Tag Archives: Writing

Notes toward an MFA creative writing module

INTERVIEWER: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?

VONNEGUT: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.

And somewhat less flippantly:

VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

The problem of being anyone at all

Those who disparage authors for practicing auto-fiction tend to believe character is a steady state that can be adequately represented on the page and thus see the autobiographical as an easy option, a copout. What they want instead is a determined effort of the unbridled imagination representing many different characters, all stable and well-defined, interacting with one another. Both the stability and the creativity are reassuring, even when the drama may be tragic. Those who recognize the problem of being anyone at all, the difficulty of keeping the performance on the road from one moment to the next, will have priorities of a different kind.

Tim Parks at the NYRoB.

Seven billion spiders

Here, then, is what makes all members of the species Homo sapiens cultural animals. They come into the world quite incomplete, and pick up what they need to know, and more, by learning from life, and in very large part from one another. As at the same time social animals (and for them the social and the cultural go together, inseparably), they deal with life and with each other in large part by way of interpreting and making signs, managing meaning. And this is what culture is about: meanings and meaningful forms, more or less organized into wider complexes. In an oft-cited passage, Clifford Geertz […] concluded that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” The abstraction of that formulation, however, risks making it a bit misleading. There is not just a single, solitary spider in that web, but a great many—by current estimates, over seven billion of them.

From Hannerz, U. (2016). “Reporting from the Future.” In Writing Future Worlds (pp. 113-133). Springer International Publishing.

Nominations and nominality

Quoth the redoubtable Nicholas Whyte:

This is a very well done and well executed piece of work, and I really enjoyed reading it and can understand why people nominated it. However it is clearly a work of fiction, so I won’t vote for it at all in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Well, it’s clearly not a work of non-fiction, if you’ll excuse the double negative; I think it’s just as clearly not a work of fiction, either, or at least not entirely. It is a hybrid thing, a mutant, a creature of the liminal; the spotlight is not flattering to such animals, which is why they shy away from it.

The same may be said of its author.

Poor scribblers!

Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their experience, and make a second pass at the day-today, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”

From “The Concept of Experience”, by Mark Greif (Against Everything, Verso, p85)