've got a lot of great posts that are written and ready to go up. Unfortunately I do need a few minutes to wrap them up, polish them, and post them, but I am not staying in a place with wifi. I had sort of imagined lazy days of writing and social media between Disneyland days, but it turns out I can't really even post an existing article from my phone. I can only do so much ducking into a Starbucks in the fifteen minutes before I'm missed. I'll keep trying to get some posts up in the few minutes I have, but we probably won't be back on a reliable schedule until I'm home. (The good news about that is that I'm still writing [because I write every day] so when I do finally get home, there should be a rich vein of posts for the first few days back.)

Monday, March 16, 2015

This Might Be an Actual Vacation

Seems I may have spoken too soon about posting every day while here in Southern California.  I have the drafted posts, but there's no internet where I'm staying. (I'm writing this from my phone.) I'm sure we'll go to a place with wifi on non-Disneyland days, and I'll get something going. But there might just be a massive glut when I get back.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Schedule^3


Just a quickie today as I dig into writing a long overdue Grounded Parents blog and start the also long overdue process of whipping up some thank you notes for the amazeballs donors who have literally kept me going over the last couple of weeks.


The word of the day is "schedule." Whenever you see the word "schedule," scream real loud*

First of all, the sun has come out...right on schedule. One of the reasons I don't use the word "depression" (or at least try not to intentionally) when I'm describing my mood swings is that the depression of those I know who have actually been diagnosed with clinical depression don't have a predictable two week half life. It can go on for months and feel permanent. While I've had bad situational depression that has lasted more than two weeks, it took my parents divorcing, the prospect of never ever kissing a girl, and being in my angsty early twenties to get me there. Just knowing that it's going to end is an advantage I have over people with chronic illness.

I can haz Space Mountain?
Speaking of schedule, it's Weasel Week and the weasel in question wants to go to Disneyland....for like the whole week. (I may or may not approve of this plan whole heartedly. I admit nothing.) I have a few entries half written, and we will have recovery days between park days in which I will, in addition to attempting to restore feeling in my poor feet, punch out some writing. However, you might see posts going up at weird times or "meaty" entry and "fluffy" entry days switching off. This probably just means I got up early and ran off to Radiator Springs to beat the crowd onto Cars...because that's what weasels do.

Also, speaking of being right on schedule (or technically ahead of).... I was reading an older "How to be a Writer" book from the eighties this week and I noticed that the claim was that on an average "career timeline" a dedicated writer could expect to build up a tiny audience and make a couple of hundred dollars a month selling short stories after about three to five years. (It said they might take as long as seven to ten years of dedicated writing to publish their first novel.) Anything else was technically possible, particularly if a writer had been working incognito for several years, but not really to be expected by someone who wasn't just idly fantasizing.

So take heart if you're slogging it out via non-traditional publishing. It is possible to be RIGHT. ON. SCHEDULE.  in terms of career development.


*Unless you live with cranky roommates who hate noise.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Best Heroine (Quarterfinal 4)

Our third quarterfinal is done. One more to go, and then we're on to the semifinals!

There will be eight names on our last quarterfinal poll. After a week I will take the top four. They will be added to our current survivors to make the semifinal polls. From those semifinal polls I will take the top five each to go on to the final poll. 

Here are the remaining names. I've included the book or series the heroine can be found in, unless their book or series is named after them (and there isn't really another character they cold be confused for). Also, I used Google as best I could, but if you see any mistakes on this list please let me know.

Lyra Belacqua–His Dark Materials
Phèdre nó Delaunay Kushiel’s Dart
Susan Calvin–I Robot
Honor Harrington–Honorverse
Rachel Morgan–The Hollows
Keladry of Mindelan–The Protector of the Small
Hermione Granger–Harry Potter
The Wife of Bath–The Canterbury Tales

Everyone will get three votes (3). The top 4 will go on to the semi-final round. Before you simply vote for your favorite three, consider that, as there is no ranking of those three votes; each vote beyond one dilutes the power of your choices a little more. So if you have a genuine favorite--or pair of favorites--it's better to use as few votes as possible.

The poll itself is on the left side at the bottom of the side menus. Sleek. Black. Thin, but with some girth. Bow chicka bow wow.

These are the winners from the first three quarterfinal polls.

Killashandra Ree–Crystal Singer
Eowyn–Lord of the Rings
Vin–Mistborn
Jo March–Little Women
Laura Ingalls–Little House Series
Katniss Everdeen–The Hunger Games
Charlotte–Charlotte’s Web
Cordelia Naismith–Vorkosigan Saga
Elena Michaels–Bitten
Lisbeth Salander–Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Anne Shirley–Anne of Green Gables
Matilda

Ramona Quimby, Elena Michaels, and Trisana Chandier were eliminated from quarterfinal poll 3.

In one week, I'll post results and we'll move on to the semifinal rounds.  Call your friends. Hit up Reddit. I can't stop it, so I might as well encourage it. It's all traffic to me.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Best Heroine (3rd Quarterfinal Results)

Our third Quarterfinal Poll is at an end. Just one more quarterfinal to go before we kick off the semifinals.




Say good-bye to Ramona Quimby, Elena Michaels, and Trisana Chandier. Everything from Polgara up will go on to our semifinal poll. Don't touch that dial though because our last quarterfinal poll will be up later today.

[ETA: Given the hour and the fact of posting twice today (plus a slew of personal circumstances that will become clear soon enough) I'm going to post the last part of the poll tomorrow.]

Terri Pratchett: In Memoriam

Early today the news began to break across my Facebook that Sir Terry Pratchett has died. I am almost embarrassed to say, I've never read much beyond Good Omens. I've tried three different times with three different Diskworld books and they never grabbed me. I am assured that I simply need to read the right one. Maybe now, for the sake of sentimentality, I will try again in earnest. I'm always up for good "cherry popping" recommendations.  

I can't provide a good send off to an author I'm not familiar with, but I know many of you dearly loved Pratchett. That sound I heard was millions of readers' hearts breaking. So consider this an open invitation to share in comments personal thoughts, links you feel did him justice, great book recommendations, or just commiserate with others.

[This news is going to mean I have two posts today. Apologies in advance to folks on e-mail notification or feeds. Our new poll will go up tomorrow.]

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It Ain't All Unicorn Rainbow Farts

At first I was going to try to gut out today's post (which is technically Monday's post). Then I was going to get it up uber late–like maybe after eight or nine tonight.  Then I thought maybe I would put something cheeky up here to kind of blow off the day.

But here's what I decided to do instead because of exactly what this blog is all about. It's not just about writing at the content level; it's about writing at the meta level. I leave up my shitty old writing so you can see me improve. I keep my articles with fifteen page views so you can take a look at what didn't work. I tell you how much money I make so you can be realists about how much time and energy it takes to get paid for writing. I post about my ebbs and flows so that you know that writers are as mercurial as other artists and not to judge us by our final product.

And it's probably important that you know all those "real" writers out there have themselves shitty weeks. They sit down some days and it's like pulling teeth. Some days just suck. Some WEEKS just suck. Sometimes it goes on even longer.

There are a lot of reasons for me having a hard time right now, from next level personal shit to readjusting to The Contrarian being back to simply fighting with the words but they're there.

I still sit down every day. I still write every day. But whipping up a coherent post in a timeline that isn't geological is proving Herculean.

It'll get done eventually. I'll break through. The waters will flow again, and probably sooner than most writers because I sit and write every day. Free flow writing (like this) is as easy for me as thinking (it's just the more structured stuff that's giving me trouble). The discipline is there, so I tend to pop back as soon as the juju starts to flow.

But don't ever let me make it look like it's always easy. You see the end result of hours of work. Some days are just clusterfucks of teeth pulling. And every writer has their dry spells that they have to just grit through.

So if you're having a bad day or a bad week or even a bad month, you're not alone. Just keep sitting down and working and the words will return.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Allies Are Like Sports Fans (An Extended Metaphor)

[I've got less than nothing in the way of functioning brain pistons today, so I thought I would share a spruced up version of a post that has gone a little crazy from my public Facebook page. Call it a lesson in extended metaphors.]


Being a social justice ally is a lot like being a fan of a sports team. You’re there to support them, you spend money on their merchandise, you identify yourself as such so that your team feels the love and the world knows you're there, you cheer for them, you talk them up to others, you gush about why your team rocks to anyone interested in sports (and maybe a few who aren't), and you jump in if someone's talking trash about your team (or your sport). You bring a megaphone and a big foam #1 glove, and maybe if you're good at what you do, you lead the bleachers in a cheer or two and get a few seconds on the JumboTron.

But you're not part of the team. You don’t get your name on the roster. If your team wins or loses, you're going to your normal job on Monday. If you're wearing a jersey, it's got someone else's name on it. You don't hang out in the locker room. You don't sit in on the strategy sessions. 


Also if someone from the team is doing a press conference, you fucking sit down and give them the microphone.  

Monday, March 9, 2015

Best Heroine Don't Forget to Vote

I've got to run to the airport to pick up all the heroes from The Hall of Rectitude in a few minutes, and after that I might abscond with The Contrarian for a tearful reunion.

I'll run today's mailbox tomorrow and today simply nudge everyone who hasn't to remember to vote in our third Best Heroine quarterfinal poll.

This poll will close on Thursday when our final quarterfinal poll will go up.

The poll itself is on the left side at the bottom of the side menus. Long. Black. Sleek. Innuendo city.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Day "Off"

Crime is on the decline in New Zealand, the plan to take over the world using volcanoes stuffed with hummus has been foiled, and the gang is on their way back home (with a quick stop at the Aulani Disney Resort for a mud mask/massage victory lap), so I need to spend today flushing the blow down the toilet, sending the hookers home, getting all the sex toys out of the living room. Plus one of the hookers killed a politician; I'm going to have to get rid of the body.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I'm Fine (Personal Update)

I'm 
dealing with a lot of big emotions lately. Trying to stay stalwart in the face of crashing waves of desperation. Empathy makes it difficult not to keenly feel the struggles of the people closest to me, especially when I am powerless to do anything but watch them suffer. Choked and strangled by an illness that isn't my own. Stressed. Desperate. Like white hot iron rods sliding into my gut. I would take this pain from you if I could, for I feel so much of it anyway. Loss. Helplessness. Frustration. Syphoning off creativity energy. I'm confused, empty, an impostor in my writing life, and any minute now everyone will realize that I'm a fraud, point, and laugh. Judged and found lacking. Driven beyond reason to hammer away at a full-time-job's worth of writing (on top of "real" work) and there's no real place to squeeze a social life into that train wreck. Misunderstood. Living in that world between a desperate quest for privacy and hollow loneliness. Like a rusty melon baller scraping out my insides. Unloved. Unlovable. Something, somewhere has to give; it's going to snap soon. Fear and loathing. Will they hate me if I tell them how I really feel? Will they fear me. Avoid me? Maybe I'll just push this all down, smile, and tell everyone that everything is just
fine.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fortune Cooke Wisdom IX


Even Staler Fortune Cookies

Proper grammar that muddies meaning is like proper manners that make your guest uncomfortable–both deeply, profoundly miss the point.  
Unfortunately most writers need to have a run in with bad criticism, a scathing review, multiple publishers' rejections, or horrible sales of their self-published work before they're ready to get help or take advice. Perhaps more unfortunately most writers never get to that point. They simply exist in a never-challenged state of believing their own abundance of talent.
It's tough for those on top of social hierarchies (white, men, heterosexual, etc...) to write about the marginalized groups. Listen to their stories with empathy instead of incredulity and treat them (as a character) with humanity instead of as a stereotype.

In almost every meaningful context, "talent" is functionally no different than hard work over time.

Hard work is vital to a writer's success, but downtime and relaxation is important too.


Irrational font hatred is so chic. So you should go ahead and have extreme feelings of rage over Comic Sans. It makes you look cutting edge and extremely balanced.

Let that %#@$%ing dress be a lesson to writers that different people LITERALLY perceive the world differently and will work very hard to get their perception validated, and that your characters should reflect that. Having every character be a reflection of you is critically untruthful writing.

Remember that not everything that is "generally true" about writers and writing needs to make you personally defensive. It's okay to be a notable exception. But do consider the possibility that it might be itching your brain because it struck a little too close to a nerve.

Bloggers beware: making every sentence its own paragraph is as mentally coherent and emotionally impactive as writing one big paragraph. The only advantage is that it's slightly easier to read.

Normal people just don't toss each other into walls as part of conflict resolution.

I'm going to do that "Year of Non Cis/Het/White/Male authors" exercise. Except I'm planning on giving myself one or two "cheat" books each month, and then extending the exercise by 30-40 years.

I need more fortune cookies!!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Best Heroine Poll (Quarterfinal 3)

Our second quarterfinal is done and our third is ready to rock.  

There will be seven names on each quarter final poll. After a week I will take the top four from each. Those four names will go on to the semi-finals in a poll with eight names each. From those I will take the top five each to go on to the final poll. Here are the remaining names. I've included the book or series they're unless their book or series unless the book or series is named after them (and there isn't really another character they cold be confused for). Also, I used Google as best I could, but if you see any mistakes on this list please let me know.

These are the winners from the first and second quarterfinal poll.

Killashandra Ree–Crystal Singer
Eowyn–Lord of the Rings
Vin–Mistborn
Jo March–Little Women
Laura Ingalls–Little House Series
Katniss Everdeen–The Hunger Games
Charlotte–Charlotte’s Web
Cordelia Naismith–Vorkosigan Saga


Alanna of Trebond, Janie Mae Crawford, October Daye were eliminated

The following choices will be on this poll. 

Elena Michaels–Bitten
Polgara–The Belgariad
Ramona Quimby
Lisbeth Salander–Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Anne Shirley–Anne of Green Gables
Trisana Chandler–Circle of Magic
Matilda

Everyone will get three votes (3). The top 4 will go on to the semi-final round. Before you simply vote for your favorite three, consider that, as there is no ranking of those three votes, each vote beyond one dilutes the power of your choices a little more. So if you have a genuine favorite--or pair of favorites--it's better to use as few votes as possible.

The poll itself is on the left side at the bottom of the side menus. Long. Black. Sleek. Thin, but with some girth. Awwww yis.

Please don't forget that Polldaddy (the program that runs the polls and tabulates the results) will log your IP address for only a week. After that, you can vote again! Since I can't really stop people, I might as well work it into the system.

Vote early! Vote often! Drive around town voting from every library. Call your friends. Hit up Reddit. I can't stop it, so I might as well encourage it. It's all traffic to me.

Here are the remaining nominations. They will go on the final quarterfinal poll:

Lyra Belacqua–His Dark Materials
Phèdre nó Delaunay Kushiel’s Dart
Susan Calvin–I Robot
Honor Harrington–Honorverse
Rachel Morgan–The Hollows
Keladry of Mindelan–The Protector of the Small
Hermione Granger–Harry Potter
The Wife of Bath–The Canterbury Tales

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Best Heroine Poll Results (Quarterfinal 2)

I'm behind on everything today, including sleep and housework, so I'm going to post the results of our second quarterfinal poll today, and our third quarterfinal poll tomorrow.



Say good-bye to Alana of Trebond, Janie Mae Crawford, and October Daye. Everything from Katniss Everdeen up will go on to our semifinal poll.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reminder to Vote (Best Heroine)

Today I'm working on some stuff for the other blogs I write for, so I just wanted to take a quick moment to remind people to vote. The turn around on the Best Heroine quarter final polls is going to be very quick. (A week slips away faster than the logic in a Scooby Doo explanation.) Tomorrow I will be tabulating the results and putting up the second round quarterfinal poll. So please take a moment to vote if you haven't. Things are still pretty close.

This picture to the right is just a screen shot. The actual poll is at the bottom left of the side menus.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Different Sorts of Writing (Mailbox)

Different kinds of writing.   

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Project 2nd weekly mailbox will begin this week.]   

Lou asks:

Do your writing tips meaningfully differ for different sorts of writing? Journalistic, poetry, script writing, etc.

My reply:

Totes yo!

I mention this in my disclaimery stuff. However, it's not as if I expect more than two or three of my readers ever went spelunking far enough into the hidden bowels of this blog to find it. Writing About Writing is mostly about creative writing, and usually about fiction.

There is a lot of overlap in every kind writing. Vocabulary, structure, imagery. I've yet to meet a capable poet who couldn't write a damned fine sentence. I've never even heard of a (serious) journalist who lacked the ability to construct a compelling paragraph. Every fiction writer who has ever taken on an expository subject, wrote quite well–if perhaps with a somewhat florid prose.

But there are differences too. If I were hired as a tech writer and I wrote how I blogged, I'd be looking for a new job before lunch. Journalism doesn't worry about the interaction between character development and theme. You have to let go and let the director decide how to block and emote when you write a play or a screenplay. These different ways of writing have their own skill sets. And while there is some overlap that makes one writer competent at other writing styles, there is enough divergence to easily see the difference between competent and exceptional.

Some advice would stay the same especially linguistic advice. Don't dangle your modifiers. Maintain your tense unless there's a reason not to. Don't go overboard with cliches. Other advice would be like arriving in Bizarro world. (You do NOT use concrete description of scene to describe the setting in a play or screenplay, but it's one of the most important parts of fiction.) In formal writing (higher-brow journalism or tech writing) it would be egregious to write how you spoke, but in blogging or some more folksy fiction, that is the preferred style.

Many of these differences are so huge they are not even "genre" per se. They are disciplinary. Chances are if you're on a college campus, the school of journalism is not  even in the same BUILDING as Creative Writing. And you have different degrees for C.W. and expository writing. If it were all the same, we'd all be getting a "Writing" degree and crammed into the same gigantic lecture hall.

Lots of writers move across these various disciplines, but there are often some growing pains–especially if they don't think they'll have to change. Though on the other hand some really fucking awesome books have come from writers who brought their strengths from other writing types into their fiction. My favorite example of this is the travel writer who wrote a fiction book in almost exactly the travel writing style: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

So yes, many many big difference, even though there is some dovetail.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You Forgot About Pain


[My ongoing series of writing advice inspired by Live Action Role Playing a vampire.]

Last night the gathered vampires participated in a chess game where each of the pieces was a vampire. Two chess masters had to play the board, but there were a couple of catches. Each piece had a "power" that the chess masters could not control (like switching with another piece or ordering the chess master to do something different than they wanted to for their next move). Also capturing involved WINNING, so it was entirely possible for a bad-ass pawn to NOT get captured by the queen simply by using some kind of vampric power or just throwing a punch.

Since this isn't True Blood, there was a deplorable lack of fucking.

It meant the chess masters had a more complicated game to play than just how to move pieces, but also to consider what each piece was good at. I was playing a pawn, but my chess master moved me into a position where a Brujah (fighter character) could take me, so I didn't even put up a fight when he came to capture. I just walked away with an, "Oh HELL no!"

My in-character impetus for this was that I didn't particularly want anyone knowing what I could do or how well I could do it unless I was in an actual situation of dire straights. I would much rather people sit around and think "Shit I'm not sure WHAT would happen if I attacked Max! (That's my character: Max Winters.) Would he disappear from plain sight and use his mortal contacts to burn down my haven the next day, unload level five Dementation into my brain to make me crazy, or just posses my body and walk into a sunrise?" After I left the board, there were fist fights, near death combats, flame throwers, and more, not to even mention uses of social and mental powers.

I spent some time thinking about how cavalier characters are (and writers are with THEIR characters) about pain.

Pain.

Pain is a big, big deal to humans, and from what I understand it's not particularly enjoyable to vampires either. Half the fucking reason we have nerves instead of thick, leathery skin, is because sensing and avoiding pain turns out to be better for our survival than just shrugging it off. Most of us go out of our way to avoid pain, especially the levels where we start to become injured. And even though some have a slightly different relationship to pain (or risk), it is almost always careful and controlled. And if someone threatens to hurt us (especially if we know they have the capacity to follow through on their threat) it is generally terrifying--even if we somehow don't run away yiping like a dog.

Our ability to heal injury is not an intellectual factor that we weigh passionlessly in an equation.

It's important to remember this. We can only actually conceptualize pain in the abstract unless we're actually IN pain at the moment. We lack the ability of remembering pain. We can remember having had pain, but we cannot re-experience the pain itself. This becomes important for writers if they want to make realistic characters, and it's one of the reasons that writing about pain can be so hard. When we assess risk, take chances, or consider our approaches to problem solving, most of us consider pain heavily in our calculus.

It's not that I think every character last night should have fallen down in a Lawrence Olivier caliber scene of agony or no one should play a character who dives into a fight with a masochistic grin or shrugs off injury until/unless its life threatening. There's a huge element of wish fulfillment in LARPing. However, characters who were more social or mental probably wouldn't have thought, "What the hell; maybe I'll get lucky." The fact that we probably won't die or will be able to heal wouldn't erase the fact that it's going to hurt and we're hard wired to avoid hurt.

Think about how careful people are in kitchens to avoid burns. Small, first degree burns will heal without any scarring in only a week or two, but we go to GREAT LENGTHS to avoid them. Why? Because they FUCKING HURT! It's not that we're paralyzed with fear or would fall over screaming if our wrist bumped the oven's heating element. It's just that we put on mitts and don't fry bacon in the nude.

I remember looking over a dirt hill for hours on my bike, afraid to go off the edge. The incline was very steep, and I knew that it was very likely that I would lose control of my bike. But it never even crossed my mind that I could DIE or end up with brain damage or anything like that. What I was worried about was getting hurt.

Where's the writer's lesson in all of this? Well, it's important to remember that pain can only be abstract to the writer, and a writer who isn't being careful can quickly have their characters coming off like suicidal swashbucklers. However, avoiding pain will be a very real concern to all but the most self-destructive, overconfident, or possibly well-trained characters. Writers sometimes tend to crutch on physical altercations to portray the emotional stakes of a situation. If there isn't a fight, maybe it wasn't a big enough deal. It's fine to have a character make a decision that risk is worth it, or to have one or two who don't seem to regard a very real possibility of injury as a good reason to exercise caution, come up with a careful plan, or just solve their problems without violence. Yes, of course some people have trained themselves to ignore pain. However, having many or most characters simply disregard the chance they could get hurt just so that a writer can cram in more "cool" fight scenes tends to actually lower the emotional stakes because the reader can't really relate to that sort of personal disregard. Normal people just don't toss each other into walls as part of conflict resolution.

As Jayne says, "Pain is scary."