The Writing Prompt

A little known fact, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was inspired by a writing prompt suggested during his Thursday evening writing group at the Moscow library. The prompt: “write a story that ends with a suicide via railway. Make vocab twelfth grade reading level and use numerous flashbacks, a minimum of one blizzard, and two characters with names ending in ‘nina.'”

I confess a certain snobby, literary disdain for the idea of writing prompts, as if a real writer wouldn’t need manufactured inspiration from the exercise section of a how-to writing book.  A real writer wouldn’t enter the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest for worst first sentence similar to “it was a dark and stormy night.” And yet, the truth is that I’ve had personal success using writing prompts. One of my grad classes at Penn required us to write a story in the form of an advice column. My story (and others) found publication in volume based on this idea (Prompted). Without that very specific nudge, I never would have written the piece, or probably even conceived of the format.

I’ve also found that when I teach writing, students often respond with creative work that dazzles based on some basic constraints (examples: giving students a startling first line of dialogue, asking them to base a story on a single painting, writing exercises that start with “I remember the first time I…”). Most students seem to thrive on some level of prompting, rather than facing an entirely blank page and carte blanche to write whatever they want.

My hesitation to suggest that you use writing prompts to get started comes from some bad writing prompts I’ve seen. This one, for example: “Suddenly, she discovered…” To me, that prompt sets the writer up for a fatal first sentence that places the climax at the beginning of the story, rather than near the end. It also sets the writer up for some bad first ideas. “Suddenly, she discovered she was a dog. Suddenly, she discovered, she was on Mars. Suddenly, she discovered she didn’t want to marry Bob.” And yet…One of my favorite short stories by Amy Bloom, “Love is Not a Pie” begins very similarly: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding. August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself in the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me.”

In addition, there are a number of writing contests that use writing prompts/constraints as formats for submissions. NPR used to do an excellent fiction contest called “Three Minute Fiction” that would give writers a first line to start with, and the constraint that you had to tell a complete story in under 600 words (something that can be read in under three minutes). I never won any of those contests, but I tried them every time. There’s a recent contest by Owl Canyon Press that dictates the first and last paragraph of a story, asking the writer to fill in the 48 paragraphs in between to create the story. I started that challenge on a day when my brain wasn’t giving me much else, and the trickiness of trying to weave in the first details with the last details in mind felt exhilarating, like figuring out a difficult crossword puzzle. In the meantime, a story started to take shape and I was able to get my word count done for the day. They are out there, those rogue writing prompts, and they are often associated with other constraints, including a deadline to finish.

There is a part of me that still resists this idea of prompts because it feels like I’m cheating somehow by not coming up with my own fuel. But the truth is, it’s sometimes hard to jump-start the creative mind, and so anything that moves you forward—first lines, last lines, deadlines—has value. The goal each day is to put words on the page, and so I suggest that if you, like Tolstoy, find you’re getting the work done by starting with “Suddenly, she found herself on the train tracks…” then by all means, jump in.

A Letter to the Philadelphia Stories Readers

Dear Philadelphia Stories readers,

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining the Philadelphia Stories team as the new Creative Nonfiction Editor. Susette Brooks, my predecessor, has moved to Baltimore for a job opportunity. Though we will miss her at Philadelphia Stories, we also know that we’ll be hearing great news about her writing career in the future. Please join me in wishing her every success.

Susette sought innovative styles and subject matter in her submission choices, and I hope to build upon the solid foundation she’s established by expanding the scope of our CNF selections. As the first child born in the U.S. to Cuban refugees in Germantown, and having resided for many years in Center City and South Philly, I know this is a city bursting with true stories from real people of radically different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. What better place to share your writing than here at Philadelphia Stories?

If you would like to submit your essay, short memoir, or narrative nonfiction, please review the submission guidelines on our website carefully. Please consider the “universal” quality of your submission. Creative nonfiction’s greatest challenge lies in the organization of distinct and sometimes disparate events, details, and thoughts, culled from the enormity and complexity of lived experience that illuminates a real, living, breathing existence. On the page, no less.

Does your submission transcend the anecdote by expressing a deeper truth? Does it reflect your journey towards a revelation that is both satisfying to you and your reader?

If so, I want to hear from you.

Looking forward,

Adriana Lecuona

Creative Nonfiction Editor

 


Though Adriana Lecuona is a native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona won an award from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her memoir-in-progress. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Cure, Somos En Escrito, and others.

George Saunders: My Imaginary Boyfriend

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Celestial Bodies by Pamela Lee

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo and several excellent short story collections, visited Rutgers the other day to do a reading. I went to his master class, which was an informal-ish discussion and Q&A for students and rabid Saunders fans like me.  He showed up, this ordinary man in jeans and a button up shirt, carrying a water bottle and looking a little shy. He has written some of the funniest, saddest, most memorable stories I’ve read (see: “Victory Lap.” See” “Puppy”). I couldn’t believe we were in the same room, and I couldn’t believe how he just acted like this regular person you might see on the subway. I always imagine successful fiction writers as somehow having an other-worldly, untouchable glow. George (may I call him “George?”) appeared very approachable and modest; he’s a teacher too, after all, at Syracuse University, but, I mean his writing has been published in The New Yorker. I am certain that if I ever have a story published in The New Yorker, I will forever forward shun ordinary folk. As the conversation progressed, he was funny, self-deprecating, smart, and generous with his advice.  I took notes because my memory is never reliable (and also because if he happened to look up at me, I wanted him to see someone who was really paying attention).

These are a few of the pieces of advice he offered for beginning fiction writers.

  1. He related a story about how his mentor, writer Tobias Wolff,  said Saunders was allotted only three dreams sequences for his entire writing  career and cautioned that he should “use them wisely.” For beginning writers, this suggestion seems particularly important—dream sequences in fiction are about as interesting as dream explanations by our co-workers. Unless we’re in them, who cares? (This is my interpretation, not George’s).
  2. When a student asked what to do about her work being criticized for being too “raw,” he asked a few more questions, trying to get closer to what she meant. The woman said that her nonfiction was confessional and difficult for others to read. He nodded, and suggested she go back to the page and see if there is a deeper level to the truth she was uncovering.  He suggested she turn toward the criticism from peers, not away from it. He said that most people know what works for them or doesn’t. The writing is for the imagined audience, so we must always be seeking to engage them, and to charm them, line by line. If we can bear to look more closely at our own work, we might uncover something even more beautiful and truer.
  3. Even if you are a young person who hasn’t not necessarily experienced great disaster, you are still allowed to write about trauma. He quoted Chekhov. I wasn’t able to write it all down fast enough so I looked it up just now:  “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws…”  We have all experienced some degree of misery and pain, and so it’s okay to try to imagine it in other contexts.  On a related note, his breakthrough moment as a writer was when he realized that he was allowed to explore this human suffering and also allowed to make it entertaining.
  4. Most dialogue is really a monologue. In other words, in real life and in fiction, we are often speaking not directly to one another, but rather continuing whatever we’re thinking, regardless of what the other person is saying. I find this to be depressing and true. I am working on in my personal life, but in fiction, it’s a useful bit of wisdom. Our characters have their own internal thoughts and egos, and so may actually respond to those things more than what’s being said by another character. We often talk past one another.
  5. Fiction requires empathy training. We have to understand and care about our villains as much as our heroes.  Give the bad guy a limp, a vulnerability, something that the reader can identify with so that he is more alive and complicated.
  6. Consider putting down the phone and/or getting off-line. Take a break from social media and go read some James Joyce. As artists, part of our job is to keep reading. Rework your life so that you are both reading and writing more. Twitter will wait for you.
  7. Be more Buddhist. He did not suggest this—but I am. He did mention that he is Buddhist, and I think that approaching our characters with more humility, attention, and empathy can only help to make them (and the story) more engaging for the reader.
  8. And lastly, make life easier by allowing yourself to throw some words on a page without worrying them to death. Put something in place conditionally, even if you think you will probably get rid of it later. It’s too much pressure to agonize in the beginning, so give yourself a break. Later, you will go back and find the places where the text is boring or the dialogue sounds mechanical. For now, just write it.

The Challenge of Choosing a Winner

Since we launched the Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Contest in 2008, I am tasked each year with two duties. First, I must find a judge who is also willing to come to Philadelphia and deliver the keynote address at our Push to Publish conference, as well as offer a master class the day before. I start this task by reaching out to writers whom I admire. Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t. In 2015, some might say that stalked Bonnie Jo Campbell to convince her to participate. (Well, to be fair, I did chase her down an aisle of the bookfair at an AWP conference.) Still, she agreed to be our contest judge and delivered a wonderful keynote speech and inspiring master class. In other years, I’ve approached writers I’ve had the pleasure of working with and could do a little personal arm twisting, such as Kevin McIlvoy, Michael Martone, Robin Black, and Elise Juska, just to name a few.

It has been our honor and pleasure each year to welcome these writers of national renown to be our contest judges. This year is no exception. Karen Joy Fowler is writer of tremendous versatility, writing successfully in many different genres. She is also very funny, and I’m excited to have her be a part of the Push to Publish experience. Thanks to writer Gregory Frost for the introduction.

My second task is to choose the finalists. Some years I read upwards of 200 hundred stories. This year I only had to read 60. (Thank you to all of our contest readers!) From those final stories, it’s my job to choose the final ten to send along to the judge who will pick the winners. It might strike you as funny that I get nervous about choosing these stories–after all, the judge is not commenting on my work. But I do get nervous. The stories that I choose are a reflection on the magazine, and once I get to this stage, it feels very personal. Ultimately, I pick what I like: stories that are well written, of course, but also stories that take chances with content or form, stories we may have heard before but are presented in new ways—writers who are taking risks and succeeding.

We’re only as good as the writers who submit their work to us, so thank you to all of the writers who trust us with their work each year. This is what Karen wrote in her email announcing the winners:

“I’ve judged several contests of this sort in the past and it’s always hard because one story is a wonderful example of one kind of story and another is just as wonderful, but just a different kind, etc. Still, there are almost always a few stories I don’t like as well that are easily eliminated. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here. Each story was quite incredible, nothing was easily eliminated. Each story was a pleasure and a joy to read. So, I’m impressed with everyone.”

It was no surprise that two of the finalists are highly accomplished. They’ve published stories, essays, poems, and books, but I am just as excited to announce that this will be the first time the third-place winner has ever been accepted for publication (his story will appear in our online edition of the magazine). Having both ends of the publishing spectrum represented in our contest is a real thrill for us, and, more importantly, I think it would have made Marguerite very happy. As always, many heartfelt thanks to the McGlinn and Hansma families for their continued support of the prize and the magazine.

Like It really Is

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Streets of Philadelphia – Summer Fun by Christina Tarkoff

My stepson is reading Romeo and Juliet for his eighth grade English class. I asked him what he thought about it the other day during dinner.

He shrugged and tucked a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

“I don’t want to ruin it for you,” I warned. “But it doesn’t end well.”

“I know,” he responded.

I told him that when I was in eighth grade, I memorized the entire balcony scene from the play. I didn’t tell him that I had done it because I prayed that someday soon, Jim Hurst of the swim team and I may have a similar exchange. Never mind that I lived in single level house in Florida, and the only impediment to our romance was my Coke-bottle eye glasses and his total lack of interest. I pictured a balcony at the Don Caesar, myself in an eyelet dress with sassafras wound in my feathered hair. Him, standing below, possibly in just swim trunks, would call up to me in a deep voice with only a hint of crack, saying: “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d; henceforth I never will be Romeo/Jim.” Somehow, it would work out sans the dual suicide and despite the chasmic-sized popularity differences.

It did not. Wherefore art thou, Jim? (Actually, Facebook tells me that he’s a pro golfer living in St. Pete with twin daughters and a wife named Bethany Anne.)

But these early ideas of romance and storytelling stayed with me as a writer throughout my teen years as I struggled to come up with love stories that illustrated that same longing and defiance that captivated me at age thirteen. I’d write heroes with barrel-chests and tousled golden curls, heroines with eyes that were always a weird color—grey like slate, churning sea green (?), lavender. They were loosely based on a mixture of Shakespeare, the movie Blue Lagoon, and romance novels I stole from my aunt JoAnne. Inevitably, the women wore bodices and the men had ripped blouse-like shirts. I cared mostly about the exteriors, the long descriptions of the way waist-length hair rippled in the summer breeze or the man’s white teeth gnashed with desire, much like a stallion’s, the “maiden blush” bepainting a cheek.

I’d come up with these scenes and show them to my mom, an avid reader, who would concentrate on the lined notebook pages and hand them back with vaguely encouraging words to keep at it.

I knew what I was writing was phony, stolen. Until I was a junior in high school, I hadn’t been kissed. I hadn’t even been in danger of being kissed. There had never even been hand-holding. The closest I had come was a note from Steve Crossett, one year older and a red-head, who’d written that he thought I was “a pretty decent person.” Pin that one up on your bulletin board next to a photo of Christopher Reeves as Superman ripped out of Seventeen.

I asked my mom for advice. How did she think I should write love scenes? She paused, considering. I could see that she was weighing her options. “Write it like it really is,” she said finally. What did she mean? She thought for a minute. She knew that I spent an inordinate amount of time in the library, and very little time with the opposite sex. Unless you counted Wednesday night bell choir practice. “I mean, write about leaning into kiss someone and you miss. Or your elbow going numb on the table while you’re waiting for your date to finish his boring story. Write about what it’s really like, not what you think it should be like.”

This is possibly the best writing advice I’ve ever received, along the lines of well-worn maxim to write what you know. I had thought that writing was all about imagining yourself into the world you wanted to inhabit.  It is that. But it’s also about being able to see that situation as it truly is for your character—to picture all of its complexities and discomforts— the alive parts and the numb parts, the perfect moment and the awkward one. My love stories have mostly been awkward ones. Awkward, funny, lovely, horrible, and true. That’s the writing world I inhabit, and though I still love the tumbling poetry of Shakespeare, I stick to what feels most true to my experience.

Hello Story Lovers!

I’m excited to announce that I’m the new Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories, a role that my predecessor, Julia MacDonnell Chang, graciously recommended. Julia has been my teacher, my mentor, and my confidant for the past few years. Under her tutelage, I’ve been engrained with rigorous creative standards, compassion for other artists, and above all, a profound love for making art.

Julia’s goal has been to publish essay, memoir, and narrative nonfiction that offers new approaches to familiar and unfamiliar subjects. My goal is the same. I hope to continue Julia’s vision for Philadelphia Stories while remaining committed to propelling our community into a new era of literary, personal, and cultural enlightenment.

Here’s how you can help…

Please review the submission guidelines on our website and ensure your story adheres to our standards. In each submission, I’m looking for a story that is unique to your experience, free of clichéd subjects and content, but also has a larger cultural implication that will resonate with readers regardless of ethnicity, religion, geography, and the like. For example, the joy of baseball isn’t a unique story unless the narrative helps readers, who all may not enjoy the sport, understand something new about themselves.

Also, the narration should follow a though-line that somehow connects the last sentence back to the first. I want to trust the literary journey the writer is taking me on, and I need to be confident that every craft decision was made with the clear intent of illuminating each footstep on that journey.

There you have it: The path toward a successful submission. I look forward to taking the journey with you and the rest of the Philadelphia Stories staff. I hope you enjoy.

Happy Reading and Writing!

Warmest Regards,

Susette N. Brooks, M.A.

Creative Nonfiction Editor

______________________________________________________________________________

Susette is a graduate from William Paterson University, and Rowan University’s Master of Writing Arts Program where she received the 2016 Denise Gess Award for her Creative Nonfiction. She is now an MFA candidate at Goucher College and is working on a collection of essays that examine how race, class, and sociopolitical subcultures have affected how she has processed grief. Susette is also the new Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories, a platform she uses to help the community better understand the complexities of the human condition.

 

Let’s face it

Dogwood by Paulette Bensignor
Dogwood by Paulette Bensignor

Pretend that you find yourself in a scary situation. Not temporary fear, like the jolt you get when you imagine you hear someone creeping up your staircase at night. I’m talking about a low-level, constant fear, the kind you that comes when you have a serious health scare or maybe it’s how you felt all through junior high gym class (or really, the entirety of adolescence if you were anything like me) or perhaps it’s the back-of-the-neck, encroaching fear you would experience if you had a political leader who appeared to exhibit impulse control combined with a need to be adored and a trigger-hair temper. And then let’s imagine that your fears keeps getting reinforced and possibly even escalated? What then? If you’re a writer, you write about it.  You write about the disbelief you experience as something new and unexpected develops, or you write about listening to a transcript wherein your leader appears to believe that Frederick Douglass is still alive and maybe living somewhere in a blighted urban community.

That doesn’t mean you have to keep a journal, though you should probably do that to.

If you’re a fiction writer, write about a tense family dinner or a dissolving relationship (see Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk about When we Talk about Anne Frank”), or a dystopian society (see Brave New World) or create a war between farm animals to mirror a political movement.  If you write poetry, careful assemble your words to create an arsenal of images that encapsulate your concerns, your experiences (the Poetry Foundation offers a list of poems for inspiration at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58014). For nonfiction writers, describe the worn face of the woman standing next to you in Shop Rite, wearing whatever button she’s wearing and the assumptions you make about her (good or bad) based on this minor detail. Write about your grandmother’s immigration experience fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and how she had to walk over exploded bodies to avoid land mines.

Like it or not, we are living through a time in America that is unprecedented. Your observations and your stories are need to capture these moments. Write it all down, or at least allow yourself to channel whatever you’re feeling into your work; use your artistic expression to fight this nebulous sense of fear and dread that seems to want to grip us by the throat.  Let this sentence from Chapter 1 of Orwell’s 1984 be your guide:

“The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”

So much more potency in describing the vivid and particular than you could ever achieve by ranting on Facebook.

Speaking of this:  don’t squander your creative energy on social media to combat the views of the high school friend of your sister-in-law. We want so desperately to be right and to set straight those we don’t agree with. But social media can quickly devolve into ad hominem attacks and you can find yourself shouting at your laptop (this has never happened to me, of course) or spending enormous mental space searching for the perfect, searing retort.

Click that box shut. Open a new file, and write the first scene to your new novel instead. Put your energy forward, use all of your heart, and begin filling the page. That is how you fight the darkness.

The Pep Talk

My mother bought tickets to a book luncheon the other day. I’d never heard of that, but it’s a place where a lot of women wearing Chico’s mix-and-match outfits spend $60 to eat chicken while listening to an author speak about his or her books. The author in this case was a very nice man who had published twenty books. He told charming stories about writing, including one where he said that when he had a full-time job, he would write from 5 to 7 a.m. and then hop on a train to Manhattan. Hearing him, I felt ashamed. Why wasn’t I getting up two hours early to write? (Confession: on a very good day, I get in 30 minutes. Most of that is journal writing, so I only occasionally attempt fiction.) Then he told a story about writing a short story for a magazine by first reading six months of back issues of the magazine to determine that editorial board’s particular formula. And I thought, “Why haven’t I done that?” And he also talked about getting 250 rejection letters. And I thought, “Why don’t I get more rejection letters?” Finally, I had to stop comparing myself to him because my jimmy leg was making the water glasses tremble and the ladies were eyeing me over their reading glasses.

Failure is one of the main constants in a writing life. You fail when you get a rejection letter. You fail when you only finish two days of National Novel Writing Month. You fail when you aren’t able to get published in The New Yorker, or when you forget to sign up for Breadloaf or AWP, or when you neglect to renew your subscription to Poets & Writers. You can add them up in the self-torturing list you run through late at night. But really, the only way you fail is when you don’t write at all.

Unlike many well-known and well-published writers, most of us do not have the ability to take six months off from work to go write in the mountains. We did not ever land a job teaching to have our summer free. We have year-round professions, kids to raise, dogs to walk and, sometimes, we have TV shows to watch. We have to make a living, because writing fiction or poetry does not typically bring in the big dough. Most of us have jobs that consume two-thirds of our waking hours or more.

You can even fail at writing and still be a writer. There is no such thing as a real writer. You write and get published, you are a writer. You write and don’t get published, you are a writer. If you need to, hold on to the fantasy that your manuscripts will be published posthumously to great critical acclaim. Be sure to keep the best work in a waterproof envelope marked “for Scribner’s after my death.”

Now, that doesn’t mean you do not have to write at all. You should try to write. If an opportunity comes up to have a weekend to yourself or an hour, you could use that to write. Or not. It’s the pressure of the “shoulds” that can destroy your desire and enjoyment. “Should be” writing for five hours on a Sunday. Should be getting up at 5 a.m. Should be published by now. Should have done more than two days of NANO.

Stop. Writing is supposed to be something you like to do, not something you torture yourself with. You don’t have to enjoy it every second, but if it feels like an intrusion or a trial, don’t do it. But if it’s important to see your words moving across a page, write. Do your best at creating some discipline if you can. Your best effort might be five minutes a day. Or only when you’re on the subway in the morning staring at grumpy faces. But five minutes might turn into more. Or not. Five minutes a day for a lifetime is like…a lot of minutes.

Here are some other things you can do: Send out your work. Start a writing group. Sign up for an online class. Take yourself seriously for once in your goddamn life. It’s fine to fail. Most writers fail many, many, many times before they get published. The other secret few writers admit to is that you can get published and still feel like you failed. Failure is a state of mind that can continue on even after very obvious successes.

“Fail and ye shall find.” I think Shakespeare said that. Not many people know this, but along with plays, he also wrote a ton of sci-fi fiction about talking squirrels.* Did any of those stories get published? No, but I believe he loved writing them.

(*I made all that up. I am allowed. I am a writer.)

Are you ready to pursue your MFA

Answer the following questions as honestly as you can. If you say no at any point, stop. You are not suited to pursue your MFA. If you say yes, continue on to the next question.

 

  1. Do you want to be surrounded by other writers of varying temperament, talents, and levels of dedication? Think carefully before you answer. That means people who might fall anywhere on the spectrum of mental well-being from moderately maladjusted to psychotic.

We’re writers. We haven’t necessarily had the best childhoods. We might be better at writing than we are at say, interacting with other humans.

 

We might also be beginners. We might start our stories with “The alarm clock went off.” We might have just graduated college and be stalling before getting a full-time job and so we might write our workshop drafts between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. the night before class. And we might not even feel bad about it.

If you can tolerate these possibilities, continue on to the next question. Because you will also find people in MFA programs who you recognize as kin–people who love the way words sound, who have grown up coveting their library card more than church, who will become some of your best friends or your worst enemies (note: sometimes, in writing programs, the enemies can be the most inspiring. Those you don’t like or envy or fear can push you to do better work).

 

  1. Are you capable of taking criticism of varying levels of sophistication on a weekly basis about the things you hold most dear?

You might have a fantasy that you’ll walk into a workshop and your professor will have brought along her own literary agent, who is dying to sign you based on your manuscript. Fellow writers will be so blown away by your work that they only have a few minor punctuation tweaks and maybe an idea for a different title (one without ellipses). The whole workshop will be a lovefest. No variation on this scenario will ever happen.

 

Workshops are designed to find the places where your writing falters, to pry apart the unconvincing scenes, to ask questions about the premise, the characters, the plot, and the ability of the writer to realistically render any experience.

And not all of it will be well-meaning. Some of your workshop participants will have spent a total of five minutes skimming your work and will say things like, “I feel like the main character should die in a car crash at the end.” If you can hold it together, workshops are also the place where people other than your mom will try to give you the best guidance they can to make your work better.

 

  1. Are you willing to sleep with poets? Unless you are otherwise partnered (and sometimes, even if you are), it is my experience (and scientific research backs me up) that you will be required to have sex with a minimum of two other writers, most likely poets.

You may also develop a slight drinking problem, and you will most certainly doubt your decision to put your life on hold during this time for your own selfishness and desire for fame. You might also meet your life partner, and/or your best friend, as well as a cadre of people willing to read your work at any time for the rest of your days.

And poets can be good in bed, if you can deal with the aftermath (such as hearing about the poet’s version of the experience at a public reading with 50 of your colleagues where your name and physical features have only been slightly altered).

 

  1. Are you at a place in your life where you can take two or three years off from the working world to focus on writing? You don’t have to be 23 to do this. You can have children, other debt, no money, angry family members who want you to go to law school, and you can still do it. I know people who have earned their degrees at all ages and under all kinds of life circumstances. Some of them have gone on to be professors; others have gone on to be bartenders. Some continue to write and get published. Others decide that the whole MFA thing was a phase. All leave with a graduate degree, debt, teaching experience, and a portfolio of work that they never would have otherwise written in that amount of time. The one thing—the main thing about writing programs—is that they force you to write. It is the only time in your life when writing what you love is your job, your singular focus, your daily chore, and possibly your salvation.

 

Have you said yes to all of the above? I left out some parts about sleepless nights, crying jags, difficulty in finding gainful employment after graduation, and the gnawing fear of failure.

 

And maybe, after all of this, you won’t believe me if I tell you that it was the best thing I ever did for myself and I miss it every day.

As If

Are there any topics we cannot write poems about? Can we write about love or death or the soul or suicide or any other abstraction when Shakespeare and Dickinson and Frost and Plath have covered that territory so well already? Can we write about the funeral of our grandmother with her cold hands folded as if in prayer? About losing one’s virginity under a barnacle infested pier with Randy Tempoco? Can we write about walking down a sandy beach at sunset with seagulls squawking after having broken up with a partner who is a total shit heel? Can we use the term “shit heel” in a poem and still be well-regarded by our peers?

I say yes to all. I say yes, but under one condition: we do not write to impress. Often, much of my writing time is taken up not by writing, but rather by daydreaming about how blown away so-and-so might be with the breathtaking, new way I’ve described a man’s nose, sagging as if it were an eggplant on a vine. Or the reaction of the reader to a poem about the death of  beloved pet, how his eyes will cloud until a single tear rolls saltily down his cheek. That’s when I know I am stalling, because instead of focusing on the blank page, I am thinking about how amazing it will be, once it’s actually written.  At the same time, I have to remind myself that much of what I write will get whittled away in revision. The important part of writing is the act itself, at least in the beginning. For this reason, at the start of a project, I can write whatever clichéd nonsense gushes forth, using tired language and imprecise imagery and leaving out the details that matter. Write, write, write.

Then, I leave it for a few days, or move on to another piece that needs work. In revisiting the writing, I’ll often find that it’s better than I remembered, and also worse. I will have described someone’s face as withered and prune-like, or relied heavily on abstract words instead of concrete descriptions. That’s when the hard work begins, first with the act of cutting away the flourishes or trickery, and then getting back to the subject’s precise essence. The fish’s scales are not like rainbows, of course they are not, they are “like ancient wallpaper,/and its pattern of darker brown/was like wallpaper:/shapes like full-blown roses/stained and lost through age” (from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”).

It is as if I cannot get to the good stuff without first writing the bad. I cannot write about the death of my grandmother without telling of wilted flowers and the head-ache-making smell of magnolias and the flickering candles and the clicking of rosary beads. So, I start there. Instead of trying to force it to be great for my invisible reader, I strive to remember the details of moment, such as the cranky toddler in front of us who sprawled across the pew, showing us her flowered underwear during the Hail Mary’s. This description might not make it into the final piece, but it will be the start of getting to the heart of the moment, so that I can remember it exactly as it was, and not how I think it’s supposed to be.