Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

Joni B. Cole: Write More, Suffer Less

July 27, 2017

Joni Cole AuthorgoodToday we are going to interview Joni B. Cole, author of Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. It’s a wonderful new book, offering much more than just guidance  on craft. Joni’s wit and enthusiasm really make the book shine, which is likely one good reason Poets & Writers magazine included Good Naked on its list of Best Books for Writers.

Andy: Joni, welcome to Ask the Agent. You just published your second book for writers that reflects on how aspiring authors can write more, write better, and be happier. Happier? Really?  

Joni: I know, it sounds pretty out there—telling writers they can be happier. As if. Especially given the fact that when people think of writers, the image that most often comes to mind is that of the suffering artist, or some misanthropic drunk, or the neurotic weeper emoting amid her stacks of chamomile-tea-stained journals. But while those might be the stereotypes that make writers interesting characters in Made-for-TV movies, they don’t do real-life aspiring authors any favors. And if we buy into them wholesale, we’re likely to overlook all the ways we actually can cultivate a more productive, meaningful and, yes, even happier creative process. Good Naked offers insights and practical tips for doing just that, but it can be a hard sell sometimes.

Andy: What is one of the ways writers sabotage themselves.

Joni: One habit I see ingrained in so many writers is how we trash talk our work incessantly, faulting every draft for its shortcomings rather than valuing its role in the development of the story. This is like faulting a baby for not being an adult. A first draft is just that, a first draft, doing the work of not being a blank page. A fifth draft paves the way for a sixth draft. The penultimate draft reveals those tiny missed opportunities that can elevate our work to its full potential. As working writers, our entire job description is to create drafts. This is where we spend all our time. So if we do not find meaning and merit in the now of the creative process, if we are always wishing for a draft more advanced than the one we are focused on in the moment, then our creative lives will always be devoid of joy, until all the writing is done.

Andy: Are there other common behaviors that undermine the creative process?

Joni: Oh yeah. Another example is how we set quotas for productivity that set us up for failure. Of course, we need to develop the habit of writing, which requires discipline and a bar—a tangible measure of productivity. But so many writers set that bar too high—“I will write every single day!” Then when we inevitably fail we are consumed with guilt. So why not set a bar that engenders steady progress, but is also humane? During one resistant period I set my bar at six sentences per day. That’s pathetic, you may be thinking, but it got me to my writing desk, where I then often lingered well after I’d met my meager goal.

Andy: Do you have any particular advice for how writers can invoke inspiration or “The Muse”?

Joni: It cracks me up how we talk of muses as if they are real. How is that different than believing in Santa Claus?The problem with waiting for inspiration from the Muse is that it could be a very long wait, and there goes another afternoon, or week, or sometimes a decade before we sit down to write. As Picasso famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Andy: What about process? Is there a right way to draft a story?

Joni: The right way is whatever works for you. Too many writers buy into the myth that we need to start with an outline and story structure. We think we need to write chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter three…and by that time a lot of us are ready to give up because we hit a wall, or drop into the saggy middle of our stories. For me, and for most writers I know, crafting a narrative in this linear fashion is at odds with our creative process. In fact, even if we could begin writing from an outline, it quickly feels like we are merely connecting the dots. This is how boredom can seep into the writing process. This is why I often advocate writing “random” scenes, irrespective of order, and trust that a narrative arc will assert itself.

Andy: I can imagine what the reader is thinking right now. But what if I write a bunch of scenes and they never fit together?

Joni: All I can say is that, based on years of experience helping writers complete powerful narratives, I am 99.8 percent sure this won’t happen to you. One reason is that, as a writer, your unconscious is a lot smarter than you are, so although your conscious mind may think you are all over the narrative map, the wiser part of you actually knows what it is doing. Even if you write random scenes in any order, you are likely forging connections and creating the elements of a story line without even being aware of it. The actual flow of that story line will become clear once you have produced enough scenes to make that structure more readily apparent.

Andy: Do you have a favorite bit off advice for writers?

Joni: Yes, and it comes from William Carlos Williams, a literary force published in the first half of the twentieth century, and the man I credit for saving writers from the overwhelm of abstraction. Williams described this writing method in the opening line from his poem “Paterson,” which reads: “No ideas but in things.” While Williams left the phrase open to interpretation, it is generally understood that what he meant was for poetry [or any form of creative writing] to deal in real stuff—concrete objects like a red wheelbarrow, or snakes, or snow—rather than dwell in the language of abstractions: truth, love, loss. Grounded in this visual imagery, the writing evokes the abstraction on a more visceral level, making the idea all the more tangible, and powerful. Essentially, this translates to how writers can “show” rather than “tell” meaning and emotion on the page.

“No ideas but in things.” I love the simplicity and directness of this guidance. I can write about things, and trust that my ideas will be conveyed through them.

Andy: In a recent article for The Writer magazine, you wrote about the difference between being an author and a writer. Which do you prefer?

Joni: On a bad day I might answer, whichever one I’m not doing at the moment. But of course both jobs have their highs and challenges. Being an author is a cool job title, but the job itself isn’t all that cool. In a lot of ways you’re your own administrative assistant, and depending on your personality, that means you may find yourself working for one of those bosses from hell. You have to create and keep growing your platform, promoting your work on social media without sounding too self-absorbed and obnoxious. Likely you also have to arrange most of your own book events, and talk yourself down when only two people show up at a reading. You also have to try not to obsessively check your Amazon ranking, or over-react when someone assigns your book two lowly stars out of five, while admitting in her review that she only read a couple pages. But then again, being an author is so worth  it when you realize you actually wrote a book—how great is that!—and people tell you they appreciate your work.

On the other hand, being a writer is preferable to being an author because, work-wise, nothing feels more meaningful to me than that process of discovery and manipulating words on the page to achieve meaning. That is, until I’m really stuck and frustrated, and that’s when I thank goodness I’m also an author because then I can procrastinate by rechecking my Amazon ranking.

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Tom Farber: Teaching Creative Writing

August 24, 2009

Thomas Farber teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Among other awards and prizes, he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three NEA Fellowships for creative writing. He is the author of over 20 books of fiction, non-fiction, essays and a few oddities—books of the epigrammatic–thrown in.

He also founded and directs the non-profit publishing house El Leon Literary Arts, which publishes literary and graphic works that are perhaps just too economically risky for commercial publishing.

 We will be  talking to Tom about the art and science of teaching creative writing.

 Andy: Tom, let’s say I have a concept for a novel. There are these 4 brothers. One is a priest. One is an atheist. One is a moron. And one is a voluptuary. They have a father who is a schmuck, and he gets killed by the moron. There’s also some material in it about sin and redemption to make it look deep. If I take your class in creative writing, what can you do for me to make this into a serviceable novel?

 Tom: Andy, you well know this plot will never fly, not even in a Russian novel. But if it could…

 In my seminars, one of the things that gets conveyed is that prose is a recalcitrant form, almost always takes a number of drafts and much time to get to the heart of the story. There has to be a willingness or, actually, a great need, to bother. There are plenty of books in the world; the book market is cruel; and there are so many wonderful other things to do in the world. I myself don’t privilege books over, say, affection, gardens, music, dance, etc. etc.  Writing is only for the needy of a very particular sort. Writing may also create at least as many problems for the writer as it solves or ameliorates.

 Andy: So maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Can you make a better silk purse?

 Tom:  Yes. So much of writing is at the level of craft, like so many other crafts.  Much of the pleasure in writing is in the revising, making something truer in language. The process of discovery.

 Andy: My friend and I have been walking around Lake Merritt. She isn’t a writer,  but she has been writing a novel. We talk a lot about what is working and what isn’t. Most of our conversations revolve around: the plausibility of the concept and plot, the robustness and believability of the characters, the quality of the dialogue,  flow of the writing and  how to make it dramatic. Are we on the right track? Are there some other issues that we should address?

 Tom: Novels are quite an enterprise. Doctorow said there’s no way out of one except to finish, which can be a long haul. So many things to learn more or less simultaneously, so many things that affect each other. Probably better, if one can, to start with a shorter form—a story, taken from what would be the novel if extended—and master what one can at that length. As for these different variables you mention, plot is, I think,  the least important to worry about. That is, I think you can make any story tellable in the telling. It’s the telling, line by line, that binds the reader to the story. As for dialogue, one can learn so much from reading a writer who’s good at it. I think of the genre writer George V. Higgins, whose The Digger’s Game or The Friends of Eddie Coyle were almost all dialogue. You read them as a writer to learn how Higgins did it. Not quite the same as reading for pleasure. Finally, regarding characters, you simply want them as (virtually) alive as the living.

 Andy: If we were in your class, how would you advise us to work with these building blocks?

 Tom: A writer is someone who writes. There is no way a priori to know how good a book is until it is written. So you write one story, rewrite. Write another. Rewrite. Much is inevitably being learned, if only that one would prefer an easier path to happiness. I think it was Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

 Andy: What do you think about writers conferences? Are there any you especially like?

 Tom: I’ve been a part of only two. One was the Berkeley Writers Conference, hosted by the late Lenny Michaels, at which I met the late Grace Paley and  had the pleasure of time with her. Such an amazing woman. Also met then-unpublished Elizabeth Tallent, read her extraordinary story ‘Ice,’ soon to be published by The New Yorker, the first of many of hers they took. I’d have to say that was quite a conference!

The other conference was when I read at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a low residency writing program. Probably the most attentive and hungry audience I’ve ever read to. A marvelous eagerness in the people there to write and to write well. Also, a fine and committed staff.

 Andy: You know, the cliché is that publishing is a marriage between art and commerce. In my humble opinion, these days the commerce is the dominant partner, and it is looking more like S/M. Are things getting worse for good literature or is it business as usual?

 Tom: Well, as you know better than I, the industry is in disarray. At its best, publishing is where commerce and art intersect, but for all the well-known reasons both aspects are struggling. It’s a wonderful time to have a small non-profit press, however, to do just what one loves with a very, very low overhead. Perhaps New York publishing will reform with a business model somewhat closer to El Leon’s, though no doubt with far less pro bono…Our business travel and entertainment budget last year was less than $200.00.

 Andy: Gee, that is how much I have to pay for lunch with one of my big author / clients.

 Andy: Read any good books lately? What do you recommend? And are there any books that your writing students should read about the craft of writing?

 Tom: I just reread Grace Paley’s A Conversation with my Father, a story from which I never fail to learn more, both about our lives and about the craft of storytelling. Also, just reread Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools,’ a miraculous poem, again, one that teaches me both about our mortality and about the craft of words. Updike said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. One could do worse than to try to emulate Paley or Larkin. As for nonfiction books about writing and the writer’s life, I wrote one, originally published as Compared to What?, later reissued as A Lover’s Quarrel. Also, my latest book, Brief Nudity, is both a writer’s memoir, recounting aspects of life as a writer, and also an argument– by example—of how one might go about telling such a life story.