A Worthy Exercise

When I wrote in college, I always hit a wall at about 2000 words. I could spend days doing research and organizing my ideas, but when I got out my yellow pad and began to write, eight pages was my limit. At that point, I’d said everything I wanted to say. This wasn’t a serious problem in college; I wrote well enough to get passing grades. When I started graduate school, though, I realized (duh) that eight pages wasn’t enough. I had to push myself to say more about the Roman Attitude Towards the Christians During the Fourth Century A.D. or The Significance of the Order of Horace’s Odes.

Being able to churn out lots of words is a skill my students struggle to master. Even after weeks of writing journal entries and stories, a few of my creative writing students can’t seem to put out more than two hundred words at a time. Part of the problem is that they don’t have a lot of experiences to supply them with material.  Another part is that they don’t trust their own imaginations enough to let go and write badly, which is the first step to writing well. Writers know this, but our students have been taught to keep their page clean until they are sure of the right answer.

This new year, I have begun an experiment: write less. My goal is to write one hundred words a day — exactly one hundred — about anything. More


I’m getting sort of stressed, realizing how much stuff I need to do in order to live a truly minimalist life. I have far too many clothes, books, DVDs, appliances, cooking utensils, gadjets. All of these are destroying my chances of happiness. They are keeping me from Getting Things Done and focusing on the One Thing that Matters, or even figuring out what that One Thing is.

Getting that Zen thing down takes a lot of effort. Maybe I’ll look for another article to read.

Recently I’ve read a lot of articles and a couple books about minimalism, organization, getting things done. All of this gives me new ways to spend my time without really producing anything. I can take in a lot of advice without really changing anything inside me.

It may be that enlightenment is approaching, because I am finally beginning to understand what I already know: life isn’t about Getting Things Done; it’s about Doing Things.

Proponents of GTD will say, “Of course. That’s what GTD is all about — getting the time and focus to accomplish what’s important to you.”

But that’s not exactly what I mean. What I have learned about myself is that a sense of accomplishment is less satisfying to me than the accomplishing. Getting there is better than being there.

Wordsworth said, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Ask yourself which is more important: the emotion or the recollection — or the resulting poem? For me, the the poem is less important than the emotion and its recollection. The act of writing is more satisfying than “having written.” Working on a story — getting ideas, inventing characters and scenes — is not a chore that must be finished so that I can mail out another box of pages. It’s just what I do.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie Harvey is Veta Lousie Simmons’ explanation of what art is: More

Plagiarizing Poet, part 2

The Plagiarizing Poet has struck again. How can this be? Was I not stern enough the last time?

It is (according to him) my fault. Did I really expect him to write eight poems?

(Tiresome excuses continue as Dax rolls eyes and uses body language to say, ‘Do I look like an idiot? Or are you one?)

Dax: Well, the good news is that we can now answer the question, “Am I passing?”

PP: Do you mean that I have an F?

Dax (palm itching to slap own forehead): Why, yes. If my math is correct, zero plus zero still equals zero. More

Grading a Short Story

Round three has just ended. On Monday my Creative Writing students turned in their third short story. You would think that by this time I would not be daunted by a pile of student writing.

Wrong. I approach that pile with great reluctance.

Writing critiques is not hard for me. If I have any gift as a literary critic, it is to see the potential in any story. I’m not a negative person; I see a glass half empty and order another pitcher. Drinks all around.

Critiquing a story is not the same as grading a story. The comments I write on students’ papers are kind. I point out problems, but I am always encouraging. I see what the story could be, and offer some guidance.

But comments are not what students look at; they scan the paper for the only thing that really matters: the grade.  The story that earns an A will not be revised in any way — what would be the point? There is no higher grade than an A. Even a B will satisfy most students.

The story that earns a D will be crumbled up and tossed in the trash. The idea may be good, but unrealized, mainly summary without a resolution. It may even be a more interesting idea than the story that got a B. It doesn’t matter. A D is a D. That’s all they see.

The only story that might get revised is the one that gets a C. I give a lot of those.

Even the neediest story on Scribophile is in a different universe from most of the stories in my grading folder. More

Breathe In

“I have ideas, but I don’t have the time to turn them into stories. Then, when I finally have time, my mind is a blank.” This was me complaining to another writer about my lack of progress. “What do you do when you’re not inspired to write?”

Her reply took me by surprise: “Inspiration is only a small part of writing. Time multiplied by Focus equals manuscript. If you’ve got a little time, you need a lot of focus. If you don’t have much focus, you’re going to need a lot of time to produce something. So which do you have more of — time or focus?”

My math brain thought about this for a long time, but this equation did little to get my book written. I knew I didn’t have many hours to write, and apparently I had little focus, either. Women are naturally better at multi-tasking, I decided. I have no talent for it.

My own experiences finally taught me the truth in her advice. My first novel took me only a few months because a) I had a lot of time to work on it; and b) it sucked when I was finished. I’ve written two more since then, have three more in various stages of incompletion, and more failed attempts than I care to count.

So, how do I manufacture inspiration? Here’s my list: More

The Slough of Despond

Back in November, I finished a novel for NaNoWriMo. (if you’re coming in late, that’s National Novel Writing Month.)

I missed National Novel Finishing Month (December). Who can work on writing in December, what with Christmas cookies to bake, cards to send out, halls to deck, etc. — what were they thinking?

This month is National Novel Editing Month. *smirk* As if I’m anywhere close to fixing commas and hunting down adverbs.

Reactions to my announcement that I’d won in November ranged from, “Cool. What do you get?” to “Why would anyone want to write a novel in a month?”

Yes, I finished. *Patting self on back*

Fortunately everyone is so tired of hearing about it that they don’t keep asking me, “Have you sent your novel out to publishers yet?”

Most of my friends aren’t writers. They don’t know about the hard truth of revision. They think you write it, and then you publish it. Sort of like a blog, but longer.

I am stuck in the Slough of Despond. I sink under the weight of my own bad writing.

Nano month was a great experience for me. It taught me how to write a first draft — just get it down on paper. Worry about revision later.

Later is now. More

Writing is not a Cure. It’s a Disease.

Sometimes I hear the advice, “Write about it.”

There is a kind of writing that soothes the soul, allowing me to blather on about my unhappiness until I tire of it and go get an oil change.

That is not a productive kind of writing. It is not a writing that generates anything but self-admiration or self-pity.

The kind of writing that produces stories hurts. It’s also fun, but you can’t have the fun parts without the pain. It’s like fight club; it’s always the first night and you have to fight.

I journal a lot, but mostly to avoid complaining to everybody about everything. So I complain to myse More

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