How did you become a writer?

Week three discussion question for the DIY MFA Street Team–we’re a group of writers who love the DIY MFA website and are supporting the upcoming release of Gabriela Pareira’s DIY MFA book. We’re building a community on FB by sharing blog posts on the weekly prompts.

So here goes: I am a writer because I was a voracious reader as a child, a tween, an adolescent, a young adult–OK, I’m a lifelong voracious reader. And I love stories. Becoming a writer means being able to practice the craft of storytelling.

I also like when I manage to swing my word net and catch the right combination of words and sound that fit into a poem and then open a chink into outer space. Or into my heart’s breath.

As far as I can tell, my first published piece was called “Meditation,” and it was a description of the half-hour walk down the wooded lane from our home to the bus stop, and the piece appeared in my junior-high literary publication–I hesitate to call it a literary magazine. I remember feeling proud–and moreso, I felt productive or useful or just plain good that others reading that piece understood something else or saw something differently or simply enjoyed my words.

There’s ego and arrogance in publication–unavoidable, eh? But I want to err on the side of communication and aesthetics–sharing language is one of the coolest things we do.

Three other points on the trajectory of becoming a writer: At 18, I remember sitting on my single bed and having a short story pour out of me all at once. I thought that might qualify me as a writer. At 19, I remember being in Berlin and finishing The Sun Also Rises, and then thinking, “I want to be Hemingway.” Translation: I wanted to write a novel like Hemingway. Since then, I’ve gained a diverse selection of literary models and heroes, and a PhD in comparative literature expanded my lifelong trajectory of voracious reading.  When I started graduate school, I did not respect my academic writing because I thought I would only be really proud if I published a piece of fiction. I’ve since revised that take on writing because I believe any kind of writing takes a good chunk of creativity and craft.

So here I am. A woman who has journaled for over 30 years, has a few academic articles and poems published, has been blogging since 2003, has taught writing and literature off and on for over thirty years, has done freelance editing, and is revising a middle-grade novel. I became a writer by reading a lot of books on writing, being in writing groups, and practicing.

passion, discipline, play, work

My son recently said that he wants a job that does not feel like work. Much (or most?) of the world works to pay bills, and like my son, many people work hard every day expending energy that does not arise from passion but from necessity. I’ve always thought our world would improve quickly if we had government-sponsored sabbaticals–six months every three years–enough money to have our needs met for six months so that we can dream, draw, write, compose, play instruments, sew, wander, get lost, find ourselves, look elsewhere, focus right here, garden in the big juicy now. Creativity needs fallow time to gather energy.

What does all this have to do with writing? I think many of us have the perception that making art means experiencing one happy spark of creativity after another. So, yes, artists follow passion. But passion isn’t all peaches and cream. Passion requires discipline–the act of consistent work. Consistent work is a spiritual practice. We lay the paint on the canvas, snap the photo, write the word over and over again because we have faith in our passion. Practicing our craft one moment at a time is an act of shuttling between left and right brain. We weave together discipline, passion, play, and work. The intermingling of despair and joy, sweat and rest, meditation and light-speed inspiration powers our art.

So write with and through inspiration and drudgery. We need both.

reading

Writers read.

Sounds simple enough. But let’s unpack that statement.

First of all, it’s true. Ask any writer to name his or her influences, and you won’t be able to get that writer to shut up.

Go to any blog offering advice on writing a certain genre, and the advice-giver will tell you to read books in that genre–a lot of books in that genre.

Writers produce the written word. If we don’t become fluent in the written word by reading lots of examples, how can we become fluent in our writing? Yes, we become skilled in writing by practicing our craft–write, write, write. But that practice rests in the arms of a world of books.

Yesterday, I visited the Tucson Festival of Books, which began in 2009 and has grown in such a short time to one of the largest book festivals. And the thousands of visitors testified to this comforting fact: the book is not dead.

What a rush to walk by so many tents belonging to used book stores, small presses, and individual authors. I wanted to hear Ana Castillo, whose novel, So Far from God, is one I admire and enjoy. Castillo read a chapter from that novel (her reading voice captivates) and answered questions. At the book signing afterwards, I asked her what she would tell my students to convince them to read: “I can’t tell them anything you haven’t already told them. Reading opens up the world for you. It did for me.”

At the University of Arizona bookstore tent, I happened by a young adult novel and had to buy it. It’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, and in her dedication, the author, Isabel Quintero, writes this: “En primero: para la persona who first read to me and taught me that words mattered and changed you. Gracías Mamá.”

The local NPR station interviewed J. A. Jance, the prolific mystery writer (another author at the Festival of Books), and she named her second-grade teacher as her inspiration for becoming a bookworm. Jance described shelves and shelves of books under a window in Mrs. Spangler’s classroom and how she gravitated towards the Wizard of Oz books. While her classmates wanted to be the magician behind the curtain, Jance said she wanted to be Frank Baum, the wizard behind the words.

Both these writers faced challenges. Jance describes a male creative writing professor at the University of Arizona who denied Jance entrance into his class because “Women become teachers and nurses. Boys become writers.” Castillo said she’s a self-taught writer. Although she believes in the power of education, she didn’t study English or Spanish: “I thought that if I went into English, they would tell me I couldn’t write English. I thought if I went into Spanish, they would tell me I couldn’t write Spanish.”

Both writers overcame those challenges to become hugely successful. With over 50 books published, Jance said in her interview that it’s no accident the “crazed killer” in her first hardback was a professor of creative writing. Castillo’s language melds her English and Spanish word-artistry. Her younger self, caught in that neither-nor split many multilingual and multicultural writers in the U.S. face, bloomed into a both-and embracing of all linguistic heritages. (See my posting on “writing when English is not your mother tongue.”)

If you want to write, then read, read, read.

As Castillo says, “Reading opens up the world for you.”

voice

Under “Class Philosophy” in my course syllabus, I include a list, “What I hope you’ll learn about writing and yourself as a writer,” and the last bulleted item is the following: “recognize, appreciate, and build your writing voice.” On the first day of class last week, students got into groups to present their section of the syllabus to the rest of the class and to ask questions about the material. One student asked, “Why is it important to build your writing voice?”

“That’s a good question,” I said, and then stared off into the back corner of the room hoping a succinct answer was scrawled on the ceiling. That’s not true. I knew there was no answer on the ceiling, but I do stare off into the distance when I’m thinking hard. And that question demands some intense thinking.

I’m not sure what I answered, but I remember being long-winded as I fumbled for words. What is voice? How does a beginning writer recognize his or her voice? Develop it? Play with it?

I like what William Zinsser says in On Writing Well at the end of his chapter entitled “Style”: “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going” (23).

“Believe in your own identity and your opinions”–this may be the sticking point for younger writers, especially those fresh out of high school. If your voice has been pulled, pushed, and prodded by formulaic writing assignments, standardized testing, and uninspired reading selections, then your identity and your opinions have not had much exercise or play time. Developing your writing voice means experimenting, trying on vocabulary and tone, playing with sound and syntax. That kind of writing growth requires time, dedication, mentors, feedback, inspiration, critique, practice, practice, practice.

I still haven’t answered the question. Why is it important to develop your writing voice?

Because that’s the art and craft of writing. That’s why I want to read your writing–because your voice is you, and I want to get to know you and your ideas, see what I can learn from you. Because voice is infinitely variable and creative. Read a short story by Lorrie Moore. No one else writes like she does. If you know Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, you’ll always recognize a Brooks’ poem, even with her virtuoso range of poetic style.

If you have not yet developed your writing voice, no worries. Keep playing. You’ll know when you sound like yourself.

“a disemboweling guard llama raised by nuns”

I would have given up my first cup of Raging Sage coffee in the morning to have written this line.

But I had the pleasure of hearing this line by Luke Runyon on NPR’s Morning Edition. Runyon’s piece, “Nuns on the Ranch Give a Heavenly Twist to Beef,” offers a clear example of how effective writing makes or breaks the information we sift through, the entertainment we consume, and the education we seek. Writing hangs out all over the place: in the texts we receive and send, in the blogs and tweets we read and post, in the scripts of our favorite movies and TV shows, and in the news feeds we subscribe to.

Journalistic writing is its own genre, and Runyon’s piece follows that genre as applied to a radio story. A radio news story is put together differently than a news story produced only in print. The sound collage that fits together the interviewed voices and the narrator’s voice requires attention to voice and rhythm in different ways from print-only voice and rhythm. But the radio piece is anchored in effective writing, skilled craft, which is easy to recognize in the title of Runyon’s piece, in the structure, in his choice of facts and quotes. I heard Runyon’s piece first in the car and held onto that “disembowelling guard llama raised by nuns” phrase as one that I wanted to write about. OK–I guffawed in the car when I heard that phrase. Then, when I read the piece online when I got home, I missed the sound. Even though the voices are absent from the print piece, I heard their echoes as I read. I heard Sister Maria Walburger-Schortemeyer’s laugh as she explained that praying is like a cow chewing a cud and that the Lord is not only a shepherd but also a cowboy. These are fantastic lines. And we get to hear and read those lines because Runyon knows his craft: he knows how to select the right quotes and how to place those quotes for the effect he wants. He entertains and informs.

Good writing almost disappears. Listeners tuned into Runyon’s piece may not notice the writing, but they will laugh and smile, nod their heads, and finish out the piece with a sense of satisfaction–of having learned something and having enjoyed the process of learning. Runyon’s craft makes that difference.

synesthesia

I like the sound of that word.

I’ve also always liked how synesthesia works in writing. Practicing synesthesia is like a jolt from a high-octane energy drink. Your writing boosts off your page and pings off the nearest star, smelling of thunder and yelling red.

Ooh. That last phrase was delicious. Notice the synesthesia? I used smell for thunder instead of sound, and I used sound for red instead of sight. I mixed up the expected senses.

What does a baby’s smile sound like? How does a gravestone taste? What smell marks your anxiety?

Now, literary synesthesia is one thing–pretty straightforward and a helpful writing tool. Actual synesthesia is much more complex–I’m fascinated by what I’ve learned just from the Wikipedia entry. I wonder how I would negotiate the world if I were a synesthete with color-graphemic synesthesia (letters and numbers have colors) or chromesthesia (sounds or music trigger colors).

Sounds like a helluva writing prompt. Go to the Wikipedia page, pick a form of synesthesia, and then write a descriptive passage through the lens of that form of synesthesia. May your creativity bounce through clouds.

write about a cholla bud

I have the mixed blessing of working on a campus with a culinary arts program that prepares lunch. For $6.22 (including tax), I can get a full-course meal with entrees such as vaquero pulled pork, sizzling catfish with ginger and ponzu sauce (what is ponzu sauce?), and sides such as braised cabbage with apple and fennel, and baby kale and pineapple salad. On the one hand, the foodie in me loves exploring the new dishes. On the other, I always buy the full meal, which means I have to try the desserts. I’m pretty sure my pants are tighter than when the semester started. But the slice of lemon dacquoise cake I had last week was worth it. I had never heard of a dacquoise cake.

Tomorrow, the meal will be filled with indigenous dishes, including a squash and cholla bud enchilada, tepary bean and nopale salad, mesquite corn bread, and capirotada for dessert. When I looked up “capirotada,” I found out it is a kind of Mexican bread pudding with highly religious connotations and is served on Good Friday. I still don’t know what a tepary bean is, but I’m pretty sure “nopales” are the buds from the prickly pear cactus. I think. Aha! I was almost right. The nopal is the pad of the prickly pear cactus, not the bud that can be made into jam.

The culinary arts school sends out the weekly menu and includes information about one ingredient. This week, I learn that cholla buds are calcium- and iron-rich and taste like asparagus. I am eager to eat cactus parts tomorrow.

What does any of this have to do with writing? My creativity has been a bit corraled by the time constraints of a full-time teaching job, and when schedules get tight, writers need to get even more creative in carving out writing time and sparking creative prompts. My prompts hang out in culinary arts these days. Trying different foods allows me to experiment with taste, and that creative meandering spills over in to writing.

So if you’re stalled, stumped, or even somewhat slovenly, shake up your daily routine and look to another art form to play with. The sensory input of taste can shift language. Or, write about food. One of the culinary arts staff participated in our National Day on Writing celebration by bringing three poems about food, and the one by Seamus Heaney called “Oysters” is a feast: “My tongue was a filling estuary, / my palate hung with starlight: / As I tasted the salty Pleiades …”

the topics we avoid

I mentioned to my evening class that I needed ideas for blog postings. One student asked me, “Have you written about your mother lately?”

I responded in a nano-second. “Ah, yes. I could write about topics we avoid writing about.”

Yes. Of course I would make that connection. I don’t write a lot about my mom. Dementia has proven to be a helluva topic to write about. OK. Let me rephrase that. My mom’s dementia–not just dementia as a medical brochure–that topic flits away from me. Maybe that’s why I’m always on the lookout for good writing on dementia. I treasure writing that puts into words what remains unspeakable, wordless, language-mangled.

Some topics demand their own schedule. My friend, Ana, a poet who died of ovarian cancer in January, 2009, only began writing about her cancer towards the end of her three-year struggle. She wasn’t ready to write before then. I remember giving her the prompt “green” over the phone, and I remember listening to Ana read me her freewriting based on that one word. I remember her writing about a plant in the waiting room before she went in for chemotherapy.

I don’t write much about my mom’s dementia because I don’t like a lot of my thoughts and feelings. I don’t like that sometimes I worry more about getting dementia than I worry about how my mom feels when her tongue reaches for a word and trips over a new-born nonsense word. I don’t like our throwaway culture of our elders, and as much as I am happy about the place my mom now lives, no place offers full dignity for the aged. I don’t like that I sometimes fidget during visits with Mom instead of being still, being there, accepting the vastly different reality that is my mom’s brain on dementia.

There’s no wrapping my own brain around the brain-twisting, funny-house mirror that is dementia. I can’t pin this experience down, this being a daughter to a mother whom I often do not recognize. I can’t fix my own feelings with a straight pin to a cork board and dissect what refuses to coalesce into language.

The topics we avoid hold creative and healing power. Those topics demand respect, patience, and courage. Treat them as the sacred vessels they are; honor their language and their timetable.

the aesthetics of words

My sister and I were having a discussion this morning on how much we both dislike the word “impactful.” Not too long ago, “impact” functioned as a noun: “What sort of impact on our sales will this new law have?” But my linguistic eye started twitching when noun jumped to verb: “This new law impacts our sales.” What’s wrong with “affect”? OK. Full disclosure. When I read back this sentence with “impact” as a verb, it doesn’t sound as weird as it used to. Or as eye-twitching.

For a nuanced read of “impactful,” check out Anne Curzan’s post, “What to Do About Impactful?” (Thanks to MJ for that resource.)

But here’s the thing. The word sounds ugly. Can anyone call that word beautiful? “Mellifluous”–that’s a beautiful word. “Recondite”–beautiful with all its sharp edges. “Azure” — you can hear the cello, I swear.

So do we tend to use the vocabulary that pleases our ear and avoid words that beat up our ear drum? Maybe not. Do we have our idiosyncratic list of words that produces a gag reflex? Absolutely. I’m not sure “impactful” will ever leave my list.

grammar delight

Mention the word “grammar” and reactions tend to rage bipolar, as in, “Wow! I used to love diagramming sentences. Why don’t they teach that in school any more?” and, “Oh. You’re an English teacher? I better watch my language.”

When people I meet react to my profession with a “I better watch my language,” they’re not worried about crafting a metaphor or employing a kick-ass vocabulary. They’re looking at me as the grammar police, an attitude they learned somewhere along their journey through language arts classes and first-year writing in college. I meet these middle-aged refugees from the red-penned pages of bloodied compositions more often than you might think, and their scars still ooze that one dismissive teacher’s red ink.

I’ve written on this blog before about how grammar is not absolute but morphs according to usage; it is historically contextual (language in transition). But I want to write about the opposite of grammar gloom–I want to write about grammar delight. Yes, I was one of those ninth-graders who loved diagramming sentences. I also love jigsaw puzzles. I’m beginning to believe more and more that writers have more in common with engineers than they do with painters. Writing gets put together. Writers build with language, and grammar offers the structure of that language. (For a quick and helpful read about diagramming, check out “Taming Sentences” by Kitty Burns Florey.)

“Grammar delight” is not an oxymoron but a state of linguistic play when analyzing how a sentence holds together. I had a chance recently to reinvigorate my grammar delight while taking my first massive online open course (MOOC) through Coursera. I took Crafting an Effective Writer, a basic writing course offered through Mt. San Jacinto College–along with about 60,000 other students from about 170 other countries. We’re in our last week of the class. I enrolled in a basic writing course because I had participated in a webinar describing the evolution of this course, and I wanted to experience it as a student especially to see how community college students might use this MOOC to prepare for their first-year writing courses.

I had not realized that I’d lost some of my grammar mojo until I hung out at the Grammar Connoisseur discussion thread. There, I refreshed my understanding of absolute phrases and phrasal verbs, and I paid more attention to subordinate clauses and compound-complex sentences. I noticed that the writers posting in this discussion list and others bordered on giddy when finding an answer to their grammar questions. Building stuff is play, and I’d forgotten the fun of building sentences by talking about grammar.

I also realized that I wanted a good, solid, non-digital handbook. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, now sits next to my bed. As soon as I finish this sentence, I’m going to go read about participial phrases.