Thursday, August 21, 2014

"throw strikes" vs. "keep your shoulder back"

When I was twelve, I loved baseball above all things. I was even good at it. I still have a news clipping from my hometown paper that says "Jake Weber pitched and batted the North Canton all-stars to a 15-3 victory over the Massillon National All-Stars." I hit two home runs in that game, and pitched for four innings until we were ahead enough they saved me for a future game. I never got to play that future game; two nights later we got creamed and we were done.

As I got older and the mound moved out to the full 60 ft 6 inches from home, I had problems throwing strikes. In those days, coaches tended to deal with my wildness by offering this really helpful advice: "C'mon, Jake. Throw strikes!"

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh. Throw strikes. If only I had thought of that.

Nowadays, coaches at all levels are better informed. There are lots of videos available, many for free, where even an amateur leader of nine year-olds in Ohio can more or less trouble shoot mechanics issues of pitchers. I had to live with amateur psychiatry instead. I needed "Keep your shoulder back as you come through your motion," but I got "Just relax!"

I compare these two approaches to those used by two well-known books on writing: Writing Fiction, edited by Burroway and Stuckey-French, and Robert Olen Butler's From Where you Dream When I decided to give writing another try a few years ago, these were the first two books I read.

Butler is the old-school coach, giving advice like "Write from your white-hot center." He meant something like write from your truest, most instinctive, most pre-verbal and sensual self. Great. Throw strikes. HOW do I write from my white hot center? I know that it's what I want to do. Why am I not doing it?

He does offer a few practical ideas. He recommends writing in the early hours, while your brain is still in its addled, dream-like, pre-verbal state. He recommends writing instinctively. Then, later, you go back and edit, and just take out anything that doesn't "thrum." Again--how do I do that? The closest thing he offers to practical advice is his description of considering your scenes like a film director (with an emphasis on the Stanislavsky method). This was something I had also heard alluded to vaguely in graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago by Gene Wildman. Basically, you imagine your scene like a director. Should the camera be wide-lens? Close-up? Should this be a montage or a slow, real-time study?

That was a little better. It was like saying "You need to keep balance throughout your pitching motion"--a general rule of thumb, but still not precise enough to tell me what the hell I actually needed to do.

The Burroway/Stuckey-French book is what I needed. (I also liked the Gotham Writer's Workshop book, which had a similar approach, but shorter.) It had tangible advice on things like pace, scene, description, point-of-view, tone, and even very specific directions on how to handle quotations and avoid too many "tags." It was humbling, after having an advanced degree in English, to realize I really didn't know how to do some basic things. But thinking back, I wasn't the only one. My graduate school workshops were filled with bad writing.

Why? Because grad school was all about emotional support and nothing about the guts of how to fix your shit. Writing programs weren't alone; in academic literature courses, we always tried to jump right into some high-level analysis of a text based on some sexy theorist before most of the class had understood the base text's denotative meaning. We were trying to throw curve balls when we couldn't throw fast balls. We wanted to delve into the white hot center without figuring out where the door to the center was.

Maybe in five years, when I've knocked off a dozen short story credits and my first novel, I'll return to Butler and find inspiration to write a magnum opus. For now, though, I'm still working on keeping my shoulder back.

Next up: The dangers of too much "how to" or an analysis of the short story "Bagram" by Tom Paine from the Spring/Summer edition of Glimmer Train. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


All modern fiction opening lines are unrealistically catchy, thought the stripper holding the fish between two tongs made of her dead cat's thigh bones...

For the longest time, I thought I'd call this blog "Failed Writer" when I finally got around to writing it. Now that I'm at last giving this a go, there are two reasons I've decided on a different title. First, I actually got a notice this week that the Baltimore Review is publishing my short story "American as Berbere" in their fall edition. So I'm not really "failed." I'll soon have one whole fiction credit to my name, to go with the three (I think) that I had as a poet about 13 years ago. Secondly, it seems the name was already taken by someone who hasn't updated the blog in over a decade.

This is a space for people who fit certain criteria. You may like it if you fit one or more of the following criteria:

1) You're someone who has tried at least a few times to publish something "creative," like fiction or poetry, and been rejected.
2) Even if you've occasionally been accepted, you have seen stuff get published that you think isn't as good as what you wrote that got rejected. Not always, but sometimes. And you're pretty sure it's not just sour grapes, but you're not totally sure, because no matter what they say, it's really crushing when you get a rejection.
3) You don't really always agree or understand with the advice in writing "how-to" books, such as the well-known Burroway text or Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream or similar fare. Not that you are an unteachable ass who out of hand rejects all advice and just wants to use your natural genius unfettered by so-called "wisdom," but because you are honestly engaged with the advice in the texts and with the literary tradition you love, and feel that not everything you are being told is helpful.
4) You spent (or borrowed, and are still paying back) a ton of money to go to a writing school, and don't feel you learned much of use there. You think most of what you were told in workshops was half thought-out junk that some overworked grad student with three jobs just said so he/she could prove he/she participated while waiting for his/her turn to be read. You wondered if you were the only one who thought that the workshop was a fraud, as well as your grad school writing "program."
5) You think a lot of fiction is being written that's really good, but a lot of it also seems to look similar to everything else that's being written. You wonder if this is because of writing programs. (And yes, you know that like a million people have already made this point.)

I did once suggest to my adviser in grad school that I didn't think the workshop was a great idea. She laconically replied that if I didn't like it, I should leave grad school. I stayed, because I was already in debt and close to a Master's, so I stuck it out for a piece of paper. But the experience did leave me feeling that I was something of a heretic.

So this blog is about the experience of writing and trying to become a better writer, while also being skeptical about those who purport to help me to become better. There is a lot of good, even great advice. There is also a lot of junk. There's probably a lot that might be good for you, bad for me, or vice-versa. This blog is about the struggle (I hate the word "journey") to improve while resisting what doesn't make me better. I hope to find a few kindred spirits.

I'll blog about my reactions to writing books, articles, and blogs. I'll blog about fiction being published now. I'll blog about what I'm writing and how I'm going about making it better and getting it out there. I'll even blog about workshops--I'm hoping to join one soon, just not one made up of grad students. I'll blog about being humble enough to learn and strong enough to stick with what you think works.

Next entry: general thoughts on Burroway and Butler.