A Tiny Person

May 31, 2012

A year ago, Simone didn’t talk. There were a few words, but she was mostly a silent child. Her spoken vocabulary hovered around nine or ten words total. She had just come off a terrible sleeping period that put as much strain on my marriage as anything ever has. She was, in many respects, still very much a baby. And babies aren’t people. Not really.

This last year has been transformative. We put Simone in speech therapy and I lost track of how many words she uses somewhere around Christmas. Now, it isn’t unusual to hear her come out with a sentence of 15 or 20 words. That’s huge. With all that talk has come a great deal of personality.

Part of my exhaustion today is that I inexplicably came down with a monster headache. This happens to me about twice a year. It lasts for maybe six hours and then I’m fine. It’s weird. Anyway, I went into the bedroom to lay down. A few moments later, in comes Simone. She wants to lay on the bed with me. She has brought her new toy boat and her new toy fish which nana and grandpa have given her for her birthday. She gives them to me because they will help me feel better (“Daddy, you need my fish.”), and then she lays down against me (“Mommy said, ‘sit down and read to me’, but I said, ‘I just want to go and lay down with daddy.'”).

She can’t sit still because she’s three, and my headache got a little worse, but the motivation is there. And this kind of thing isn’t unusual for her. She is remarkably compassionate. And it’s not something I feel I can take any credit for as a parent. Cate and I do our best, but the constant concern she shows for the well-being of others is beyond anything we could have taught her.

She is asleep now and fell asleep excited for her birthday in the way only small children can be exited about things. I am excited, too. I am excited to see her grow up because over the last year, I’ve started to see the person she’ll become and I like that person very much.

Universal Writing

May 23, 2012

Recently, a friend asked the following question:

To what degree do you think practicing writing is universal? That is, will practicing one form of writing naturally make you better at another? Will writing research papers help your fiction? Will writing magazine articles make you a better poet?

This is a very interesting question, so I decided to answer him in the form of a blog post. Here you go Justin:

I’ll take the first part of the question first as it is the easiest to answer: To at least some extent, yes. Writing is writing. It all helps.

However, it is more complicated than that. Think about writing in general as being like running. Running will make you a better athlete. It will get you in better shape. But running alone won’t make you a good baseball player because there are skills baseball players use that running doesn’t have anything to do with. So it is with writing.

It’s interesting, I think, to look at the four types of writing mentioned in the question (research papers, fiction, magazine articles, and poetry) and think about similarities and differences. On the basic level, writing any of these things will eventually teach you about sentence structure. You can’t write much before you realize that varying the way sentences are constructed is important for the reading experience. Additionally, all of these types of writing use description to some extent. That is more or less where the similarities end though.

Research papers, from a writer’s perspective, are the easiest to write and the hardest to read. Typically, someone writes a research paper not to create a pleasant or compelling reading experience, but to put forth ideas with a convincing amount of evidence. This can often make for dry reading because these writers are not, typically, very audience conscious. There are examples included, of course, (research is quite literally the finding of examples) but the description typically ends there. Research papers are also the worst at having one long, ponderous sentence after another.

Of course, the hard part about research papers is the research part. Research is hard and time consuming and really has very little to do with writing which is why you tend to get the clumsiest writing in them. The writers don’t care about the writing. They care about showing their results.

The other three types are more closely related. A good magazine article is often very close kin to fiction. The difference is primarily in the use of description and character development. There is an aspect of internal invention in fiction that magazine articles lack by necessity, which is why many good journalists are very bad fiction writers. They’re all plot and no people.

Fiction and poetry are, I think, the closest types of writing and there’s a reason why they (along with playwriting and memoir) are the types of writing that make it into the “art” category. The primary difference is hard to pinpoint and any distinction I give you will be wrong in several instances. To generalize, I will say that poetry is more concerned with the individual word, phrase, and thought. Whereas fiction relies on many of those things to construct a more over-arching concept.

This is turning into a long answer, but let me try to boil it down a bit.

Research papers are generally concerned with presentation of data. They are often very dry. They will help you gain a modicum of language control, but they are not going to make you a good creative writer.

Magazine articles require a great deal of research but more awareness of a reader than do research papers. They will typically pay more attention to individual word choice and specific detail than a research paper. They will help with the writing of fiction, but I don’t see them being much more useful than a research paper for the enhancement of your poetry writing.

Fiction, done properly, should be concerned with every word, sentence, and paragraph. it requires that the writer be continuously aware of the reader even if that consciousness comes with a conscious disregarding of the reader. It should dwell as much on the internal life of a subject as on the external. If you can write fiction and you know how to research, you should have zero trouble writing a research paper or magazine article. Writing fiction can certainly help with the writing of poetry. Especially in young poets who tend toward overuse of abstraction.

Poetry requires the most minute detail of all of these. There is a necessary awareness of the effect of each word on the reader and of the effect of each word on the words around it. Speaking as someone who writes primarily fiction, I find forays into poetry extremely helpful as they raise my linguistic consciousness. Poetry will help a bit with magazine articles and bit less with research papers, but, from my perspective, writing poems to help with your paper on cell division is probably a step further than you need to go.

I hope this is an adequate answer. I could go on, but I’m guessing many of my readers have had enough of this one.

How to Think

May 17, 2012

I am a few days away from the end of my fifth year of teaching. More importantly, to me, I am in the process of wrapping up my first group of advanced writing classes.

The best teacher I have ever had was a man named Robert Milder at Washington University. I took three classes with him and I always felt pushed to my potential. In one of these classes he told the class the single most important thing a future teacher can be told (though I did not know, at the time, that I would be a teacher). He said, “It is not my job to teach you what to think. It is my job to teach you how to think.”

So much of teaching right now is of the “what to think” variety. Many students come to high school knowing very little and virtually all schools are focused on having students do well on a standardized test. It doesn’t leave much room for trial and error. In fact, many students come to me completely unwilling to offer an opinion. They have been taught to wait for the right answer to come to them from a teacher and then to parrot it back at the appropriate time. Still, sometimes we manage to have a good, critical discussion. It just doesn’t happen very often.

This year – this last trimester, really – has been very different for me.

Last summer, when I started working on the curriculum for these writing classes, I knew right away that I wanted to expose them to as much contemporary writing as possible and that I wanted the class to be largely workshop-focused because, if they take writing classes in college, this is what they are going to see. They need to have read good literature that is younger than they are. They need to know how to workshop and how to analyze an unfinished piece of writing.

One of my classes hit the ground running. There were some good, talkative kids in there who had a sense of what they were talking about and things went really well. My other class struggled. Discussion was often maddeningly short, but they were quiet and stubborn. I talked a lot in that class because they were missing so many things that I felt needed to be talked about. This was disheartening because my goal, really, was to barely talk at all.

What they heard when I talked was just me workshopping a piece like I would if I were student in the class (though, perhaps a bit gentler), but it had some kind of effect because now that class has pretty much caught up to the other class. And it’s not that they’re saying exactly what I want them to say – they don’t – it’s that they are thinking and coming up with good points and sometimes catching things that I missed. The level of discussion is so much better than it was at the beginning. What they are saying shows an entirely different kind of thinking than they had at the beginning of class.

And, for once, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.

Recently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, my daughter has taken a liking to baseball. She has been seen running round the house yelling, “I love baseball,” swinging a small pestle that she pretends is a bat and wearing one of my old baseball caps (much too big for her) while opining, “I want a real baseball hat.”

Now, we love  baseball around the Linden house. As you know, I’ve been a Reds fan forever and Cate was going to Orioles games before she could talk. It’s pretty entrenched in our family culture, but thinking about Simone’s love for it recently made me really sad.

You see, a huge part of my love for baseball when I was a child was tied up in the misguided notion that I might someday play baseball. Specifically third base for the Reds. And I realized when I was playing with her outside the other day that this isn’t much of a dream for her. It’s unlikely that a woman will ever play major league baseball.

Certainly, I am being at least a little ridiculous. Cate loves baseball, and though we haven’t discussed it, I doubt seriously that she ever had dreams about being a major league player. Or maybe she did, one of the wonderful things about being a child is having dreams which are utterly unconstrained by reality. Certainly, a person can love something without wanting to do it on a professional level, but that’s not really what I’m talking about.

I’m  talking about realizing that my daughter can’t do anything she wants. She’s so bright and sweet and full of energy. I wasn’t ready for her to be limited yet. She doesn’t know she’s limited, but I do and it hurts like hell and I think if they ever brought back the women’s professional league, I would buy season tickets.

If my students were to watch me write, they would think I was one big hypocrite. If they could get into my head, they would think I was an even bigger hypocrite. I preach the importance of revision. Go over it and over it and over it, I say. Then, stick it in a drawer for a while, take it out, read it, and go over it some more. Do not decide where your story is going before you write it, I also say. Start with something simple – an image or an action – and let it flow naturally from there.

Sometimes I do these things. More often, I don’t.

Here is what I actually do (or, at least, what it looks like I do): I sit at my computer when I can find a spare minute or ten and I type up a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, through the miracle of sleeping children or playdates at the zoo, I find myself with a decent stretch and I may write an entire story. And then I might not do much of anything to it.

Oh sure, I go back and fix my language. Make it tonally consistent. Tweak some metaphors. It technically classifies as revision, I guess, but I rarely ever do what you hear so many other writers brag about. I don’t delete half of what I write. In a good story, I might not mess with ten percent of it.

But I used to.

Oh, I’ve never been a big deleter, but I’d go over and over and over stuff. I can’t do that now. If I did that now, I’d never get anything done. If you were to listen to what I say in class, you would think this means that everything I write stinks. But I don’t think it does. Cate is a trustworthy reader and she tells me when I write a bad story and when a story needs a lot of work (and sometimes they do, don’t get me wrong), but she also tells me when something is good pretty much as is.

That happens because I try to be ready to write all the time. I once read about this same concept in and interview Paul Harding gave after he won the Pulitzer for Tinkers. He talked about how, once he had a kid, he found himself writing in spare moments and cobbling things together as he could. He called it guerrilla writing. This is not my ideal process, but it’s the process I have. I am always writing. I am preparing a story in my head with every spare moment. Often this means I sit down to write knowing exactly where things are going.

But getting that stuff out, the stuff I consider art, the stuff I would like to be judged by, is only part of guerrilla writing. because we live in the Twenty First Century! The future is now and it is on the internet!

I read a little article by Anna Quindlen recently where she talked about her writing process, and I wish I could be her. She believes that writers only have so many words and should refrain from things like blogs and email whenever possible. She writes every day from 9 to 3.

Of course, she is Anna Quindlen. Her job is to write. She doesn’t have to find an agent. She doesn’t hear from agents about how they really look for an online presence from an aspiring writer because they want a built-in audience.

I’m trying, lately, to wear my big-boy writing pants. That means I’m sending stuff out whenever I can in the hopes that someone will publish Lonely Human Atoms (which I believe in more than any creative thing I’ve ever done) or perhaps some magazines will publish a few stories and this will help me get the book published. It is an unpleasant process.

That is part of guerrilla writing, though. As is my presence all over the freaking internet. I write for four different websites. Sure, I like writing about the things I write about, but a lot of that is about exposure. The more exposure I can get, the more likely an agent or publisher is to say, “Hey, this guy might be able to sell a few hundred copies of a book.”

At least, that is the hope.