August 22, 2017 § 24 Comments
“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.
I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.
“But it feels that intense,” I argued.
“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.
I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had watched us run through a crucial scene in which I played a mother recalling her beloved child, who died many years before. To get to those deep emotions I’d used my sense memory training, a cornerstone practice of method acting.
Actors practice sense memories, using their imaginations—tasting an imagined cup of steaming hot chocolate, folding a pretend pair of threadbare jeans—in order to sharpen their ability to call up emotions those senses may trigger. Just as you might bake your grandmother’s lemon cake and find the smell carries you back to the summers you sat on her back doorstep watching fireflies until bedtime. You might feel sad and miss her, or maybe grateful you had her love when you were small. Those long-held emotions come alive again, triggered by a smell.
In rehearsal, I’d imagined my own life’s experiences into an emotional well from which my character could draw. And I succeeded. I produced a torrent of tears and full-throated keening when I was reminded of my little boy’s drowning, as though the loss took place only yesterday.
The scene ended. I wiped my face dry, thrilled with myself, very impressed. Boy, had I shown everyone how I could act! The director calmly rose from his chair and I waited for my praise. In a gentle voice, so quiet only I and my scene partner could hear he said, “Sometimes it’s important to remember that what we want in theatre is for the audience to experience the tears. You, my dear, are so good at stirring yourself up, I’m afraid they’ll just sit back and watch you do it, and that’s not what we want.”
In an instant, I knew he was right.
“Just do the doing,” he reminded me, and went back to his seat.
“Do the doing” was a phrase we had all learned in Acting 101: play the action and logic of the scene using the senses people use every day of their lives—hearing, smelling, tasting—and the emotion will come. A play is for the benefit of an audience. Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.
It’s the same for writers. We must resist what I’ve come to think of as the frontal assault method—using more and bigger words to show we really mean it.
“What should I do?” I asked my writing mentor, scared there was some big mystery I would never master.
“When you arrive at an intense moment,” she said, “you need to grow as still as possible and pay attention to every detail that comes to you. What do you hear? See? Smell? What little detail comes to the fore of your attention? Wait for these things to happen. Grow still and don’t project, just wait. Then as simply as you can, describe those things.”
That lesson I learned as a young actress applies to the present tasks I face as a writer. I strive to be more observant, less judgmental. I try to trust the reader’s intelligence; I don’t need to bonk them over the head with what I mean. I try to write it, and get out of the way. I allow myself more time to explore details and follow where they entice my imagination to go—the writer’s version of sense memory—instead of stressing over the “right answer.” It’s more intimate this way, I find, and more fun, and though I often don’t quite know exactly where I’m going, I know I’ve got the tools to get there. By trusting sensory detail, logic, and human behavior to get across the emotion inherent in conflict, my writing has calmed down and my imagination feels freer. I work at giving my readers just enough so they can piece it together and experience the emotions themselves.
As I was writing this piece I happened to come across two pertinent quotes in a class I was taking—funny how that happens. Anton Chekhov said, “The more sensitive the matter in hand, the more calmly one should describe it—and the more touching it will be at last.” And Fanny Bryce’s tip to Helen Hayes: “If you cry, [the audience] won’t.”
Cecile Callan earned her masters from the Bennington Writing Seminars in January. She is working on a historical novel set in the horse-racing world of the American south, in the decade before the Civil War. While a student at UCLA, the novel was nominated for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize. In a past life she was a professional actress, wrote the award-winning play “Angels Twice Descending,” and is a published poet. She is thrilled to be working as an editorial assistant for Narrative Magazine.
June 7, 2017 § 26 Comments
That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks more than everyone else combined. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”
Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.
If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock (That Writer has their usefulness!).
Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?
Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?
Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?
Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?
Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?
Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any psychology named after a dead Slav?
Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?
Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?
Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 1.5-spaced, 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?
Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?
Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”
Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!
First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen and one additional backup pen, leaving your pen-bag aside. Check your manicure. Once in class, open your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything you thought that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.
And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.
March 4, 2015 § 85 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
When I entered my MFA program in 2003, I hoped I might be a literary success in the making. Though I had only written a handful of short stories, I imagined that a two-year writing program would provide me with the structure I needed to complete a book-length manuscript, and after that I’d have it made. I’d find an agent and land a publishing contract. I might not make the bestseller list right away, but I’d have a steady, respectable career. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable dream.
Surely I was the kind of student that Ryan Boudinot writes about in his recent essay in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in which he groups his former students into two camps: the readers and the Real Deal:
The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.
Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t…The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.
Though I desperately wanted to be the next “Real Deal” in 2003, it’s clear to me that I would have fallen into Boudinot’s earnest-but-uninteresting category, the type of student who should be reading instead of writing.
The title of Boudinot’s essay suggests that he will reveal unspoken truths, and yet his essay does little more than reflect an elitist mythology that is far more toxic to our writing programs than students who don’t care to read all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest. While it is certainly true that “writers are not all born equal,” it is odious to assert that
a) a select few students are talented enough to write
b) Ryan Boudinot himself or any other writing teacher is capable of identifying who those students are.
I teach creative writing at a two-year community college and every year at least a dozen of my students enter my classroom with dreams of their own. They want to make a living telling stories about their drinking buddies, or they want to be the next J.K. Rowling, or they plan to attend the Iowa Writers Program some day. They arrive in my classroom with the same naivete I brought to my own MFA program over a decade ago, and they want to know if they might be the next Real Deal. Sometimes they ask this indirectly with the looks on their faces, or by showing up to my office hours every week. Sometimes they come out and say: Do you think I’m good enough?
Luckily for me, I don’t have to answer that question. I am a teacher, not a gatekeeper. I tell them all that writing is a lot of work, and that if they’re called to it then, absolutely, they should write.
Over and over again, students have proven to me that I cannot accurately judge anyone’s talent over the course of a quarter. I’ve had students write fragmented, cliché-ridden stories for eleven weeks and then somehow, through what appears to be a miracle but is more likely the result of diligence, present a portfolio of eloquent, succinct work. I’ve had students write compellingly about the relentless boredom of war, about being raised by meth addicts, about coming of age in the forest, always because these were stories they needed to tell.
It’s odd to me that Boudinot found that most of his students have “nothing interesting to express,” because in my experience the opposite is true. Every student has something to say that would be of interest to some group of readers.The challenge of teaching is to help them identify which of their stories need telling.
It’s true that of the MFA cohort I studied with, not a single one of us has become the next literary superstar. Not one of us has a book on the bestseller list. Not one of us has won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer. Plenty of us have moved on to parenthood and day jobs, and many of us have given up on being full-time writers, but nearly all of us continue to write and publish. Collectively, we’ve published novels and poems and memoirs; we’ve published essays and blog posts and op-eds. Though we may have grown up and revised our definitions of success, we remain committed to the work of telling stories.
Much has been made in recent years about the perceived glut of MFA programs in the U.S., as if the world has too many writers, as if only a select few have a right to be taught and be heard. But what happens when students walk into the classroom and their teacher is scouting for the next Real Deal? How does the teacher decide who is Real and who is not, and who does he privilege, who does he silence in the process?
Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Nailed, and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.