Storytelling is inherently dangerous

My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who’d worked on the David Letterman Show. Adam’s scripts were the best thing about Get a Life – and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice. That was the job.

I was frustrated with the results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. The major obstacle to this is your deeply seated belief that “you” is not interesting.

When I first got the job, I couldn’t talk in the writing room. I was working on a sitcom and I could not talk. It wasn’t as if I chose not to talk, or I didn’t talk – I couldn’t open my mouth. No words would come out. And that went on for six weeks. I thought I was going to get fired, and probably should have been.


Storytelling is inherently dangerous. Consider a traumatic event in your life. Think about how you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about how you told it for the hundredth time. It’s not the same thing. Most people think perspective is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: it’s a reconstruction with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.

– Beginning of an article by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, “Why I Wrote Being John Malkovich,” in the Guardian. Via ArtsJournal.

art, quotes, writing

They’re just not what interests me any more.

INTERVIEWER: You once said you based the Wild Things on your elderly, uncouth Jewish relatives. Have you become one yourself?

SENDAK: Apparently I have, and I’m not even a relative. It’s just being Jewish and old age. I’ve become an old person like the old Jews I knew. Sort of bitter, yet not bitter. I would say strangely that this is a good time for me. This is a good time for me to put aside all kinds of things and just to go back what it was like when I fell in love with William Blake and saw the world through his eyes for a minute and was so happy. And that world still exists in spite of us. This is the only time I have ever felt a kind of inner peace.

I mean, it’s great to have a successful book. I’m not so dumb as to not know that is a good thing. But that is not the thing, and that’s why this is a good time. Because the important things – what were considered important to me – are no longer important. They’re not shame-faced, they’re not bad. They’re just not what interests me any more.

Maurice Sendak interviewed in the Globe and Mail. Via Artsjournal. (Happy Rosh Hashanah, everybody.)

Uncategorized, writing

One of the best reasons to participate in any workshop environment

This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now, a few months out of the MFA.

When you’re in a dedicated workshop environment, the opinions of your classmates and teachers will mirror the opinions you’ll hear from editors and readers in the world beyond. You’ll have one to three years of hearing and getting used to those opinions before they are presented to you in the form of faceless one-line letters or brief asides. I’m not talking only about rejection letters here, but all forms of communication with other people about your work. An offhanded comment at a party or in an email, for example.

What this buffer period of listening to people’s opinions means is that these comments have a lot less power to unsettle you. Editor X, or Friend Y, says to you (for example–this is obviously not a comment I ever get!) “Poet, your poems are too short.”

If this is the first time you’ve ever heard this, it’s going to make you feel weird. You may, perhaps, overreact to it, and take immediate steps to double or triple the length of all your poems.

If, however, you’ve had two years of listening to people tell you your poems are too short, you’ve had time to come to terms with it, to evaluate it, and decide whether or not you want to actually do something to change this element of your writing. Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t–but you’re not caught off guard by the comment.

Instead, you can put the comment into context. You have a bit more data on how people tend to respond to your work, and you know if this response is a familiar or an unfamiliar one.

This idea of having more audience response data is especially important, I think, for poets, who have a smaller readership anyway. It’s really useful to have a couple years of people responding to your work to draw on while evaluating commentary and critique you receive in the future.

A workshop is an artificially accelerated form of giving audience response–feedback–to a writer. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not without flaws, but it doesn’t not do this one thing.


almost done

with the Andrew Motion biography of Philip Larkin. Larkin was so miserable and tortured he makes Samuel Beckett look like the most well-adjusted writer in writerdom. (Beckett’s biography was the last one I read.) Although I am getting tired of Larkin’s many socially repugnant opinions, you can’t help feeling sorry for the man nonetheless. He wasn’t a particularly progressive person, or even, in many situations, a kind one, but he wasn’t a happy one, either.

For the record, I still love his poems–there have been, as of yet, no revelations that can change that.


Had, having, and in quest to have

I have just realized shall be able to refer, obliquely, to last semester as “the semester of the sonnet competition.”

There was, indeed, a sonnet competition, judged this year by A.E. Stallings, and for weeks, our out-of-workshop workshops revolved around sonnets, as many of us attempted to write them. I didn’t try. It is only now, looking back, that I am surprised at myself for not having made the effort.

What better time to write a sonnet, than when all your friends are doing it? Perhaps (I know this is at least partially true) I thought their sonnets were so good I did not need to bother. Perhaps (also partially true) most of the things I have to say tend to be pleasantly unwieldy and exposition-heavy, and unsuitable, I thought, to the form. But why didn’t I try?

I don’t know. I think I half-have in mind a snarky comment made by one poet on another poet’s online post where the snidest thing he could think of to say was “Hey X. Still writing sonnets?”

Why have I still not–I think ever, really–written a sonnet as more than an exercise?

The line length is something I have never liked very much, either. I write lots of poems of these lengths:
12 lines (3×4)
16 lines (4×4 or 2×8)
15 lines (3×5)
18 lines (3×6)
but 14?

books, quotes, writing

somewhat less despondent

“I called the other afternoon, at the laudanum hour, upon Bernard Hudley, the dramatist, and found him, to my astonishment, somewhat less despondent than he had been on my previous visit some months before. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked anxiously. ‘Can I do anything to depress you?'”

– James Thurber, “Afternoon of a Playwright,” from Credos and Curios, a posthumously published collection of short pieces


last semester,

we remarked, a number of times, on Wallace Stevens’s habit of composing poems in his head as he walked to work and then dictating them to his secretary. I have been thinking of this lately because of the amount of time I’ve spent on buses and subway cars lately. Every time I have a prolonged stretch of time on public transit, I get more writing done–and more rhythmical, regular writing. It’s not quite composing the whole poem in my head, but frequently large portions of it get done that way. The rhythm of the train car, like the rhythm of the walk, is part of the process.

All of which is to say that this has been a poetically productive vacation.

self-blogerential, writing

this morning,

before work, I walked to a coffeeshop, and I had Larry Levis’s book Elegy in my bag.

As I put it in there, leaving the bedroom, I immediately thought of a blog post that ran something like “This morning / reading Elegy at ___name of trendy coffeeshop____, (sentence continues.)”

Arrgh. Documenting your own life loses authenticity in both the documentation and the life if you start altering either for the appearance of the other.

And yet it is not wrong to be always thinking of the documentation. It’s just that it (the constant thought) can lead to a certain forcedness.

I did not take Elegy out of my bag. I’ve just gotten to the point that I don’t like to leave the house without a book of poems stashed somewhere. Having bought Howl in SF, this has become easier. (And that last is true, not something I made up because it would sound good in a blog post.)

To work, to work. More editing.

self-blogerential, writing

Recently on Facebalk,

two of my friends, J and A, each linked to a post, “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult,” on the Allie Brosh humor blog Hyperbole and a Half. I looked at it, and then I read most of the blog, and then I started writing (by hand, not using a computer drawing program as she does) a journal entry of my own with similar interspersed pictures, trying to use the same format of larger chunks of text interspersed with drawn illustrations.

I really, really like what happened. Really. Really. Alot. I intend to put it up soon.

The results reminded me of other ventures I have made into drawing with text. I’ve experimented with this quite a bit in the past but never found the right balance for myself. I am not a very good artist. I get impatient. I tend to write lots of text and then bore myself having to go back and insert all the pictures. I have several long, long semi-comics that are entirely written and only partially illustrated.

What I like so much about Allie’s format, however, is that she permits herself to use as much text as necessary before inserting the next picture. (In the manner of the This Recording photo essays and other things on the internets, yes, but I hadn’t realized before now that this format would work for memoir/humor/narrative nonfiction sort of things as well as journalism.)

So this means that when writing a picture/story thing, you do not have to use a picture in every panel. The entire idea of “panels” is out. Your images illustrate the text, as in a newspaper article, but you have a much higher percentage of images to text because the format permits you to “print” them without any added cost.

You only need to use as many pictures as you want. For punch lines, or illustrations. It’s like a storyboard with more story than board.

This. Is. Excitement.


Never change anything if you don’t agree with the change.

You taught in the John Hopkins writing program for 26 years before your retirement. What sort of impact did this role have on your own fiction? What were some of the most vital lessons that you endeavored to impart on, what turned out to be, a generation of writers?

I taught for 27 years. Sept., ’80 to June, ’07. Maybe that is 26 years. Teaching had no impact on my writing.

My main characters were often teachers in college, but you rarely saw them teaching. One story, “Eating the Placenta,” in my 1984 collection Time to Go, has a teacher trying to avoid an unavoidable student who wants feedback on a story he’s written. The teacher wants to hurry home to attend to his wife, who called him in his office to say she needs to be taken to the hospital to have their first baby. The student is unrelenting, follows him most of the way home. That’s an example of how I included my teaching experiences into my writing.

Or in Frog, a writing teacher goes crazy in the classroom, turns over a table, needs quick psychiatric help. Otherwise, I found the academic setting void of material. I kept the experience of teaching on the outskirts.

Lessons? I taught line by line, story by story, word by word. I told them there were no rules in fiction writing. I was always encouraging, pointed out where they were writing well, was very easy on them when they weren’t writing well. My young writers were very sensitive about their work, and I didn’t want to hurt any of them. My impression of their work meant a lot to them. Somehow, they all became better writers. Benevolence works. I told them never to fool themselves that something is better than it is. Don’t call a work finished till it’s the best you can do. Never change anything if you don’t agree with the change. Develop self-editing skills, because one day you’ll be out there writing alone. And so on. Practical advice. Don’t let rejections stop you if writing is what you love most to do. And don’t change a word just to get it published. If you do, even once — I don’t care for how much money or recognition — you might soil your writing from then on.

– Stephen Dixon, interviewed by Sean Carroll in the December Bookslut.