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William Bradley

Writing as Revenge

Posted by William Bradley Expert Oct 20, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 2/10/12      

 

I read Lorraine Berry’s Salon article, “Dear Female Students: Stop Writing about Men,” with great interest.  She gives good advice that all college students ought to hear: You’re not defined by your relationships; you are more than who you choose to date; a breakup is not the most significant or interesting thing that has ever happened to you.  But I was surprised to see her focus her essay on female students, and to learn that, in her experience, “The females in the class tend to write about a romantic relationship, and the males do not.”  I have had almost the exact opposite experience.  I can only recall one female student ever writing about her own romantic troubles, but I’ve read—as either a student or a teacher—the “guy’s break-up narrative” easily a dozen times.

 

To be sure, I don’t think I’m talking about the male equivalent of the type of essay Berry is talking about.  She writes that “only once or twice in the nine years I’ve been teaching these courses has a guy expressed his need to understand why a relationship has fallen apart.”  I haven’t really read that essay either.  The type of relationship essay I’ve read from male writers tends—more often than not—to be more angry than reflective.

 

I first encountered this type of narrative during my senior year of college, in a workshop where a fellow student ended his own end-of-the-affair narrative with the triumphant line, “I was sick of playing that bitch’s games.”  Even typing that line now, fifteen years later, I cringe both for her and for him—she was, after all, a fellow student on a campus of just over two thousand, and he certainly had no idea how committing such a line to the page and handing out photocopies to the class made him seem… well, less than gentlemanly. 

 

This trend continued in grad school.   There was the guy from my M.A. program who gave a paragraph to each girlfriend in a five page essay, each paragraph devoted to chronicling the woman’s flaws. And I’ll never forget the guy from my Ph.D. years who described—in pornographic detail—the sex with his ex-girlfriend while Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” played on his stereo. 

 

The above examples come from former classmates, but I’ve occasionally received these types of essays from my own students, too, and it always seems to me that the men who write these narratives of the break-ups—with their unflattering descriptions and their potentially embarrassing sexual revelations—are writing not to reflect on “why a relationship has fallen apart,” the way some of the women Berry has taught do, but are instead writing as a form of revenge, an attempt to “get back” at those who either broke their hearts or somehow became a romantic disappointment.

 

I was talking about this phenomenon with my own nonfiction students last week—before I even read Berry’s article— as we were discussing Dinty W. Moore’s observation in his anthology/textbook The Truth of the Matter that “A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives.  Are you remembering something a certain way in order to make yourself look more like the hero of the situation, or in order to cast your lazy brother-in-law in an even more unpleasant light?  If so, you are being dishonest.”   I would say the same thing is true when writing about relationships—in fact, I think it’s even more true.  It seems to me that a failed romance provides fertile ground for self-deception and self-serving excuses, which will inevitably lead to a dishonest essay or memoir.

 

I don’t want to tell my students not to write about things that make them angry, or that they have strong feelings about—such subjects might lead to brilliant insight, either in their writing or in their lives.  But I do caution them to ask themselves, honestly, if they’re ready to write about these subjects.  Can they reflect without being overwhelmed by their emotions?  Because if the answer is no, and the piece of writing lacks that critical, honest interrogation of the self, then the essay or memoir will ultimately be unsuccessful.  And above all else, I try to discuss with my students why we write what we write.  If a student is genuinely trying to come to an understanding of an experience, trying to figure out something about himself or an event or relationship he lived through, awesome.  That’s the point.  But, I caution my students, if the whole point is to vilify, degrade, or humiliate another person in front of a classroom full of people, then perhaps this is an essay that ought not be written.  Once it’s written down and submitted for workshop, it’s out there, and can’t be taken back.  And I doubt too many of us would want to be judged by the things we say—or write—in the heat of an angry or heartbroken moment. 

When I was younger—a twenty-something graduate student working on a creative dissertation and teaching intro-level creative writing classes—I considered myself something of a creative nonfiction purist.  I knew, of course, that trying to write absolute, Capital-T “Truth” that everyone could recognize was impossible.  Our perceptions are inherently subjective, and language—useful as it is—is sometimes insufficient when it comes to capturing reality’s complexity.  Nevertheless, I thought, we essay.

 

I took it as something of a personal insult when a best-selling memoirist turned out to have deliberately embellished his experiences with addiction and incarceration, or when another supposed nonfiction writer turned out to have invented her criminal background for the sake of drama.  “Here I am,” I thought, “struggling to find those conflicts and contradictions that shape my life, that inform who I am, that make me me—and I’m trying to write it well, without fabrication, so that others will find this work worth reading.  And then there are these people.  They cheated.”

 

It was an issue of ethics, I thought.  Phillip Lopate wrote in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay that, in an essay, “a contract between writer and reader has been drawn up: the essayist must then make good on it by delivering, or discovering, as much honesty as possible.”  I believed then—and, frankly, believe even now—that the same could be said for other nonfiction forms, including memoir and literary journalism.  The fraudulent nonfiction writer, I reckoned when I was obsessed with a type of “artistic integrity” that bordered on narcissistic contempt for those who disagreed with me, was a threat to serious literature (and thus, a threat to humanity in general).  And I used to make this point clear to the students in my workshops.

 

I wasn’t completely wrong, but I probably didn’t need to be quite so pompous about it.  Lopate also reminds us that “[t]he enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness”–   such smug self-regard discourages honest and nuanced reflection about our own lives and minds.  And make no mistake, I was smug when it came to discussing—and writing about– the perceived ethical shortcomings of other writers, when I probably should have been using that time to work on my own flaws as a writer.

 

I still prefer to not read the works of dishonest nonfiction writers—those who have been caught lying and publicly shamed, as well as those who are still believed to be credible but whose books caused me to roll my eyes and proclaim (to myself, to my wife, to my cats—whoever happens to be around) “There’s no way this happened.  Not like this.”  I think I can tell when someone is lying in a work of nonfiction.  Joan Didion tells us that, for a while at least, “We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  A writer of Didion’s caliber, of course, isn’t satisfied with a simple story, a narrative line that is too neat or convenient; she  reexamines, she calls into question, she complicates.  A less honest writer, though, keeps things tidy, simple, and uncomplicated.  The work winds up too perfectly shaped—the result of having the narrative line imposed rather than having disparate strands of thought presented together and explored without an attempt to force them into a structure that resembles an inverted checkmark.  When things in a memoir or essay seem too neat—or too familiar, or too predictable—I tend to feel that the work has failed on an important level.

 

Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem with writers who employ exaggeration or sarcasm for comedic effect—there’s a difference between joking and lying, after all.  And I’m not talking about writers who try to expand nonfiction’s horizons—those writers like Ander Monson, Steven Church, and Lauren Slater who experiment with these forms in order to see just what they can do, and how we might use these forms to explore complicated, personal truths.  No, I’m talking about the writers who adopt manufactured identities and describe experiences that didn’t happen in an attempt to mythologize themselves.  I still tell my students to avoid these writers, but not necessarily because I feel like a dishonest memoir will inevitably lead to the fall of western civilization.  Instead, I simply point out that it’s been my experience that such books—with their tendency for the formulaic and clichéd– almost always represent a failure not of ethics, but of aesthetics.

 

But, as I said, I try not to be a jerk about it.  These days.

 

 

 

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/1/11]]

In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s.  Air Supply.  Foreigner.  A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry.  But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  I mean it.”

 

The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren.  I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways.  The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love.  In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.”  Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings.  For some reason.  So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].”  In the chorus he tells her:  “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”

 

This is not a particularly good song.  In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all.  But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on.  This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.

 

Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy.  In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with.  They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was.  Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.

I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y  12-year-old good company.  I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.

 

I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.  In fact, some of us have several.  So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise.  First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through  the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection.  Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.

 

And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages.  We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester.  In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete.  Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment.  It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.

 

So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection?  Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]

William Bradley

The Agony of Defeatism

Posted by William Bradley Expert Nov 16, 2016

Part of leading a discussion in a creative writing workshop involves encouraging students to give rigorous feedback and criticism to their classmates, while also fostering an atmosphere of respect and friendship.  Hank Devereaux Jr.—the narrator of Richard Russo’s academic satire Straight Man—observed that, in the creative writing classroom, “tough, rigorous criticism is predicated on good, not ill, will.” As teachers, it’s part of our job to create an environment where student writers feel comfortable receiving—and giving—detailed feedback and constructive criticism.  The workshop, after all, isn’t going to work if the only thing the student author hears is “great job” or “I really liked the words you used to convey your ideas.”

 

Creating an environment of friendly and well-intentioned critique is difficult in any creative writing classroom, but it’s particularly difficult in a creative nonfiction classroom.  As writers, we’re frequently defensive when it comes to our work, but as creative nonfiction writers, we sometimes wind up feeling defensive about our experiences and ideas as well.  Once, as a student in a workshop, I had to listen as a classmate explained that she didn’t like the piece I had written because the “narrator” was so whiney and self-absorbed.  And while I like to think that I have thick skin … come on.  That hurt.

 

I try to be particularly conscious of the student author’s feelings and protectiveness of her work even as I ask my students to talk specifically about what isn’t working in a piece.  Still, even with my attempts at sensitivity, some students are stressed out and even hurt by the entire workshop experience.  Who can blame them? They’ve just revealed themselves—exposed their realest, innermost selves—without the safety net of a fictional narrator or poetic speaker, and now they’re getting criticized for their efforts.  That can be disheartening, even infuriating.

 

A couple weeks ago, my book—this manuscript I’ve been working on, in various forms, for over five years now—was rejected by a publisher.  Again.  As most working writers know, rejection is just part of the process.  You read the nicely-phrased note, sigh to yourself, then get back on your laptop and find the next contest or university press to send the thing to.  You nod to yourself, silently wish the editors who rejected you good luck with their future endeavors, and then get back to work.

 

At least, that’s how I think it’s supposed to happen.  The truth is, that’s not how it works for me.  Instead, I give out this little gasp.  Then I pace around the room a little bit.  Then I announce—either to my wife or, if she’s not home, one of the cats—“I don’t know why I continue to operate under the delusion that I’m a writer.”  My wife, for her part, knows to let me say this out loud, to get it out of my system.  And the cats seem to know the same thing—they seldom interrupt my pity parties.

 

Keep in mind, I’m a fairly successful writer (“For the type of loser who doesn’t even have a book,” Mopey Me adds with a frown).  I’ve published over two dozen essays, reviews, and interviews in some of the best magazines and journals in my field.  I say this not to brag, but to point out that I have no reason to feel like a loser when something I write—from the shortest essay to the book manuscript itself—is not accepted for publication.  But I do.

 

Inevitably, I get over it.  I take a couple of days, but then return to the manuscript in order to decide, “Was it them, or is it me?”  Sometimes, I make changes.  Sometimes—like this most recent time—I conclude, “You know, I think this is ready as it is.”  And I send the thing back out again.  Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.  The point is, I essay.

 

But the larger point is that I understand personally the frustration and disappointment when a piece of writing is received less enthusiastically than its author might like.  My students’ sadness (or anger) at a workshop discussion may not be exactly the same as my own response to a rejection, but it’s darn close, I think.  That’s important to keep in mind—too often I get frustrated by my students’ frustration.  “I’m trying to help you!” I think to myself.  But it’s useful to remember that they’ve poured as much as themselves into their assignments as I have into my book.

 

Lately, I’ve taken to telling my students what I’m working on, and when the work gets rejected—or accepted.  I want them to understand that the occasional disappointment is inevitably part of this process, but that if they persevere, they might know the joy that comes with realizing they have succeeded in reaching—and moving—their audience.

 

Any other tips on how to deal with student frustrations in the writing workshop?  For that matter, any advice for me on how to deal with my own bouts of self-loathing that inevitably accompany rejection?

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 8/28/12]]

When I first started studying, writing, and teaching creative nonfiction, I generally found myself attracted to contemporary American authors—Tobias Wolff, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, and others.  They wrote in a language I immediately understood and made references to figures and events that were at least somewhat familiar.  Even if I didn’t actually watch The Mickey Mouse Club or had never lived in New York City, I was aware that such things existed, and they weren’t all that far away from me.  I had a little more trouble with older writers, because of that tired undergraduate complaint “I just couldn’t relate.”  Yes, dear reader, your humble blogger was once one of those students who felt like his inability to immediately “get it” was always the fault of the writer—that the reader had no obligation to do any work himself.

 

I’m much less stupid now, of course, and as a result, I’m now able to really enjoy the opportunity to teach William Hazlitt’s "On the Pleasure of Hating," an essay I just couldn’t appreciate the first time I read it in my early twenties, but find I enjoy—and “relate to”—more and more as I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, towards middle age.  And I’ve been developing ways to get my own students to appreciate—and perhaps even “relate to”—Hazlitt’s 19th century text.

 

First of all, what’s not to love about an essay called “On the Pleasures of Hating”?  As far as awesome titles go, this one’s only approached by Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.”  As a reader, when you see a title like that, all you can really do is blink, raise your eyebrows quizzically, then shrug and say, “Well, okay.  I’m listening.”  It’s like if someone said to you, “You know what I hate?  Orgasms.”  You’re pretty sure you’ll disagree with this person, but you’re dying to hear the reasoning behind such an outrageous position.

 

People frequently don’t want to agree with Hazlitt’s contention that hating is a pleasurable act– particularly well-intentioned college students (and even their bleeding-heart professors).  Hatred is a scourge, after all.  It’s something we’re trying to eradicate.  “Some people might find pleasure in hating, but I—as a liberated, open-minded person—certainly do not, and I don’t think most other people do either.”

 

Yeah?  Then tell me, why are the Kardashian sisters famous? 

 

Think about it—Kim, Khloe, and the other one only exist in our culture so that we can hate them.  You know it.  I know it.  And our students know it too.  Oh, sure—many of us have probably decided that those girls shouldn’t be judged so harshly, and that there’s something a little creepy and misogynist about our culture’s fascination with—and condemnation of—the things that these attractive though rather vapid young women say.  But nevertheless, these reality stars—and others like them—are presented to us for our collective loathing.  And frequently, we oblige—even if it’s just by laughing when Joel McHale or Beavis and Butthead belittle them.

 

“Nature seems (the more we look into it),” Hazlitt writes, “made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men.”  We’d be the lotus-eaters without the awesome buzz.  Without something contemptible to react against, I tell my students, there would be no progress or productivity—we’d simply be filled with an unearned contentment.

 

One of the main objections some students—and even this professor, once upon a time– have to this essay is the knowledge (eloquently expressed by James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son”) that hatred consumes and destroys people.  “Sure, anger is useful and important,” these people can say, “but you have to guard against being hateful, otherwise you destroy yourself.”  I do believe that’s true, but I also don’t think that truth negates Hazlitt’s point that hating can feel quite good.  Because Hazlitt does not advocate being hateful, he’s advocating hating– in appropriate measure.  Hazlitt tells us:

 

The echoes of liberty had awakened once more in Spain, and the mornings of human hope dawned again: but that dawn has been overcast by the foul breath of bigotry, and those reviving sounds stifled by fresh cries from the time-rent towers of the Inquisition – man yielding (as it is fit he should) first to brute force, but more to the innate perversity and dastard spirit of his own nature which leaves no room for farther hope or disappointment.

The hatefulness he sees in other people is one more thing to hate.  So we understand that hatefulness is never to be understood as virtue.  But certain types of hatred—perhaps, say, a hatred of ignorance, or intolerance, or injustice– is proper, necessary, and– above all– pleasurable.

 

There is any number of directions to take a class after a discussion of Hazlitt.  We might have a group discussion about the things we hate, and note the enthusiasm and giddiness and pleasure that people exhibit as they say things like, “Yes!  I think Coldplay sucks too!” or “Man, those talking baby E-Trade commercials are annoying!”  Of course, this essay might lend itself to a cool writing assignment.  I have been thinking about asking students to write about the things they hate, but I’ve been a bit concerned that I would get a collection of essays expressing their authors’ contempt for racism or sexism or homophobia or hate crimes or the last season of Lost—you know, low-hanging fruit.  But recently—as a result of editing and revising this very blog post—a friend pointed out to me that an exercise devoted to writing about hating something everybody else loves might make for an insightful, reflective assignment.  I’m now brainstorming an idea for an essay about why Tom Hanks should have just called it quits right after Bachelor Party

 

How would you go about teaching Hazlitt?  Any thoughts on writing assignments his essay might inspire?  Most importantly, what do you hate that everyone else seems to just adore?

At some point while he was running, the kid’s batting helmet must have fallen off, because you can see his light blond hair—still short from the disastrous haircut his father gave him before his First Communion—practically glowing under the California sun.  He’s in the second grade and his t-ball team is the Reds.  Inexplicably, their t-shirt (the only “uniform” t-ballers get) is orange.  He is sliding, kicking up dirt, but he has already passed home plate.  Afraid that he’ll wind up short, he always waits until he has already tagged up to begin his slide.  Sliding is his favorite part of the game—that, and the free snow cones they get after they play.

 

Obviously, this young athlete is me, and this is my wife’s favorite picture of me when I was a kid.   I loved to play t-ball, though I obviously wasn’t very good at it.  In t-ball—at least in our league—there were no strike outs, probably because swinging at and missing a stationary ball mounted on a tee wasn’t the sort of thing that tended to happen.  It did to me, though.  All the time.  I would approach the tee confidently, bring my bat back, and then twist my entire body into that swing, to the point that my eye left the ball long before the bat in my hand woooooshed right over it.  The grown-ups would let me do it over.  Eventually, I’d wind up on a base.

 

I wasn’t an athletic kid—and I’m not a big sports guy now—but looking at this photo reminds me of why I loved playing (mostly, it was about being with my friends), and how important that game was to me.  We take pictures of the stuff that matters, after all, and my father apparently had the presence of mind to realize that this was an experience I’d want to look back on.

 

Each semester, as an exercise in writing memoir, I ask my students to look at a photograph that has a special significance for them and to write “the story of the photo.”  I encourage them to avoid family portraits or landscape shots (unless there’s something really unexpected lurking behind the smiles in the portrait or beyond the scene captured in the landscape), and instead focus on those photos that capture a moment that someone realized was worth holding onto.  Maybe it’s a photo from the junior prom, or graduation.  Maybe it’s a picture from the last big party before the old gang had to pack up and move away to college, promising to keep in touch even while knowing that something important was coming to an end.  Maybe it’s the picture of a little kid, carving a pumpkin while her dad—out of frame except for his hands—guides her efforts with the knife.  The photo itself isn’t what’s significant—it’s the memory that the photo represents that we’re after.  As I said, we photograph that which we decide is important enough to capture forever; we write memoir for the same reason.

 

I’ve mentioned before that the most common challenge for the creative nonfiction instructor is disabusing students of the belief that “there’s nothing interesting about me—nothing worth writing about.”  Students often think that nothing short of climbing the world’s tallest mountain while battling cancer will qualify them to become memoirists.  This exercise is designed to emphasize the idea that the point of this type of writing isn’t to write about an experience that’s fascinating on its own, but rather to write about an experience so well that it becomes fascinating for the reader.  As V.S. Pritchett has written, “It’s all in the art.  You get no credit for living.”

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on April 17, 2012.]] 

The other night, my wife and I accidentally got sucked into watching a Jersey Shore marathon. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a high concept science fiction program that involves a group of grotesque orange aliens who derive sustenance from a diet consisting solely of hard liquor and whose highest form of compliment is to call someone a “Guido.” To be honest, the show is a little derivative of other science fiction shows that came before it—these aliens have the aggression of Klingons and the dull-witted brutality of the "toaster"-model Cylons.  My wife and I agreed that the show was stupid and a waste of our time, and we turned off the TV once we realized it was 3:30 in the morning and this marathon wasn’t going to be over anytime soon.

 

It’s as obvious as it is glib to point out that so-called “reality” television doesn’t resemble the world in which most of us actually live, but I worry that some people—and by some people, I mean some of my students—might mistake this manipulated footage and manufactured drama for something that resembles life on planet earth. Chuck Klosterman suggested in his essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” that MTV’s The Real World fundamentally changed how young people relate to each other—“People started becoming personality templates,” Klosterman wrote, “devoid of complication and obsessed with melodrama.” Over the years, dozens of students have told me about auditioning for one reality show or another, and I could always tell which “type” they wanted to be—Sensitive Heterosexual Guy, Wild Party Girl, Intellectual-Yet-Approachable Black Dude.  The problem with reality television, really, is its tendency to reduce actual human beings into characters.  Static, superficial, underdeveloped characters at that.

 

This is why I like to teach creative nonfiction to undergraduates.  While some writers, like Phillip Lopate, suggest that a nonfiction form like the personal essay is more suited for middle-aged people (who are, presumably, prone to reflection), I believe that it’s important for students to examine and write about their lives.  I know the complaints about college students’ supposed self-absorption, and I feel like it’s lately become fashionable to bemoan our students’ interest in writing about their own lives.  The suggestion is that writing about the self—particularly the young self, the self who hasn’t experienced very much of the world—convinces students that they can be writers without taking risks that involve experiences, adventures, and other people.

 

I don’t subscribe to that theory.  To be sure, I don’t subscribe to the opposite theory, espoused by some composition scholars, that personal writing is good for students because they are already experts in their own lives.  I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and very few of them seemed to have much expertise when it comes to discussing themselves.

 

When I ask my college students to write nonfiction, I am asking them to disregard the superficial, melodramatic narratives that tend to pass for reality in our popular culture and, instead, dig deeper.  A show like Bad Girls Club or Road Rules traffics in abstraction and stereotypes, but in memoir and essay writing, we’re looking for the concrete, for the unique individual consciousness.  We’re stripping away the constructed persona and focusing instead on the person, with all of the complexity and contradictions that would be sure to get her application to live in the Jersey Shore beach house rejected.

 

Some of my students have become talented essayists and memoirists.  I’ve directed three phenomenal MFA theses concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and growing up in an orphanage in the early 1960s.  I’ve seen students get accepted to Ph.D. programs and publish their work.  And while I take pride in whatever role I might have played in my students’ success, if I’m being honest, I have to tell you that I’m a little more proud whenever a student—through reading and writing creative nonfiction—achieves a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world and himself.  It’s deeply gratifying to find out what happens when people stop being ridiculous caricatures, and start getting real.

 

[This post first appeared on LitBits on 11/30/11]

This post originally appeared on October 23, 2012.

 

Some of you may have noticed that my author bio reveals that I’ve recently changed my institutional affiliation—I have left Chowan University in North Carolina and accepted a position teaching creative writing and literature at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.  I’ve written before (though not for this blog) about my undergraduate years and the vital role that my professors played in turning me into the writer and thinker I am today, so you can probably understand that I’m quite excited to be back, teaching alongside the scholars and artists who inspired me when I was an 18-year-old, flannel-clad Gen-Xer who had a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t quite know how he was going to get there.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about 18-year-old Bradley these past few weeks.  Part of me almost expects to run into him, walking across the quad or coming out of the dining hall.  Part of me feels like I already have run into him—or run into his doppelganger from 2012, at any rate.  I’m teaching two creative writing classes and one literature class this semester, and these students are—for the most part—really enthusiastic about what they’re reading and writing.  I’ve taught thoughtful and ambitious students before, of course, but never so many at one time.  So it’s been an exhilarating experience.

 

One thing I’ve noticed about the undergraduate writers I’m teaching this semester is that many of them seem savvier about things like publishing opportunities and grad school programs than I was when I studied here.  I’ll be giving a talk later this semester to the students who work on the campus literary magazine, and one thing that the student who organized the talk told me they’d definitely be interested in hearing about was how I got editors to pay attention to my work, and what advice I have to give about getting creative work published.

 

On the one hand, I admire these students for their work ethic and foresight.  It didn’t really occur to me until my senior year that I might try to publish some of the stories and essays I’d been writing, and even then, I didn’t actually bother buying envelopes or printing out the stuff I had on my hard drive.  Playing Mortal Kombat on my roommate’s Sega Genesis seemed like a much more productive use of my time.  These students know about literary magazines and are familiar with small presses, and I think that’s really cool.  They know stuff about their contemporary literature scene that I didn’t know about mine when I graduated 13 years ago.  I’m pleased to see that—it suggests a dedication to reading and knowing good creative work, and who knows?  Such knowledge among the younger generation might be enough to save our literary culture.

 

At the same time, though, I worry a little bit about this focus on publishing.  I’m concerned that the students have sort of picked up on and internalized the “publish or perish” mentality that their professors are working under.  If you want to call yourself a writer, this mentality insists, you’ve got to get stuff published.  Submit to a magazine.  Send query letters to agents.  Most importantly, write the kind of stuff that other people want to read.

 

Of course, it’s important for student writers to be mindful of audience, but I fear that this focus on publishing and “getting the work out there” could be bad for their development.  We don’t get too many opportunities in life to just do what we want to do, to “chase our muse”, if you want to be all writer-ly and precious about it.  When I think back at my own undergraduate writing, most of it was probably pretty terrible, but it was still stuff I was excited about, and it represented my very best attempts at articulating stuff that mattered to me.  I wrote a short story about a barfly whose lost love—dead for decades—returned to him one dark and stormy night.  I wrote a screenplay about love and jealousy and murder.  I wrote a play that absolutely wasn’t about my break-up with my college girlfriend the summer before our senior year (okay—it kinda was; don’t tell her, though).  I wrote an essay about feeling humbled when I saw the Aurora Borealis on the university’s golf course late one night.  I wrote a comic book script about an amnesiac superhero who wound up owning a comic book store in upstate New York.  I wrote several poorly-conceived performance art pieces.  The less said about them, the better.

 

I doubt I’m ever going to revisit these pieces, or write anything like the again.  Although I have been dabbling in fiction lately, I remain pretty committed to creative nonfiction forms—particularly the essay.  But I’m glad I had the experience of spending those years trying out different things, experimenting with style while searching for my own voice.  I’m afraid if I had known that what I was working on—and pouring a ton of effort into—was ultimately “un-publishable,” I might not have bothered.  And that would have been terrible for my writing.

 

I finished my undergraduate career at St. Lawrence during the summer of 1999, after taking some time off due to health problems.  I spent a lot of that summer hanging out and talking with Bob Cowser, who at the time was a young new creative nonfiction professor and who, over the years, has become a close friend and valued mentor.  By that point, I’d seen enough of the world beyond college that I knew I had to think more seriously about the future if I wanted to be a writer.  One afternoon, after he had given me some positive feedback on an essay I’d shown him, I asked, “Do you have any thoughts on where I should send it?”

 

“Why?” he asked.

 

I was surprised.  By that point, I knew I was going on to grad school.  And I knew that if I wanted to be a Real Writer, I would need to publish stuff.

 

“You’re 23-years-old,” he told me.  “You have your entire life and career ahead of you.  Right now, you don’t need to worry about publishing—you need to worry about honing your craft and becoming a better writer.  Seriously, man—give it two years.  Start sending stuff out when you’re 25.  In the meantime, work on getting better.  You probably could start publishing now in smaller magazines—you’re good enough.  But if you wait and continue to get better, you can make sure that, years from now, you can be proud of every publication you list on your CV.”

 

At the time, that advice kind of stung.  In hindsight, though, I think it’s the most valuable advice Bob could have possibly given.  The truth is, I’m glad some of those early attempts didn’t wind up published for all the world to see.  They were important for my development, but they weren’t fully-formed pieces that I could really take pride in.  As it happened, I didn’t really start publishing until I was 27, but the stuff I’ve published since then has been stuff that I’m pleased to call my own.

 

I think, when I talk to those student writers in November, I’ll tell them about cover letters, and reading the magazines they want to send stuff to, and all that.  But I’m also going to give them the same advice Bob gave me.  “Slow down.  Try different things.  Write like you have another 50 or 60 years to worry about publishing.  The work that results may not be brilliant, and it may not be publishable, but you’ll have learned something about your own style, and the voice you find might be your own.”

 

What advice do you have for student writers anxious to get started with their careers setting the world on fire with their prose or verse?

This blog was originally posted on December 9, 2014.

 

With two weeks left in the semester, my students are busy revising creative nonfiction essays for inclusion in their final portfolios.  I admit, this is a very relaxing time for me.  While many of my colleagues are frantically grading papers and writing exams, I’m showing up to school to listen to students give presentations on their favorite authors and to answer questions during office hours.  I’m thinking about getting a hammock for the office, actually.

 

Of course, portfolios will come in and the days leading up to Christmas will be filled with frantic grading.  But I’m enjoying the peace right now, and am reflecting on all of the good work I have read from my students this semester.

 

Back in August, the students entered the classroom for the first time unsure of what to expect.  Everyone knows what fiction and poetry is, but the idea of a “creative nonfiction” workshop is foreign to most of them.  Some of these students are in my class because someone recommended me to them.  Others are majors who need the course in order to move on to more advanced classes.  Others just need to get an arts elective out of the way.  Most, though, aren’t taking the class because they already have a deep and abiding love for the essay or literary journalism.

 

I hope that, over the course of the year, they have grown to love these forms.  Not just because I love these forms myself, but because I have seen this group of students come together and understand each other better as a result of sharing their own personal narratives.  These 18 and 19 year olds began the semester a little nervous, sometimes reluctant to allow themselves to be too exposed in their writing.  But at this point, I think that we have all become friends—or, if not friends, then very supportive colleagues.  We have shared family secrets, discussed our private anxieties, and revealed truths that we usually keep hidden when we’re in the dorms, at the bar, or in a department meeting.  We’ve established a sense of trust with each other, even though—or, perhaps, because?—we didn’t know each other 14 weeks ago.

 

Some of these students will go on to study English and creative writing.  Some will go on to publish their work.  Most will not.  But I hope that these students will look back on the experience of taking this class fondly, and I hope they feel like they learned useful things during our time together.  Of course, if they find that they’re able to express themselves through writing more effectively, that’s great.  But more importantly, I hope that, through reading and writing creative nonfiction, they’ve come to understand that they’re not alone in the universe.  I hope they realize that their friends, their classmates, and even their professors struggle with private stresses and anxieties.  I hope they have learned that, sometimes, we all feel isolated, or freakish, or terrified.  And I hope that they’re able to take this knowledge with them after they leave my classroom, better equipped to try to understand someone else’s point-of-view.  This, I think, is the most important reason to study creative nonfiction.

This post originally appeared March 19, 2014.

 

I was a little nervous to tell my father my plans to major in English with a creative writing emphasis.  Though my parents had always emphasized the importance of literature—my mom was a high school English teacher, and my dad would read us Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when we were kids—I felt like my choice would strike him as being completely impractical. My dad was a newspaper publisher—essentially, he oversaw all aspects of the business, from the newsroom to the pressroom.  And he was a pretty conservative guy, too—education was important to him, but he also made sure I knew that success and financial security were the results of hard work and smart decisions.  And deciding to focus my academic career on writing screenplays and personal essays would, I feared, strike him as frivolous, a less-than-smart decision.

 

If I knew then what I know now, I imagine I might have gone into the conversation with more confidence.  Contrary to common misperceptions, English majors do not tend to spend their careers toiling away in coffee houses or bars, serving espresso or martinis to the former business majors who are actually using their more “practical” degrees to make money.  Some do, I suppose, but not the majority.  Most surveys that measure salary by college major indicate that English majors tend to make comfortable middle-class salaries—not as much as some, but considerably more than others.  Furthermore, English majors, on average, tend to report a high degree of job satisfaction.  This is important, I think.  I realize that I might have chosen a different career (or major) that might have resulted in more money in my checking account, but would I love that career as much as I love the one I have, teaching creative writing and literature?  And if not, would I love my life as much as I do?  I suspect the answer is no.

 

So, in hindsight, I’m glad I made the decisions I made.  Still, back then—sophomore year, 1995, I was a little nervous about what my dad would say.  It turns out I needn’t have worried.

 

My dad was responsible for hiring people in all sorts of capacities—reporters, editors, advertising sales representatives, circulation managers, press foremen, accountants… you name it.  He had been doing this for quite a long time, and he told me that as long as I was majoring in a discipline considered part of the traditional liberal arts, he was confident I was going to be fine.

 

“As an employer, I can teach an employee the job,” he said.  “What I can’t do is teach someone how to learn.”

 

That’s what we do, in the liberal arts—we learn how to learn.  We analyze texts.  We hone our communication skills.  We learn about cause and effect—whether it’s how the Treaty of Versailles ended the first World War but unintentionally laid the groundwork for World War II, or the role sunlight plays in a plant’s ability to survive, or how a myopic sense of materialism ultimately leads to Ivan Ilych’s death.  The liberal arts demand that the student think both carefully and deeply about any given subject, and these habits that become second-nature to the English or History major turn out to be the very skills that employers are looking for.

 

I’ve focused my argument supporting a liberal arts major (and an English major, specifically) on the utility of the degree on the job market, because I feel like in 2014, as students are still feeling the burden of the Great Recession, this is a huge concern.  But let’s be clear—the goal of an education isn’t just to land the perfect job (my high school U.S. History teacher once lamented to my class, “Why is it we never argue that education is worthwhile because it’s neat to know stuff?”).  My education in literature and creative writing has made me a more thoughtful, reflective person, which makes me a more responsible citizen (I’m not going to vote for a candidate whose public statements are entirely vapid or meaningless, like “Freedom isn’t free” or “We can do better” or “If [x] happens, the terrorists win”).  This education has compelled me to make sure I waste as little of my time on earth as possible (I defy you to study literature for a few years and not walk away with a knowledge of your own mortality and the ever-forward march of time).  Perhaps most importantly, I feel like my background in English has helped me become a better husband and friend.  Studying literature prevents solipsism—you can’t read “Sonny’s Blues” or “Diving into the Wreck” without considering the unique consciousness and point-of-view of another person.  I am convinced that this ability to see through someone else’s eyes, inhabit some else’s shoes, is a vital skill to have if you want to enjoy a happy life.  If I couldn’t understand where my wife is coming from in those rare moments when I do something to frustrate or anger her… well, I’d be divorced by now.

 

The most important thing is to make sure that you study a variety of subjects, and that you pick the subject that interests and excites you most for your major.  Some people speak of college and the “real world” as if they were entirely separate things—as if college students inhabit some strange parallel dimension where they are completely shielded from responsibility and repercussions from their decisions.  This is nonsense, and it’s harmful nonsense at that.  College is, in fact, the traditional student’s entry into the real world—the decisions one makes as a student will have ramifications for the rest of her life.  She may choose the road less travelled by, or she may choose the road that others have trod before her.  It’s the act of deciding that makes all the difference.

This post originally appeared on August 14, 2013.

 

A few weeks ago, students in my creative nonfiction workshop were discussing a classmate’s essay about her rather eccentric grandmother.  It was a good piece of writing, a solid first draft, and I wanted to get my students talking about what made the piece so successful. It seemed to me that the student had done a good job of blending sensory detail with her reflection, developing scenes and then extrapolating from those scenes her own mixed emotions about loving someone who can be, at times, rather exasperating.

“Why do you like this essay?” I asked one student pointedly.

“Well,” he replied, “I could… relate to it.”

“Why?”

“Because… well… we all have grandmothers.”

This is true for most of us, I suppose, but I tried to encourage my class to reflect more deeply.  While it’s true we all have grandmothers, it’s not true that we’re all this particular 20-year-old woman writing the essay, with her particular relationship with this particular grandmother.  I had an eccentric grandmother myself, but my Nana’s eccentricity manifested itself in the casual use of racial slurs and sudden angry outbursts that no one could see coming, whereas the grandmother in the essay was inclined to hoard food and drive recklessly.

 

The notion that a successful piece of writing (or film, or probably any art form) should be something we can “relate” to is a little problematic for me.  I agree that I want to be able to find something that I can recognize and understand as “true” when I’m experiencing art, and for that reason I enjoy reading essays that explore the world as I have known it.  But my inability to personally relate to an author or experience described in a piece of nonfiction is not necessarily the author’s fault; nor is it a “flaw” in the writing itself.  I have never suffered through a migraine, but Joan Didion’s description of her own affliction in the essay “In Bed” is still powerful and vivid.  I don’t have the experience of being a southern African American in the middle of the twentieth century, but I can still feel empathetic when Maya Angelou describes the shame and anger she felt when the white politician insulted and degraded his audience when he spoke at her 8th grade graduation in the chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that is frequently anthologized as either “Graduation” or “Graduation in Stamps.” I’m not a lesbian, I’ve never seen an analyst, and I don’t really have much tension in my relationship with my mother, but Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was still probably the most riveting works of nonfiction I read last year.

 

This is writing that I don’t relate to, but it still resonates with me, largely because these authors provide such vivid details, metaphors, scenes, and reflections.  I don’t personally know how it feels to be Didion, Angelou, or Bechdel, but because of the way they render their essays, I come to know a bit more about how they experience the world.  I walk in their shoes and see through their eyes, at least for a little bit.

 

That, I want my students to understand, is the power of nonfiction.  It makes another person’s experiences and perceptions vividly real to us—so real that, while we’re reading, they begin to feel like our own.  We fool ourselves—or allow ourselves to be fooled—into believing that this point of view is our own.  So this semester, and maybe from now on, I think I’m going to correct students who praise an essay for being “relatable”—and  ask them to think more carefully about how the choices an author makes can allow a total stranger’s personal experience to resonate so deeply within us.

This blog was originally posted on February 15, 2013.

 

Most of my LitBits blog posts have been focused on exercises or discussions aimed at motivating or inspiring the beginning writer. I’ve written craft exercises designed to help students mine their memories and interrogate their own lives. I’ve talked about helping student writers get over “writer’s block” and figure out just what they might write about. What I haven’t focused on, so much, is the intermediate or advanced nonfiction writer—the student who already has ideas and knows the basics of the genre, and who is ready to move on from “just getting started.”

In future blog posts, I hope to share some revision exercises, which I think are frequently overlooked when we talk about teaching creative writing (although I’d like to point out that some of the contributors to the recently-released text, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction offer  some really cool exercises designed to help the writer who has already started to refine her writing—and many of these ideas can apply to nonfiction of any length, not just the short-short stuff).  First, though, I have to come up with some of these exercises.

 

Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about a class I’m teaching for the first time this semester.  I call it “The Contemporary Essay”—although I had wanted to call it “The 21st Century Essay” at first, until I realized that a few of the pieces I wanted to teach were first published in the late 90s.  In my head, I still call it “The 21st Century Essay,” historical publication facts be damned.

I began to think of this class several years ago, as it became apparent to me that, over the past few decades, we’ve slowly begun to build a canon of great essays, memoirs, and works of literary journalism. I’d become quite comfortable teaching the works of Joan Didion, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Maya Angelou, Tobias Wolff, et al.  Comfortable to the point of complacency, I feared. Sure, I could occasionally sneak an essay by the likes of Eula Biss or Ander Monson onto the syllabus, to give my students a sense of where nonfiction seems to be headed, but I felt like I couldn’t really focus on where this genre was going until the students got an idea of where it has been.

 

This year, though, I’m fortunate enough to be teaching at St. Lawrence University, which has about half a dozen faculty members in the English Department with really strong backgrounds in nonfiction forms, and who teach these forms to undergraduate students in workshops that always seem to be filled to maximum capacity. I figured, “If I’m ever going to be working with students strong enough in the history of this genre to teach this class, that time is now.” So, with the enthusiastic blessing of my chair, I began to design the course.

 

I cheated a little bit—we spent the second week of class (the class meets for three hours every Wednesday evening) discussing some of that canonical stuff I said I wasn’t going to teach—Orwell, White, Didion, and Lopate’s introduction  to The Art of the Personal Essay. I decided, in the end, that I wasn’t comfortable starting with the present until we’d talked a little bit about the past. But beginning with the third class—last night’s class, to be precise—we’re focusing on the current scene entirely.

 

So, how did it go?

 

We wound up discussing work by Cheryl Strayed, Bob Cowser Jr., Pam Houston, Jill Talbot, and Eula Biss. The Strayed piece—“The Love of My Life”—seemed to be a particular favorite, as she writes about grief and sex in just brutally honest ways (if you’re offended by brutally honest depictions of unpleasant sex written by talented writers—and I know some people who are—don’t click on that link; otherwise, read it. It’s amazing). We also spent a long time discussing Talbot’s observations about the construction of self in the age of social media: “Everyone now,” Talbot writes, “not just writers, creates a written, published persona on a daily (hourly) basis.  Artifice abounds.”  We even wound up relating these ideas to Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s idea of self-fashioning during the early modern period.

 

How did it go? It was awesome.

 

I imagine we’ve all had those moments in the classroom where the discussion went so well, where all participants seemed so engaged, that the time flew by and you felt like the discussion should really go on over beers or coffee. It was 10 p.m., and I had to be up to teach at 8:30 the other day, and I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t drink with students, but… well, it was that kind of night.  It was the kind of class that makes one glad to do this for a living.

 

Will we be able to keep up this type of intense engagement?  It’s hard to say, of course—I can’t predict the future. All I can tell you is what’s on the syllabus—Steven ChurchJenny BoullyIra SukrungruangRyan Van MeterKristen IversenAkhim Yuseff Cabey.  E.J. LevyJohn D’Agata and Jim Fingal. And lots of other thought-provoking practitioners of this form.

 

I can’t say for sure that this class is going to be a roaring success based on how well things went last night, of course, but my feeling is that our students want to know more about the contemporary nonfiction scene. I walked into class worried that I might have trouble filling three hours; I walked out regretting that we didn’t have five hours to devote to discussing these authors and their work. So, as I usually am in pretty much all things, I find myself cautiously optimistic.

 

I’ll keep you updated with how things go with this class, and what I learn along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll try to think of some revision exercises. If you have some, please leave a comment.  For that matter, if you can think of an essay or writer I ought to include on the reading list for a contemporary/ 21st century essay class, let me know in a comment.

William Bradley

Attack the Block

Posted by William Bradley Expert Aug 28, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 23, 2013.

 

The question took me by surprise.  We were about halfway through the semester, and I’d finally figured out the rhythm and patterns of my 10:10- 11:40 Techniques of Fiction class.  I’d come in just before class started to a roomful of students talking and joking with each other.  I’d try to say something pithy to get us started, then remind everyone what we had read for the day—typically, two student stories to workshop and one story by the likes of Faulkner or Cather or Baldwin.  I’d say, “Let’s start with the workshop—who’s dying to go first?”  The student authors would exchange glances, both shrug slightly, and then one would finally speak: “I’ll go.”  This was business-as-usual.

 

But on this day, I walked into the room and, before I could make any type of witty remark, a student said, “Can I ask a question?”

 

“Sure,” I replied, settling into my seat.

 

“What do you do when you have writer’s block?”

 

As I said, I wasn’t expecting this question.  This is an intro-level class.  Writer’s block, it seems to me, is something people develop when they’re further along in their writing careers, surely.  And what’s more, I wasn’t even sure writer’s block really existed—too often, I think writers use “writer’s block” as an excuse to do something—anything—other than writing.

 

So I led with that observation.  “I don’t really believe in writer’s block,” I said, noticing that the entire class had stopped their side conversations and were listening to me.  “I’ve found that when I have ‘writer’s block,’ it’s usually because there’s an article I want to read in The New Yorker, orRaging Bull is on TV, or there’s beer in the fridge, or I want to hang out with my wife.  In my experience, writers claim to be ‘blocked’ when they feel like being lazy.”

 

An honest answer, but an unsatisfactory one.  I could tell by my student’s expression that this wasn’t helpful.  Judging by the expressions on the faces of some of her classmates, I wasn’t helping them either.

 

“I assume you’re asking because you feel like you’re blocked?” I asked.

 

“I just don’t know how to get started on my next story,” she replied.  I noticed some other students nodding, heard a few “Yeahs” too.

 

I was actually relieved to hear this.  A sophomore’s anxiety about getting started, intimidation by the blank screen, is a different problem than “writer’s block,” it seems to me—or at least writer’s block as I understand the term.  The idea of writer’s block sort of affirms the belief that writing is all about inspiration, being touched by the muse.  That’s the sort of belief that I want to disabuse my students of—I don’t want them thinking that there’s something mystical about writing, that it’s something they either can do or can’t, depending on the whims of some supernatural force that may or may not anoint them.  I want them to understand that writing is hard work, and sitting around waiting for the story to present itself to you so that you can transcribe it is about the best way to not be a writer that I can think of.

 

Having trouble getting started, though, is a different matter, I think.  Particularly when we’re talking about student writers.  I rarely have trouble getting started these days, but I remember a time—not too very long ago—that I struggled to come up with something to write about.  These days, I have the opposite problem—I’ve got a ton of ideas, and not enough time to write about them.

 

How did I get to this point?  I wondered to myself.  What did I do that made it easier to get started, to face down the blank screen and create art?

 

I talked about sitting down at the computer, without distraction, and just pushing ahead.  Forcing yourself to get started and trusting that you’ll discover what the piece is about as you go along—even if that means eventually going back and seriously revising (or even completely trashing) those first few sentences (or paragraphs) after you’ve figured out what you’re doing.  I told them about a former classmate of mine, who always started with what he thought was the most interesting moment or idea in his story or essay, even if it belonged at the end of the piece, and who then would go back and write the beginning if he needed to.  I talked about my experience in screenwriting classes, which taught me the value of working from an outline sometimes—sometimes, it’s easier to begin a journey when you have a map in front of you.

 

Most importantly, I think the key to finding inspiration, I told my students, is in paying attention to the world we live in.  I don’t just mean go to the mall and people watch—although sometimes that works.  I mean taking the time to notice the stuff you frequently overlook in your day-to-day life.  Look at the trees that line the sidewalk you travel every day to get from your dorm to the dining hall.  Listen to the sounds that surround you—birds calling to each other from across the quad, laughter coming from someone’s open window, the faint sound of “All Along the Watchtower” coming from one of the fraternity houses down the street.

 

I like to regard much of my life as research for a hypothetical essay or story—that way, everything I do can be considered “productive” in some way, even if it’s just drinking a glass of wine with my wife in our porch swing—who’s to say I’m not going to write about this experience?  When you regard your actions and interactions as potential material, I told my students, it’s downright impossible to find yourself “blocked.”

 

This seemed to make sense to them, but I feel like this is something that I want to revisit with them as we get closer to the end of the semester.  I’d be interesting in hearing from readers of this blog: How you deal with the issue, either with your students or in your own writing?