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13 Posts authored by: Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert
Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Happy Endings

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Jan 31, 2018

One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending? 

 

The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?

 

In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?

 

  1. Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
  2. He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
  3. He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
  4. He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
  5. He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
  6. It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
  7. There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.

 

Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.

 

So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?

This semester I am teaching a graduate course on creative writing pedagogy, and I have a student who is quietly but persistently trying to shift the murderous and tortured language with which I, and so many other writers, talk about the writing process to something more positive.  Why, he asked last class, do we talk so often about how hard writing is rather than what a joy it is?

 

He has a good point.

 

Of course writing is hard. And often one of the first things a professor must teach a class of creative writers is to hold their writing to a higher standard. I often tell my graduate students that they must treat writing as a job. I often tell them that nothing—no job, no blank space of time, no amount of caffeine—makes writing easy. And I tell them—often—that they must make sacrifices—live cheaply, be open to jobs all over the country, get up early, stay home—if they are serious about their writing. From the outside it might seem as if I am not teaching students how to write so much as I am persuading them not to even try.  And I suppose there’s some truth to that—some dreamers need to be woken to realities, and creative writing programs are full of dreamers.

 

But still—I write because I love to write. Why don’t I talk more often about that?

 

I suspect to some extent the writer’s trumpeting of her own suffering is a defense against the world’s suspicion that she is getting away with something—being paid, however modestly, to play.

 

Once when I was visiting my parents during a winter break, I lay on their living room couch, decidedly doing nothing, and my father turned to my mother and said, “Do you think she is writing right now?”

 

They laughed so hard I departed the room for my childhood bed where I could lie around doing nothing uninterrupted.

 

I then heard my father say, “I don’t think she’s going to dedicate her prize-winning collection to us.” At which point, I may or may not have slammed my childhood door.

 

Because let’s face it, sometimes writing looks exactly like doing nothing. And this, I think, is one reason writers emphasize our struggles so much. Because writing looks easy when in fact it is hard. But what is the effect on ourselves when we do that? Wouldn’t joy and fun bring us more quickly to the desk? Wouldn’t a sense of play as Karen Russell described in her keynote address at the 2015 AWP conference benefit our writing?

 

My student really does have a point. And I’m going to make a much greater effort to shift my language toward the positive—and to introduce more playful exercises into my creative writing classrooms next semester.

 

This semester my creative writing pedagogy course meets in the music building, and as I walked its hallway last week, I heard one music student say to another, “I have a blister on my tongue.”  At least writers don’t have that, I thought to myself at the time. But maybe I wish we did—a mark of our own hard work might alleviate some of our need to prove it.  Maybe with blisters to show for our efforts, we’d feel free to boast about how much fun we’re having.

On the first day of every Introduction to Creative Writing class, I tell the students that for the course of the semester I want them to live like writers. It doesn’t matter, I say, if they want to be professional writers, or if they are taking the class for fun, or simply to fulfill a credit, I want them to live like writers. Then I make the requisite joke about how that does not mean staying up late with a glass of wine and a cigarette, nor does it mean attending bullfights, nor does it mean drugs. What it means, I tell them, is three things.

 

  1. Be observant
  2. Acknowledge complexity
  3. Pay attention to language

           

            I really believe those are three keys to strong writing. And I really believe those things don’t come to you when you sit down to write—you have to collect them as you go about your day.  But I’m also trying to get my intro students to write literary work—without telling them that they have to write literary work.  Because it’s writing literature—that which encourages reader and writer to engage with the world, not escape from it—that best serves my students as they strive to become better people (as we all strive, I think).

 

            Becoming a better writer involves becoming a better person. I really believe that. Sometimes I say it.

 

My graduate students, who all want to become professional writers, get a similar talk, phrased a little differently. Live in such a way that generates writing, I say. Live in a way that reminds you you’re a writer.

 

            And what does living like a writer mean for me?

 

I collect words, titles for stories to be named later, I collect sentence structures and rhythms and Mad-Lib-type endings to the phrase “_____ is the kind of person who ____.” I collect names to fill in that first blank. I have such a fondness for the names Fergus and Angus—haven’t found a place for them yet though.  I read so much that people who read a lot make fun of me. I make notes on who did what and how. I keep a list of favorite stories and novels in chronological order of my life. That is how I organize my life.  I live like a perpetual student. I research the sponge divers of Simi, the soft palate of the mouth, the flora and fauna of Southwestern Virginia, and the history of Armenia. I go to art museums and gardens and battlefields. I listen to live music, and live readings, and talks on who knows what. I ask everybody—everybody—have you read anything good lately? I kiss babies and hold hands; I hold babies and kiss hands. I drink coffee before writing but not before reading. I look for the second side, and the third, and the fourth. I acknowledge the complexities of life and still find most of life to be quite simple. I listen more than I talk, I throw away as much as I keep, I fail regularly, sometimes better, I quote Beckett, I quote Kafka, I quote Morrison, I take comfort where I find it, and I lie down on the floor a lot, sometimes to stretch my back and sometimes just because.

 

            I don’t get paid very much.

 

            But I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

 

            I suppose I want my students to know that too. Sometimes I say it. Though not usually on the first day.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Listening In

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 27, 2016

Young writers often get the advice—and sometimes the assignment—to eavesdrop.  I’ve always found this a little funny, since after all, don’t most of us spend large portions of our lives in conversation?  Why do we need to listen in on somebody else’s conversation in order to learn about conversation?  I wasn’t sure of the particular value of being outside of the conversation.  So I decided to try it.

 

Like many a writer, I often find myself in coffee shops.   But I also happen to live in a town that is a prime destination for people in recovery programs, who also naturally find themselves in coffee shops.  And so one of the first things I heard was one highly caffeinated young guy saying to another, “It was a tell-tale sign when we did free hugs and Ted wouldn’t hug anybody.”

 

A few days later, walking out of the gym behind a young woman and her probably four-year-old son, I heard this exchange:

 

Toddler: I want a snack.

Mom: I have something in the car for you.

Toddler: What is it?

Mom: Juice.

Toddler: What kind of juice?

Mom: Orange juice.

Toddler, with outright exuberance: Hallelujah, baby!

 

Later, sitting in a Barnes and Noble café near the customer service counter, I heard this:

 

Female customer, probably sixty-something, brandishing the bondage bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey:  Do you think this would make a good gift?

Customer Service Rep: Well, I wouldn’t give it to someone you didn’t know well.

 

Next customer, a very thin woman around seventy in a denim mini skirt and high-heeled sandals: I need a ride home.

Customer Service Rep: But we’re a bookstore.

 

Meanwhile, someone I know posted on Facebook that he heard an old woman on the subway turn to the homeless guy next to her and say, “You smell like my husband.  He’s dead.”

 

The website Overheard in NY is full of such gems.  The truth, I guess, is that we’re a nation of eavesdroppers, whether we mean to be or not, and we find our fellow Americans pretty amusing.

 

There are lessons to be learned from these moments, sure.  The guys in recovery had a very particular vocabulary that they shared and used fluidly.  They were also way more intimate in the way they spoke to each other than most any other group of twenty-something males I have ever seen in conversation. And the child shouting Hallelujah for his juice was surely imitating adults he has heard.  Kid talk is often funny for the way they use words correctly but in slightly inappropriate contexts.  It was a touching scene, too, showing how well the mother knew her child, as well as how much he appreciated her knowledge.  And living here in South Florida, I’ve certainly observed the infinite variety of the elderly (some of the stereotypes are true—the driving is pretty terrifying), but as with any demographic, the individuals are many and they can be found everywhere, saying just about anything.

 

So a student given the assignment to eavesdrop certainly could learn this or that about the ways we speak to each other and who we are.  I might try an exercise where I have students copy down things they overhear over the course of a week, then share the best bits with the class so that the group can collectively determine what lessons can be learned from the snippets.  And I could see creating a writing exercise based on any of the snippets.  Part of what’s interesting about eavesdropping is how the absence of context sparks your imagination.  What kind of kid “Hallellujahs” orange juice rather than a bag of chips?  Who is Ted and why wouldn’t he participate in free hugs?  Did that lady ever get home from Barnes and Noble? (Last I saw she was talking to a very patient cop.)  And is that other lady pulling a “Rose for Emily” thing with her dead husband?

 

Eavesdropping works as an assignment because you can listen without the social obligation of participating in the conversation.  You can sit in on conversations by demographics of people you might not otherwise speak to (assuming those demographics speak to each other in public places).  But really I don’t know that it’s so important to go out and spy. Just now as I sit here writing, the guy fixing my air-conditioning said, “You can go ahead and close up the joint.”  My house has never been called a joint before, but I like it.

 

I suspect the real value in the eavesdropping assignment is not so much that it encourages students to be spies, but that it encourages them to be observant.  Go out into the world in your writerly identity, it says—and pay attention.  The writer’s life is one big eavesdropping exercise, though there are some problems inherent in that, as well.

 

Jane Smiley’s hilarious satire of academia Moo takes down the eavesdropping assignment pretty effectively.  One workshop student listens in on her roommate’s inane conversations and creates inane writing.  Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s novel Harriet the Spy also makes clear the hazards of eavesdropping on your close comrades.  They don’t care for it so much.  Especially not when they are twelve years old.

 

So what is the difference between overzealous, shameful Harriet-the-Spying and being a writer?  I guess in part it’s the dishonesty of it, of pretending not to be listening when you are listening, and it’s how you use the material you get hold of.  It seems safe to take a snippet of conversation from a context you don’t know and make it your own story,  less so to take your roommate’s private life and transcribe it.

 

But then again, I bet Harriet the Spy was a pretty great writer. What do you think? Is all material fair game?

 

[This post first appeared on LitBits on 7/5/12.] 

Recently a former student of mine wrote me a nice thank you note in which she mentioned how she would never forget the moment I told the class that I averaged thirteen major drafts per story.  This—a casual remark I happened to drop in my lecture—was the most illuminating moment of the semester for her. I remember mentioning the number not because I find it revelatory, but because I find it amusing: Thirteen! So unlucky! And so weirdly consistent.  The remark certainly wasn’t written into my lesson plan, and it wasn’t one of the sound bites that I’m careful to repeat all semester. It was tossed off, the kind of thing I don’t usually say because it’s about me rather than them.  And yet, out of the whole semester, that was the lesson this student found most important.  Teaching is like that much of the time.  The off-the-cuff remarks, the of-the-moment lessons, the things you didn’t notice much are the things that strike chords with students.

 

I haven’t been a student since 1999, so this incident made me think: what things do I remember?

 

(I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I’m mentioning names.  I know I have been absurdly lucky to study with these masters, and I give thanks for it.)

 

Joyce Carol Oates: “This is a good sentence. You don’t usually write sentences like that.”  I actually remember the sentence, which was in a writing exercise, not a story, and was long, full of clauses, which I now know to call appositives, that went much further with description than I usually did.  I’m sure I remember her remark because of the backhanded nature of the compliment, but it was one of the most helpful things a teacher ever told me. It showed me where to go as opposed to where not to go.

 

Ron Carlson: “Make your dog a real dog.” When I first started writing fiction, I was really focused on character, and as a result, I sometimes had characters who felt real, but who existed in front of a fuzzy background.  In order to create the illusion of an entire world, you need to surround your characters with things (and animals) that also feel real.

 

Russell Banks: “You’re funny.”  One of the things about the faculty-student relationship is that you actually know little about who your students are outside of the classroom.  I like to think I’m funny, but there was no way for my professor to know that, and I was remarkably unfunny in class.  So when I finally relaxed a little in a story and showed that side of myself, he was surprised.  His surprise led me to realize that I wasn’t writing with my whole self.  I was writing as some serious student-self who I thought was more like a writer should be.

 

Alberto Rios: “Stay in the moment.”  It took me a long time to realize that not every scene in a story is equal, and that some moments that are over in an instant in life should take a long time on the page.  At first it seemed ironic that I learned this from a poet rather than a novelist, but now it makes sense to me.  Poets are masters of depicting the moment.

 

Stephen Wright: “There’s a voice here.” I have always resisted the idea that writers have to find “their voice.”  I have always wanted to be able to use different voices.  That small difference, that he said “a voice” rather than “your voice,” when talking about my story, was very reassuring to me.

 

So what’s the lesson for teachers? The obvious one is none of these are critical remarks—they are either descriptive, supportive, or generally applied; apparently whatever specific criticisms I got have long departed my memory. I also think there is a lesson related to being in the moment.  To have your plans, your go-to words of wisdom, but to be in a living, breathing conversation with your students. They’re listening, and you never really know what they’re going to remember…

 

[[This post originally appeared on September 11, 2012]]

 

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Han Shot First

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Dec 15, 2015

In the Star Wars universe, where I occasionally travel, but do not live, one of my favorite controversies is “Han Shot First.”  When George Lucas decided to revise his existing masterpieces and rerelease them, one of the most disturbing changes was to the Star Wars cantina scene where Han kills Greedo (a bounty hunter about to kill him). In his 1997 update of the film, Lucas added footage of Greedo firing before Han does-- and hitting a wall despite being at point blank range. When fans protested the absurdity of Greedo missing and the absurdity of Han needing any such justification to shoot, Lucas accused them of wanting Han to be a “cold-blooded killer.” Lucas also claimed that Han had always been returning fire—the audience just couldn’t tell because of Lucas’s self-proclaimed poor footage.

 

            At the point that Lucas committed this sacrilege, Han was not just a well-liked character, but a beloved character.  Yet Lucas seemed to be claiming Han was misunderstood. Or maybe he thought we liked Han for the wrong reasons? Either way he didn’t seem to want Han to be the scoundrel we all knew him to be—at least at that point in the movie.  And this, I think, is the real issue.  Lucas, like the rest of us, knows Han is good at heart, a hero in the end.  But in his revisions, Lucas wanted to reinvent Han as a hero from the start. He didn’t seem like the old Han anymore—the one who (of course!) shot first.

 

            But Han at the start of the movie is compelling, a pleasure to watch, even when he is being kind of a jerk. He may not be relatable, but he is believable, and he may not be likeable, but he is desirable.

 

            Sometimes I ask my students to free write on the people they most like to spend time with and why.  It turns out we don’t choose our companions merely by their kindness or their tendency to resemble a blank slate (beginning students constantly insist that readers can only relate to characters who have no defining characteristics whatsoever). This exercise can help students see the particulars of what draws them to certain people. 

 

The people I most like to spend time with are actually pretty kind, but they also make me laugh, they teach me things, they introduce me to their passions, they give me much to think about, and sometimes they make me a little crazy.

 

            And so, too, do the literary characters I most like to spend time with.

 

In John Edgar Wideman’s memoir, Brothers and Keepers readers meet Wideman’s brother, Robby, who is incarcerated for armed robbery and murder. The book’s structure forces readers to compare the brother made good (acclaimed writer) and the brother done wrong (life sentence). But this comparison is complicated, deepened, humanized by Wideman’s admissions of his own wrongs and the understanding that he reaches of who his brother really is.  In the book, Wideman writes, “The problem with the first draft was my fear. I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough. I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights.  I wanted to clean him up. Manufacture compelling before-and-after images. Which meant I made the bad too bad and the good to good.”

 

But then Wideman realized “The worst things [Robby] did followed from the same impulse as the best. He could be unbelievably dumb, corrupt, selfish, and destructive but those qualities could keep him down no more than his hope, optimism, [and] refusal to accept a dull inferior portion could buoy him above the hell that engulfed black boys in the Homewood streets.” Robby from the time that he was a kid wanted to be larger than life, special, a star.  And this lifted him up, until it dragged him down.

 

This idea that the same impulse drives multiple kinds of actions (good and bad, selfish and unselfish) is one of the most useful things I have ever heard when it comes to conveying complex—and therefore compelling, believable, relatable—characters, not to mention complex, believable, relatable plots.

 

Han shoots first because he’s a proactive guy, someone willing to risk doing wrong, and determined to save himself. When he comes to Luke’s aid at the end of the movie, he’s still that guy, but determined to save some other people, too.  It’s not as big a change as George Lucas may fear.

 

            Our best qualities might drive us to our worst actions.  Likewise, our worst qualities might drive us to our best actions.

 

So, too, in the characters we create.

I recently read Seven Habits for Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (a party to which I am admittedly 25 years late), and as I did, I noted several ideas that translate easily to writing (for instance: “private victories precede public victories”). But the one I was most surprised by was this: “love is a verb.”  In Covey’s self-help terms: “Proactive people make love a verb” (likely true, my loved ones will probably be grateful if I manage it).  But more importantly to the purposes of creating story, Covey adds, “Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self….”

 

            When, as a writer, you think of love as a verb, an action as opposed to a feeling, it becomes a lot easier to generate plot, one of the writing elements that I find hardest both to practice and to teach.

 

            Lots of people write about love—especially student writers, who tend to treat love as a feeling—which typically yields abstract and unemotional, or at least unconvincing, writing.  Reminding students of “show don’t tell” helps. Suggesting they embody emotions in the physical world helps (it also generates a lot of descriptions of tears). But asking, how does a human being act out their love, that yields plot.

 

            When Toni Morrison said she was writing a trilogy about love—(Beloved: family love; Jazz: romantic love; Paradise: love of God)—she didn’t mean she was writing three novels about feelings.  She was writing what people do in the name of love.  What happens when you love your baby so much you would rather kill her than allow her to grow up a slave.  What happens when you love your partner so much you would rather kill them then…. well, it turns out murder is involved in all three (to be fair, Morrison said she was writing about “excessive love”), but it doesn’t have to be that way.  The fruits of love can yield a wide variety of dramatic and/or subtle plots (and to my mind, plot is a tool in every genre of writing, not just fiction). 

 

One of the workhorses of the creative writing classroom is to ask: What does a character want and what do they do to try to get it?  Well, a good variation would be to ask: What does a character love and what do they do because of that love?

 

            It turns out lots of feelings can be looked at as verbs.  To haunt. To grieve. To hate. To enjoy. To fear.  It’s like a plot generator… turn emotions into actions--actions with consequences--and there you have it: plot.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Form vs Formula

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 23, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 6, 2015.

 

This semester I’m teaching a graduate workshop called Forms of Prose.  If you are a nonfiction writer, this suggests things like the lyric essay, narrative journalism, and the personal essay.  If you’re a fiction writer, it probably suggests only short story vs novel. But I am teaching the class as an examination of any of the implied or stated rules imposed on a work of prose.  Some might be arbitrary rules about rhythm, rhyme and repetition (as in much formal poetry), and others might be the unspoken rules of reader expectations.  For example, we will look at how the workshop story bemoaned by the world at large (or just the anti-MFAers) might actually be a consequence of an abuse of form.  That when form is poorly executed it becomes formula.

 

By way of example, let’s take the fad of six word stories and essays.  I’m generally not a fan. Especially not of the possibly apocryphal Hemingway version: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”  Supposedly Hemingway said this is all the story you need to tell.  But I suspect one of my finest teaching moments may have been when I said to a totally-disturbed class: that story is only interesting if that baby has no feet.

 

Listen, I get it.  It’s heartbreaking; that story can make me cry, because anything suggesting the mortality of babies can make me cry.  But a reliance on abstract emotional manipulation is not the same thing as great storytelling.  Which is not to say a six word story couldn’t be great.  Because herein lies the difference between form and formula.  Form forces a writer to rise above restrictions to reach originality; formula allows a writer to rely on restrictions to be relieved of the burden of originality.  Formula works on some readers, of course (including me: hello, Sophie Kinsella, I love you), but it isn’t what anybody enters an MFA program aspiring to, so my class is going to set all kinds of rules, just to show how well writers can surprise readers when we follow them.

Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale.  At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet).  The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc.  For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale.  I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again.  And could they please forget the Originality Scale.

 

Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale.  The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.

I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough.  But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it.  To be conscious of it.

 

Originality matters.

 

So how can we teach it?

 

For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar.  And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing.  Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own.  And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.

 

Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!).  And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect.  Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird.  What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see.  But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.

 

During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).

And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.

 

The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great.  And sometimes students just need to know that.

This post first appeared on March 31, 2014.

 

Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down.  My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner.  One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories.  Or twins.  Or rain.  Naturally, one of my friends wrote a story about twin clowns in the rain.  Once I banned a student from using colons.  What had started out as a unique grammatical touch had spread throughout her work and then throughout her classmates’ work like head-lice in the second grade.

 

Over the years I’ve noticed that beginning writers gravitate toward certain things—things I would call writing mistakes (melodrama, sentimentality, clichéd descriptions, familiar language)—and sometimes as a teacher, you want so much not to read another story in which a single tear drop runs down the face of the heartbroken that you put your foot down.  But is this teaching?  I have often said about beginning writers that you have to let them make their mistakes.  But do I believe it?  And even if I believe it, do I practice it?

 

As an undergraduate I wrote a story that was all a dream, I wrote a story about an abused woman who was keeping her pregnancy secret, I wrote a story about not being able to get my homework done.  And my teachers were Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates.  Can you imagine?  Joyce Carol Oates could probably have written a whole ‘nother novel in the time she had to read the dreck I was writing.  Russell Banks was writing Cloudsplitter, one of my favorite novels of all time, at the time.  Certain of my stories must have been an agony to them.  And yet neither of them banned me from doing anything.  I wouldn’t say they praised me either, but they did let me make my mistakes.  And one of the best stories I wrote as an undergraduate—which became the first story I ever published—was about a couple with a dying baby.  Exactly the kind of story I might now discourage an intro student from writing for fear of sentimentality and melodrama.

 

Those of us who teach creative writing often get asked if creative writing can be taught.  And one of the common responses is: a good teacher can get you further faster.  Things you’d have to determine on your own, you learn more speedily in class.  But what happens if you don’t make your own mistakes?  I feel sometimes like I am asking my intro students to learn from the mistakes of intro students past—and that runs the risk of their writing a certain way because I have told them to, as opposed to deciding for themselves what is good writing. And that might well discourage innovation.

 

MFA programs get accused of this a lot—an absence of innovation, a wealth of mediocrity.  But MFA students in this day and age have often been through several years of workshops by the time they get to graduate school.  A fear of taking risks can be taught or encouraged very early on.

 

I’m about to start a new semester of Introduction to Creative Writing.  It’s my tenth year at my university.  And all this time I’ve stated as one of my goals, on every creative writing syllabus that I’ve ever created, that I want students “to start developing your own aesthetic as a reader and a writer.” I try to encourage this by choosing a range of readings from writers of different backgrounds, writing in different styles.  But like many faculty, I’ve fallen into teaching the same stories year after year—especially in the intro class.  The ten-year mark seems like a good time to take stock of my own aesthetic, and how I might be over-selling it to students.  I know some of my prejudices—I’m wary of overly large plot points, I’m a sucker for a little magic, I worship at the altar of voice—so I think as I finalize my syllabus for the semester, I better look for a story with a big plot, a realist tone, and a near absence of style.  Maybe I’ll even try to write a story like that—after all, it’s been awhile since I allowed myself to make such a mistake.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Why I Teach

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 8, 2015

This post originally appeared on February 11, 2014.

 

The final assignment I give my MFA students is one they often hate, to write a “Why I Write” essay.  Lately it seems the “Why I Write” has become a genre onto itself, a rite of passage for amateur and professional alike. And even a cursory reading in the genre suggests many of us write for many of the same reasons:

 

  1. To learn
  2. To leave the world better than we found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because we can (a variation of which is Flannery O’Connor’s famous retort, “Because I’m good at it”)

 

It may seem like I’m criticizing the form, but I love these essays, including versions by Jim Harrison, Orhan Pamuk, Susan Orlean , Barry Hannah, Rick Moody; the most famous examples, by George Orwell and Joan Didion; and my personal favorite, by my former student, Kathrine Wright.

 

I love how these essays share the process of creation with readers, and I think at least once in their writing life, every writer should consider the question. But I suspect the reason my students are so against the assignment is they are afraid they won’t come up with a good answer.  They get defensive.  And this, it seems, is how I feel upon being asked, “Why do I teach writing.”

 

Why?

 

Why shouldn’t I!

 

Sometimes my students get famous! (see: “Teacher’s Pet” ). Sometimes my students get jobs! (see: “From Grad Student to Assistant Professor”). Sometimes they give much unto others! (see: “How to Make a Planet”) .

 

And yet periodically there is a lot of hate aimed at those of us who teach creative writing (see: “Get a Real Degree”), like we are the snake oil salesfolk of the post-modern age. And I suppose if we actually promised our students fame and riches, we would be.  But the truth is I teach writing for the same reasons I write:

 

  1. To learn
  2. To leave the world better than I found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because I can (and because I’m good at it)

 

The creative writing classroom is a place where students learn to give and receive critical feedback, to think past the first thought, to find language for emotion, to communicate their thoughts and beliefs and ideas to others, to really reach each other.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

This post first appeared on March 19, 2013.

 

Textbook discussions of figurative language tend to insist that similes and metaphors deepen a reader’s understanding of what they are describing.  But if you look at how most writers employ similes and metaphors, they don’t so much deepen the meaning of what is being described as they change it.  Much like you wouldn’t use an adjective or an adverb unless it changed the meaning of a given noun or verb, you wouldn’t use figurative language to say the same thing your literal language is saying.

 

Instead, figurative language is one of the best tools for writers who want to add emotional connotations, tone, and atmosphere, to a thing that might not otherwise have these features. Take Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Sweet Like a Crow.

 

We understand that his niece’s voice does not literally sound “like a scorpion being pushed through a glass tube” or “like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle”.  But this long list of humorous and horrific imaginary sounds sets the tone for the poem, a comedy right up until the pay-off of the lovely final simile “like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.”  If readers took similes literally, the poem couldn’t work—this list of contradictory sounds could not all illustrate the same sound.  But in this case, the figurative language sets a tone for the poem and then skillfully changes it, so that the reader understands the literal image (his eight-year-old niece Hetti Corea’s voice) differently by the end of the poem.

 

Likewise, in “The Staying Freight,” the amazing opening story to his collection, Volt, Alan Heathcock employs figurative language to describe a young boy’s dead body–not because it creates a better picture of what the boy literally looks like, but because it changes how the reader sees his death:

 

          “Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.

 

          “Winslow simply didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.

 

          “Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.”

(You can read more of Heathcock’s story at The Nervous Breakdown. )

 

Try to imagine writing that moment with literal language—a man looking at the body of his son, who he has just accidentally killed.  It’s hard to figure how one could do it without melodrama or sentimentality.  Or simply too much gore.  And so Heathcock turns to simile, and while the simile in no way gives the reader a clear picture of what the boy’s body looks like, it attaches an emotion to the sight, it changes the tone of the event entirely. Winslow’s son becomes a fallen bird, a tragic and yet somehow beautiful sight.  With, inevitably, a dose of Icarus thrown in.

 

This is a useful trick in creative nonfiction as well.  The nonfiction writer is tied to the truth of what has really happened, and yet often the truth of what has happened doesn’t adequately convey the emotional truth of what happened. Being able to employ figurative language that moves beyond describing the literal to applying an emotional atmosphere can go a long way toward achieving greater truth.

 

When student writers first start using figurative language they tend to make one of two mistakes: they apply metaphors and similes too randomly or they use clichés.  Pointing out that figurative language is often more an act of point of view than an act of description—that it is grounded in the language and world of the narrator and brings in the feelings of that narrator—can lead them away from those mistakes.

This blog was originally posted on January 14, 2013.

 

There’s a band called “Tallest Man on Earth” that for quite awhile I thought was called “Tallest Men on Earth.”  And I was disappointed to realize I was wrong (never mind that the band is just one guy and so the singular is appropriate), because Tallest Men on Earth just sounds so much more interesting than Tallest Man on Earth.  This to me is the perfect lesson on titles.  When you see something titled “The Tallest Man on Earth,” you know, or at least you assume you know, exactly what it’s about (he’s a Turk named Sultan Kosen, and he’s eight foot three).  But if you see something titled “The Tallest Men on Earth,” that sets a greater mystery—it raises a reader’s curiosity right away.

 

At the moment, in fiction, nobody is coming up with better titles than  Karen Russell.  Her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, establishes her sense of humor, the stories’ strangeness, and their originality.  But she topped that with her second book, Swamplandia!, a title that I sometimes call out just for the fun of it.  Never have I loved an exclamation point more.  It’s a title that actually gets stuck in my head.  Easy to remember when you’re in the library or the bookstore or recommending things to friends.  And like St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, it sets the reader up for what’s to come—a strange, atmospheric novel set largely in an alligator theme park.

Students often struggle with titles.  They use a lot of clichés.  Or puns.  Or abstractions. They often use words that appear in the very first sentence or line of the piece.  My advice to students is twofold:

 

1)     You want a title that will draw readers into the poem/story/essay before they read it.

2)     You want a title that helps readers see the poem/story/essay in a new light after they’ve read it.

 

Titles can raise curiosity and they can satisfy it, helping point readers toward an interpretation of a piece. Of course, there are many, many great books with only ordinary titles, or perfectly ordinary books with great titles… a scan of the books piled right in front of me includes this mixed bag: Game of Thrones (I like it!), Farewell, Escape, Sultana’s Dream,Joseph Anton, Water for Elephants and the for-sure winner, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.  If I judged a book only by its title I certainly wouldn’t be reading Farewell or Escape; given that these are not romance novels, the authors probably didn’t do themselves any favors there.  Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, and the brilliance of the title lies in the realization that Joseph Anton was the false identity Rushdie lived under during the Fatwa.  It’s a book about that other version of himself; the title points to a reading of the book.

For readers, a title is the beginning of the reading experience and it’s the thing that lingers longest in the end…

 

And one possible fun exercise for the last day of the semester—have students each brainstorm a title for an unwritten piece and then donate that title to another student as a parting gift—a piece to be written later.  It’s a way of getting students to think about titles as their own entity and of encouraging students to keep writing once the semester is done.